By Hailey Shafir, LCMHCS, LCAS, CCS

What do you think about New Year’s resolutions?

People tend to be divided on this issue. Some of you may have a list of goals for 2020 already bullet-journaled and divided into color-coded categories. Others may be rolling their eyes, having long ago decided that resolutions are just promises waiting to be broken. If you are in the latter category, you may want to give goal-setting another chance.

Setting goals helps us to think about ourselves and our future in a positive, hopeful way. Goals encourage us to continue learning, growing, and striving. Setting goals affirms our confidence in our ability to achieve them. This kind of growth mindset can help counteract common issues like anxiety and depression, where we can get stuck in hopeless or scary versions of the future.

Goals can also help us be more resilient when we encounter barriers and challenges, helping us stay focused. During times when stress is chronic, goals remind us that our circumstances are temporary and that the sacrifices we are making now can move us towards a different, better situation in the future. Acting as a light at the end of the tunnel, goals can provide clarity, direction, and hope when we need it most.

Perhaps the most important benefit of goal setting is that it reminds us that we have agency; we can make changes and choices that move us in directions we want to go in.

Research shows that having goals and striving to achieve them is linked to improved mood and higher levels of life satisfaction. Goal setting is also linked to an increase in confidence, autonomy, and motivation. The benefits of goal setting extend beyond the psychological; goal setters have higher levels of achievement and outperform their counterparts.

Still, all goals are not created equal. The specific goals we set matter, and so does the process by which we reach them. Goals that are unrealistic, not within our control, or too ambiguous tend to cancel out any positive gains. Goals that are too simple or too challenging may also set us up to fail. In fact, goals like these could even harm our confidence, mental health, and performance. Those who are opposed to goal setting may have had experiences like these in the past.

To set yourself up for success, use these five research-backed strategies to set and reach your goals:

  1. Choose the right goal: Yes, there is such a thing as “right” and “wrong” when it comes to goal setting, and it’s easier than you think to flub this essential first step. The right goals are SMART goals, an acronym that stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. Basically, pick a goal that really matters to you, turn it into something specific that you can measure, double-check to make sure it’s realistic, and then set a date for when you will complete it. Also, remember that bigger doesn’t equal better when it comes to goals. Small goals are best to start with because experiencing success builds confidence and motivation.
  2. Add accountability measures: Your odds of succeeding improve if you add in some accountability measures. Accountability measures are things you do ahead of time to increase follow-through. This could be setting alarms on your phone, downloading a tracking app, or just writing your goals down. In one study, people who wrote down their goals were more likely to achieve them. Social accountability often helps, too. This means telling other people about your goals or even requesting that they periodically ask you about your progress. Accountability measures are just things that make it more uncomfortable to give up on your goal.
  3. Focus less on the outcome: It might seem like the whole point of setting a goal is to achieve it, but sometimes becoming too fixated or attached to the result can be defeating. In fact, setting process goals instead of achievement goals can be helpful. For instance, instead of having a goal to lose 15 pounds (which requires cooperation from your metabolism), you could set a goal to exercise for 30 minutes at least three times a week. If you do choose to stick with an achievement goal (i.e., losing 15 pounds), you could avoid getting too overwhelmed by setting small mile markers (i.e., one pound at a time) along the way, helping you stay motivated as you track your progress.
  4. Reward yourself: Many goals (especially of the New Year’s variety) tend to be about restraint – cutting back on carbs, Facebook, or TJ Maxx episodes, but too much restraint can lead to binges. Finding small ways to reward yourself can keep you from the big binge impulses that can come as a result of too much restriction. This might mean building more flexibility into your plan (i.e., cheat meals, flex funds, etc.), or it might mean identifying set rewards as you make progress towards your goal. Rewards are far more motivating than punishments and can ease the strain on your willpower, making it easier to stay on track.
  5. Visualize success: There is something powerful about using your imagination to visualize achieving your goal. It might seem far fetched, but there’s actual research to suggest that it works, as well as scores of successful moguls who swear by the technique. Also, visualizing success keeps you from visualizing failure, which most people do all the time without realizing it. When you visualize reaching your goal, you build confidence, motivation, and hope – all useful tools you’ll need to get there in real life.

Goals provide a sense of purpose and direction, clarifying what we need to devote our time, energy, and attention to. They affirm our belief in ourselves and our abilities, building our confidence. They provide a hopeful glimpse of the future, warding off negative versions like those presented by depression or anxiety. By setting the right goals, adding in accountability measures, detaching from the outcome, rewarding ourselves, and visualizing success, we tip the odds in our favor. In doing so, we are positioned to benefit in many ways, becoming healthier, happier, and more successful.