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Instead of New Year’s Resolutions, Try This: Effective Goal Setting for the New Year

By Tracy Tsai, ACC, CPC – Leadership and Career Coach

New Year’s resolutions are like firecrackers–they go off with a bang, are loud and showy for a short while, but quickly fizzle out. Research shows that most people ditch their New Year’s resolutions by January 19th. The main issue with resolutions is that they tend to be big ideas that are not well-supported, and therefore cannot be sustained. It’s no wonder then, that whenever we face a setback or curveball (which have been all too common during this global pandemic), we struggle with our resolutions. And without structure and a system of accountability, it’s often difficult to get back on track and easier to simply quit.

So, instead of setting resolutions that will likely not last, we recommend another approach that will help you make positive, sustainable change. This approach helps you leverage what you’ve learned from the prior year, apply it to your future vision, and set achievable goals that you have a deep connection and commitment to. Here are the steps:

  1. Reflect
  2. Apply lessons
  3. Create a vision
  4. Set intentions and goals
  5. Establish accountability and check-ins
1. Reflect:

At the start of the new year, many of us tend to rush into setting goals for the coming year. Before you jump into what you want to change, it’s important to pause and reflect on the prior year. By acknowledging your previous accomplishments and disappointments and learning from them, you’ll have a better perspective on what you want to accomplish in the coming year. Reviewing the full year also helps reduce the recency effect, as we tend to remember more recent events over older ones. Taking the time to reflect on your entire year helps provide a more balanced view of your wins and losses.

One way to do this is to make two lists. For the first list, think about what you’ve accomplished in 2021 in various areas of your life–for example, your career, relationships, health, finances, and creative pursuits. What went well? Write down all of your “wins” and breakthroughs.

For the second list, think about the challenges you’ve had in 2021 in various areas of your life. What didn’t go so well? Make a list of all of your “losses” and disappointments. It’s important to remember that 2021 was a year full of challenges, so don’t be too hard on yourself. How you define a “win” or “loss” is up to you. A win could be as simple as having figured out a way to better manage your stress in 2021.

2. Apply Lessons:

Now that you’ve laid out your accomplishments and disappointments for 2021, ask yourself the following questions:

• What are some key lessons that I learned over the past year?
• Which of these lessons do I want to remember and take forward with me into 2022?
• What does this tell me about what matters most to me in life?

This step is important because it allows us to cut out the noise and focus on the few things that really matter to us. It also prompts us to think about our “why,” which is the source of long-term motivation for our goals. Sometimes our goals are influenced by things we think we should want, based on expectations placed on us by our upbringing, culture, social environment, etc. But when you get clear on your “why,” you are more likely to stay motivated over the long-term because your goals will have significant personal meaning to you.

3. Create a Vision:

With your key lessons and your “why” in hand, you’re ready to move onto the next step–creating a vision of your future. First, imagine that it is now December 2022. Write down a list of your wins and successes for the year, once again taking each area of your life into consideration. Write them as though they have already happened, and be specific. Focus your vision on the things you have control over, rather than those that are dependent on factors outside of your control. An example might be, “I have reduced the amount of stress in my life and my mental and physical health has improved as a result.”

Here are a few additional questions to help you refine your vision for 2022 and beyond:

• In 2022, in what ways did I apply the lessons I learned in 2021?
• Why is it important to me that I achieve these wins and successes in 2022?
• Over the next decade, what do I want to achieve, and how would achieving these goals impact my life overall?
• What legacy do I want to leave behind personally and professionally?

4. Set Intentions and Goals:

Once you have a clear picture of what you want to achieve in 2022 and the coming years, it’s time to turn your vision into actionable goals. Before you do that, consider setting some intentions.

Intentions are “how” you’d like to show up as you work on your goals for the coming year. Whereas goals are focused on what you will do, intentions are focused on how you want to be. Intentions can help you be more mindful of the energy you bring to your goals and keep you more focused. Examples of intentions include:

• I will be open-minded to new ideas and approaches.
• I intend to do things with more joy.
• I will forgive myself when things don’t go as planned.

With your intentions in mind, you’re now ready to set your goals. Review your vision for each area of your life, and frame it into a goal using the S.M.A.R.T. method:

• Specific: Does my goal address the five “W” questions of who, what, when, where and why?
• Measurable: How can I measure my success?
• Achievable: Is the goal realistic and attainable?
• Relevant: Does this goal align with my values and long-term vision?
• Time bound: By when do I want to accomplish this goal?

For example, if your vision for your career is to be in a leadership position with greater visibility and influence, your goal might be “To gain the skills and experience necessary to be promoted to a senior management role at our company, so that I can affect greater change and contribute to the strategic direction of the company.”

Once you’ve defined the goal using the S.M.A.R.T. method, reverse engineer the goal by thinking about what steps will help you achieve that goal. Breaking a goal down into smaller steps makes it more manageable and ultimately, more achievable. Once you have done this for each of your goals, you will have a detailed step-by-step plan with specific actions you can take to move you towards your vision.

5. Establish Accountability and Check-Ins:

After setting your goals, be sure to build in measures to keep yourself accountable. What specific support do you need to stay on track? For some, adding action items to their daily calendars is enough to ensure they happen. For others, having the support of an accountability partner can be much more effective. Whatever method you choose, it’s important to establish accountability measures for each goal. In addition, think about what might get in the way of you achieving each goal. Being aware of your potential obstacles can help you plan ahead and prevent them from setting you back.

Setting clear goals and creating a list of actionable steps is a great way to kick off the new year, but as the year goes on, it’s important to check in with yourself to see if you’re on track. You may want to carve out some time every quarter, for example, to reflect upon and celebrate your progress towards your goals and make any necessary adjustments. Remember that small actions repeated consistently over time lead to big results!

You can also revisit your list anytime you feel overwhelmed or discouraged. Reviewing your goals and why they’re important to you can help center you and guide you back on track. This list is also a good tool to use if you need to determine whether to say “yes” or “no” to something. When it comes to decision making or evaluating a new opportunity, you can ask yourself, “Does this decision or opportunity serve, or detract from, my goals?” If it does not serve any of your stated goals, it is likely not aligned with your vision and should not be a priority. And if it does serve one of your goals, then you can commit with a bold “yes!”

Setting goals using this approach certainly takes more time and effort than setting New Year’s resolutions. However, if you want to increase your chances of achieving real change, these steps will allow you to build a solid, thoughtful foundation and make it easier for you to maintain your momentum throughout the year. It starts with reflecting on the past then proactively setting intentions, achievable steps and accountability measures to accomplish the goals that matter most to you.

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