The beginning of a new calendar year can be very exciting, refreshing, and filled with hope. It’s a chance to flip your existential Etch A Sketch and start a-new. Goals are set, plans are made, and optimism may be at an all-time high. Unfortunately, it’s basic human nature to fall short of our goals for various understandable reasons. Below are some thoughts about this and some tips on how to increase your chances of staying motivated to achieve your goals throughout the year.
There is a Seinfeld episode in which Jerry Seinfeld is speaking with an airport rental car agent who just informed him that though she is aware that he reserved a car, there were no cars left to rent. Jerry is baffled at how her company can make the reservation, but fail to hold the reservation. He emphasizes that anyone can make a reservation, but it’s the holding of the reservation that counts. The same can be true for our New Year’s resolutions. We are all very good at making goals for ourselves, but how can we actually commit to achieving these goals? It starts (but doesn’t end) with one word: ACCEPTANCE.
If you are like most folks who have made or will make personal goals for the new year, I gently challenge you to ask yourself “Why am I setting this goal for myself in the first place?” Goals are often made on the premise, whether we are fully aware of it or not, that “my current state is not good enough, and I will like/accept/tolerate myself more (and/or others will do so) if a change is made.” Whether we are talking about weight loss, physical fitness, intellectual prowess/academic achievement, parenting, occupational achievement (e.g., promotion, salary), etc. it all amounts to the fact that “who and what I am right now is not ok.”
While this line of thinking can help motivate us to make changes in our lives, the potential problem is that we are often never satisfied. If you achieve your goal of losing five pounds, then likely it will come with a brief feeling of accomplishment to be quickly followed by “I now want to lose 5 more.” If you get that promotion you worked so hard for at work, after a brief dinner celebration your eyes will likely be set on the next prize. If we’re not careful, we can spend our entire lives chasing after what we think will finally bring self-acceptance and satisfaction and never quite get there, while missing what and who we are in the present moment. It’s a powerful scene in the Wizard of Oz when the wizard reveals to Dorothy that she had the power to go home all along. Similarly, we have the power to fully accept ourselves right now without anything else needed to do so.
An interesting piece of information is that a paradoxical phenomenon is likely involved with effectively achieving and sustain goals. For example, it’s been noted that those who completed a weight-loss program focused on how to fully accept oneself as-is without needing to change for greater self-worth actually lost more weight than those focused simply on losing pounds. Why? It is hypothesized that if we can learn to fully embrace who we are, in this moment, with all our “flaws” and “insecurities,” then the pressure we put on ourselves to change tends to diminish. It becomes easier to achieve our goals when there is less pressure to do so. Change is not so linked with our identity and how we view and judge ourselves (and how we think others view us).
While in the mindset of true self-acceptance and self-compassion (including taking a step back from your mind chatter filled with self-judgements), below are a few suggestions to help you stay motivated throughout the year:
1. Values. The question asked above was “Why am I setting this goal for myself?” In answering, try to push yourself to go beyond the quick and obvious answer that your mind gives you. A dialogue with yourself could look something like this: “I am setting the goal of losing weight to be healthier,” “Why be healthier?” “To have a better quality of life.” “Why?” “To be the type of parent and partner that I want to be – active, present, patient, and energized.” Notice how losing weight goes from the end-goal to one of likely many goals related to the value of being the type of family member you want to be? Linking goals to our values (What type of person do I want to be? What do I want my life to stand for? How do I want to be remembered?) can help increase and sustain our motivation for change.
2. Be careful not to overlook “smaller” successes you have. It’s important to celebrate every step in the direction of achieving your goals and not wait until you achieve the large goal to celebrate. For instance, if running a 5K (3.1 miles) is your goal, and you just ran one mile non-stop for the first time, that is something to celebrate! Breaking the larger goal down into many smaller goals adds more opportunities for reinforcement and keeps motivation high.
3. Make the goal tangible. A vague goal, such as “being a better partner in my relationship,” is difficult to achieve because it’s not very well-defined. Break it down into specific actions that are related to being a better partner and look for opportunities to achieve them. How might you be more thoughtful, caring, considerate, spontaneous, patient, etc.?
4. Make the goal accessible. Make it as easy as possible to engage in the activities that might help you achieve your goal. If you have goals related to going to the gym, and you have to come home from work first to change into your gym clothes only to go all the way back out, it might be difficult to sustain. It might be easier to bring the gym clothes with you and go right after (or before) work rather than going home first.
5. Be careful not to fall into the trap of minimizing your achievements. It is very common to achieve a goal, then be critical of ourselves for waiting so long and not doing it sooner. We can also minimize our achievements by telling ourselves “If someone like me could do it, it must not have been that difficult to begin with.” Remember the Groucho Marx line “I would never want to be a member of a club that would have me as a member”?
If you can keep some of these suggestions in mind while embracing a bit more self-acceptance and self-compassion (similar to a stance you might take towards a child or a pet), you are likely to sustain values-consistent activities throughout the year. Remember, also, to note the sneaky ways your mind will criticize you in the misguided spirit of “increasing motivation.” Happy New Year!
Justin Hill, Ph.D., is a psychologist currently accepting individual and couples clients in his private practice located in the Hill Country Galleria in Bee Cave, TX. To learn more about him and his practice philosophy, please visit HillBehavioralWellness.com.