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Forget those New Year's resolutions - set goals instead

By Karen Shirer, associate dean

I wonder if you are like me. Every year in late December I set resolutions for a healthier and happier new year. Then, by the third week my best intentions have often ended up on the garbage heap of lost causes. This year my resolutions included maintaining a healthy weight, focusing on the positive and what I can control and change, practicing yoga and running, and well....being better in whatever way I can imagine. I think you get the picture.

This year has been no different. I’ve done okay on weight and physical activity, but focusing on the positive and what I can control and change — not so much. Which brings me to this blog post. Maybe like me, you struggle with keeping your resolutions past the first few weeks of January. When faced with a perplexing issue, I do a web search to find out how to address the situation. Here’s what I learned this year that you may find useful.

Tip #1: Remind yourself that you’re not alone in struggling to keep your new year’s resolutions.

Fast Company magazine recently reported that 27 percent of people give up on their resolutions by the end of the first week of January, and 31 percent give them up by the third week. We are now close to the end of January where only 50 percent are still keeping their resolutions.

The article goes on to explain that the one big difference between those who stay resolute and those who don’t is based on how one feels about the resolution. To stay committed, the article says, we need to set goals for which we have passion and that are based on our values, beliefs and interests.

One last thought on this tip: Cut yourself some slack if you are part of the 50 percent who have given up. Personal change is hard, requiring time and lots of mistakes and false starts. Make sure you are talking to yourself in an encouraging way with thoughts like “I can do this,” “What did I learn from this attempt that can help me be more successful in the future?” and “I have a whole year to get this right!”

Two dogs with text that reads "remind yourself you are not alone."

Tip #2: Reset and swap out your resolutions for goals that work.

The Fast Company article also gives wise advice on setting goals. Most important, our goals need to be about what we want to accomplish in the end. Instead of starting with “I am going to spend less money” or “I am going to run five days a week,” think about the overarching goal of improving financial or physical health.

Once we are clear on our overall goal, we can identify activities and concrete steps to get us closer to it. (This is where “I am going to run five days a week” makes more sense.) We also should try to understand everything we can about our goal and why it’s important to us; take immediate steps for fast wins; and realize we’ll make mistakes.

So here is how I would swap the resolution that isn’t working for me:

Swap resolution: Focus on the positive and what I can control and change.
For goal: I will find ways to enhance my mental well-being and lower my stress over the next year.

I’ve already taken some concrete action steps to achieve my newly stated goal:
  • Learn everything I can about ways to improve positivity in my personal and professional life.
  • Practice mindfulness by listening to audio recordings of the “Mindfulness at Work” course and other sources each morning for 10 minutes. (See more on this below.) 
  • Get my physical activity outside (instead of inside) whenever the weather permits because soaking up some sunlight lifts the spirits. 
  • Tell myself “I am learning something new every day to reach my goal” when I fall short. 
These steps are ever evolving and change frequently. But now that I’ve swapped my resolution for an aspirational goal — mental well-being — I have a better sense of what steps to take and what to avoid. Try it and see how it works for you.

Two people on a mountain with text that reads "Reset and swap out your resolutions for goals that work."

Tip #3: Access all the resources you can, including support from others, to reach your goals.

I found a useful resource before the new year — some tips in the Guardian newspaper:
  • Make your goal aspirational, but then break it down into concrete, achievable action steps. This makes the goal easier to reach. In a way, you are making the healthy choice the easy choice for yourself. 
  • Take advantage of morning to focus on your goal. The articles cites a study that showed that simple habits form more quickly in the morning due to elevated cortisol. 
  • Get a system in place to track your progress like a journal, an app or a spreadsheet. Again, research shows that tracking improves success.
  • Set up a rewards program for yourself when you act on your goal and reward yourself immediately after reaching it. And make the reward fun. 
  • Resist finding excuses to not follow through on your action steps. When I sense resistance, I often tell myself “I don’t have to be perfect but just need to do something.” It really helps me with the excuses. 
In addition to these tips, look at your support network and identify others who can help you with your goals. A “goal buddy” or a group with like interests will help keep you on track and build you up when you hit the rough spots.

two women holding hands with text that reads "Access all the resources you can, including support from others, to reach your goals."

Rich with resources

Of course, the Center for Family Development is rich with resources in the areas of health and nutrition, financial capability, personal and family relationships, and mental health. These resources are for our partners and clients, but you can use them to reach your goals, too! Just look under the “Family” tab on the Extension website.

I’ve found that practicing mindfulness is very helpful in sticking to my goals, whether personal or work related. I learned about this practice by taking the “Mindfulness at Work” online course offered by the University’s Center for Spirituality and Healing.

Last fall, Family Development made the mindfulness course available to staff at no cost to them. Many of you participated, and we received good feedback on your experience. We are planning to offer the course again this spring if there is enough interest. Watch for future announcements in Family Matters for more details.

To sum up: Swap your resolutions for goals and action steps, and begin your reset today with an easy win. Don’t forget to be kind to yourself when things don’t go as planned. You will be more successful in the long run. And before January ends — Happy New Year!
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