By Laurie Davies
By the end of January, broken New Year’s resolutions are already taunting many of us. By April, they’re nearly forgotten. Maybe that gym membership hasn’t gotten much of a workout after all. Or the commitment to self-care got lost somewhere between our workaholism and … where did that gym member card go?
What gives? Why are resolutions, at the new year or any time of year, so hard to keep?
Dr. Billy Bible, MSW, DSW, LCSW, says setting resolutions starts out strong, but the motivation to actually accomplish them can fade. In the end, resolutions are usually rooted in feelings, and feelings can be flimsy.
“With a resolution, we look back at last year — at what we didn’t do and what we want to do better this year — and the new year has motivating feelings wrapped up in it. But motivation doesn’t carry the day,” says Bible, a full-time faculty member in the social work program at University of Phoenix’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
Discipline. It’s not a sexy word, but discipline aligns with actual goals. And unlike resolutions, which tend to be feelings-driven, goals are values-driven. “A New Year’s resolution is a fleeting thing. It might address something you want to change, but not really why you want to change it,” Bible says. This “why” factor — plus four other recommendations — can help you become more goal-minded at the new year or any time of year.
A former staff sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps, Bible says he rarely learned of recruits who joined the Marines to gain technical skills. Most didn’t join for the challenge either. “They’d say. ‘I want a good career.’ And I’d press them, ‘But why is that so important?’ And they would say they need to make good money. Again, I’d press them. Finally, they’d say something like, ‘I grew up poor and really struggled, and honestly I don’t want my family to struggle.’”
And then they were onto something. Their why.
“You have to get out of your head and get it into your heart,” Bible says. You have to find your why. “If there’s no importance to [your goal] at a deeper level, you’re probably not going to stick with it,” he says.
While resolutions tend to be vague notions about correcting something you don’t love about your past, goal setting requires strategy and definition aimed at the future. The acronym SMART is one of the best tools around for putting teeth into that strategy and definition.
SMART stands for:
A SMART goal basically creates a structure that increases your potential for success in achieving your goal. You outline something realistic and specific that you can measure and achieve within a set time frame. It’s your framework for discipline.
As you use SMART to define a goal you can reach and stick to, Bible recommends also staying focused on achieving your goal through visualization. “Speak your goals into existence. If you’re a spiritual person, pray into your goals daily,” Bible says. It’s amazing how powerful a simple statement, such as, “I am going to do (fill in the blank),” can be.
For example, in Bible’s case, when he was working on his doctoral degree, there were times when he just wanted to throw in the towel. “Instead, I would pull out my laptop and go search for jobs that I didn’t currently qualify for — higher-level jobs such as clinical director, dean of social work or director of a veterans’ center. I needed to imagine success for myself in one of those jobs. I needed to visualize it,” he says.
To make this super practical, write your goals down and keep them visible on your bathroom mirror, on the dash of your car or as a screen lock on your phone. “That daily action of looking at, acting on and reflecting on achieving your goals is important,” Bible says.
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Another big difference between a resolution and a goal? Action. Sure, you might make a New Year’s resolution to be nicer to your spouse or to lose 25 pounds. But action is what separates the resolution crowd from the goal-setters and go-getters.
“So many people say they are starting next week, next month or next year, and they repeat the same thought process as time continues to pass them by,” Bible says.
He remembers back to his first semester as a doctoral student when a friend said he wanted to earn a doctorate too. Every few months or so, the friend would admit he still needed to start. “I finished my doctorate, and now it’s three years later and he is still talking about doing it without having taken any action steps toward it,” Bible says.
No one’s going to criticize you for that vague resolution to be nicer to your spouse. But your goal to start a podcast this year, earn a graduate degree or pivot to a new career may invite the Debbie Downers in your life to weigh in. Like it or not, goal setting attracts detractors. Bible says it’s important to tune them out. “They do not have to understand your goals or your why. You do. And that is what matters,” he says.
Often, the critics around us attack our goals from a place of their own insecurities, Bible says. “When one says, ‘Well, you cannot do that,’ what they are actually saying is, ‘I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do that, so neither could/should you.’”
While we can’t really do anything to control other people’s responses to our goals, we can control whom we share our goals with. Bible urges discretion and selection. “Pick positive people who have your back — people who will hold you accountable to achieving what you set out to do,” he says.
That takes discipline too.
While the second Friday in January is widely known as Quitters’ Day — the day most people will have given up on their New Year’s resolutions — do you see now how different goals are? In fact, how about ditching the resolutions (because, let’s be honest, you already have anyway) and shifting into a goal-setting mindset for good? Know your why, get SMART, take action, visualize success and tune out the negative chatter.
And this time next year, you can have a discussion about how you crushed accomplishing your goals instead of setting resolutions.
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