3 Evidence Based Strategies For Setting Goals and Resolutions

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Heading into a new year is a great time to take stock of where you’ve been and where you want to go. Yes, it’s true that January first is an arbitrary time to evaluate your life and make big decisions. But it is also true that even these artificial, man-made segments of time can be powerful.

The research of psychologist Katy Milkman demonstrates that we can leverage what she calls “fresh starts” to gain motivation and jumpstart positive changes in our lives. Unsurprisingly, the start of a new year is a particularly powerful junction to begin something new or stop something old. Fresh starts serve as temporal landmarks and give us something akin to a psychological clean state. So long as every Monday isn’t a new fresh start, they are quite beneficial.

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When you think about resolutions or goals, I’d encourage you to think less about the outcome (e.g., lose weight, get promoted, run a marathon, start a blog) and more about the process (e.g., learn to listen to my body, try to excel at work, train for six months, write regularly).

Goals matter, no doubt; yet they are perhaps most important because they organize how you’ll be spending a large portion of your time, energy, and attention. Reaching the peak of a mountain is thrilling, but 99.9999 percent of the journey is spent on the sides, doing the actual climbing.

“To live only for some future goal is shallow,” writes Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. “It’s the sides of the mountains which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow … But of course, without the top you can’t have any sides. It’s the top that defines the sides.”

This is true for just about any big goal.

When it comes to selecting the mountains we’d like to climb, three strategies can help:

The first comes predominantly from the psychologist Steven Hayes. His work in an area called “acceptance and commitment” shows that people feel and do best when they are living in alignment with their values. You can operationalize this by defining your values, or the attributes that matter most to you, and using them to select goals and resolutions. For example, if a core value of yours is creativity, you can ask yourself, Does this goal promote my practicing creativity? 

The second comes from an enormous review study that was published in August 2022. Researchers evaluated over 105 studies that included a collective of 70 thousand people and found that valuing external validation and outcomes over internal rewards and satisfaction was associated with negative well-being and overall life satisfaction. In contrast, they found the pursuit of four intrinsic characteristics makes people happy, healthy, and fulfilled:

  1. Autonomy: At least some control over how you spend your time and energy
  2. Mastery: A sense of concrete progress, improvement, and growth that can be traced back to the effort you put in
  3. Belonging and meaning: Connection to something greater than yourself—be it a community, cause, team, organization, or tradition
  4. Health: Sacrificing physical or mental health now to chase some goal that you think will make you happy or healthy later almost never works; it’s a trap

The third helpful model for resolutions and goal-setting is closely related to the first two, and comes from my therapist and coach, Brooke. She simply says, Try not to should all over yourself.

Behavior change and going after big goals is hard enough as it is. If you don’t actually want or wish to be going after them, it’s even harder.

If you are pursuing something because you think you should, it’s worth asking yourself if you actually want or wish to. If the answer is no, then it’s probably not going to be a sustainable process.

The notion of not shoulding on yourself is essentially a quick litmus test of whether a goal is in alignment with your values and internally driven (you’ll want to do it, or at the very least wish to) or not (you’ll feel like the main reason is you should do it).

So there you have it. These tools are ways to make sure the peaks you select are at the top of mountains that you actually want to climb—and that spending days, months, or even years on the route will be life-giving and energizing rather than life-sucking and draining.

Brad

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