At the start of each new year we can feel pressure to come up with some life-changing set of resolutions. However, for most of us this once-a-year activity only creates stress and doesn't result in any measurable action and change. We just end up feeling like we failed which of course makes us less likely to perform well on other tasks. After while we start to think, "What's the point of even going through this annual resolution process?" Well, you're not alone.
Now for the good news. There is a way to make real change and it doesn't have to happen just at the start of each calendar year. Here are some specific techniques to help achieve goals and feel less stress in the process.
Start small to build up momentum: When athletes want to perform well what do they first do? They warm up of course. The same is true for our emotional energy. The best way to produce results is to start small and to build up momentum. This increases our confidence so we can take on the bigger goals.
An example of starting too big might be, "I'm going to run a marathon this year." We all know how this often turns out. In comparison, starting small might look like, "I'm going to go for a 15 minute walk every morning this week." By starting with a smaller goal we decrease our emotional resistance to doing it. In this example, because it's only a week it's easier each day to do it because we know we only have a few days left and we can decide whether to keep this habit at the end of the week. And we know it only takes 15 minutes. We're keeping the emotional threshold low so we're more likely to take action.
Emphasize the why: When we include "the why" with our goals we are more motivated to achieve them. So building on our example, we might say, "I'm going to go for a 15 minute walk every morning this week because I always feel better about myself and more energetic when I do it."
Self-compassion: With any goal there are going to be setbacks. One morning you're alarm isn't going to go off and you're going to miss your walk. How you respond to this setback can make all the difference in whether or not you'll get back on track and move forward to achieve your goal.
For example, if you miss your morning walk you might think to yourself, "See, I knew I'd never be able to do this even for just week. I've totally blown this goal and it no longer matters." When this happens it's now harder to get back on track.
An alternative, more compassionate sequence might be to say to yourself, "Shoot, I missed my walk this morning. Well at least I did it 2 days in a row which is better than I previously had done. And if I do 6 of 7 days that will honestly be really good for me." Your emotional energy after this self-talk gives you a much better chance of continuing on with your goal.
Celebrate your successes: Too often when we achieve a goal we just check it off and don't give ourselves enough credit. We just move on to worrying about the next task. The problem with this is that we miss the opportunity to increase our emotional energy, like above when we talked about athletes warming up. When we take a few moments and let our achievements soak in we're reinforcing good messages in our brains about our ability to perform. This then can lead to better performance on the next goal and creates a good virtuous cycle.
Schedule a weekly review: An annual list that we look at once isn't going to cause us to take action. Instead, try reviewing your goals more frequently like weekly. Put on your calendar a specific event like "Review Goals" at the same time once a week. For the first few weeks you may find that this event sneaks up on you and you haven't really done anything about your goals that week. That's ok. Remember the importance of being compassionate with yourself. If needed, try a brief daily goals review until you get the hang of it.
As a next step, try to identify one small goal that you can take on this week, note why you want to take it on, be compassionate with yourself along the journey, and celebrate the results. Each time you go through this process you build up confidence and engrain good messages in your brain about your ability to perform.