Resolutions, Goals, and Values

It’s that time of year again. The time when we examine our lives for all of the things we’re not doing or think we should be doing to make proclamations about how next year we’ll do things differently. And then we promptly forget about said resolutions. One statistic estimates that only about 8% of people who make New Year’s resolutions actually keep them. So why do we repeatedly set ourselves up for inevitable failure? And what are those people in the 8% doing differently? I have a few ideas…

First, resolutions usually aren’t the most helpful way to get started. While it’s great to identify areas for personal growth, it seems that resolutions often take the form of vague, broad ideas of things we’d like to accomplish. “I want to lose weight” (the most common resolution) is a starting point, but it can be difficult to progress past the goal identification. Without concrete plans for achieving the things we have resolved to do, we are unlikely to reach our aims.

I think the first step in successful self-improvement is identifying our values, the things that are really important to us, what we want our lives to be about. Values often underlie the things we set as goals. According to Russ Harris in The Happiness Trap, values are directions in which we move, things we can engage in daily, whereas goals are stops along the way on our values journey. So if weight loss is the goal, perhaps health is the value underlying it. And if health or physical well-being is the value, maybe there are other goals or valued activities that could be pursued in the service of that value. Values can be particularly helpful, as they allow us to constantly pursue or engage in something that is important to us.

Goals, then, can help us to identify the steps we take in pursuing a value. When used in this way, they can be fulfilling and ongoing. (I should note that I don’t love the idea of “bucket-list” type goals – checking items off a list can quickly lose its motivational factor.) When setting goals, it can be helpful to use the SMART format. Using physical fitness as the value, I might identify the following steps to reaching my goal:

S: Specific – state exactly what you hope to achieve (e.g., I want to go to the gym 4 days per week for 1 hour each time)

M: Measurable – identify how you will know when you’ve reached your goal (e.g., I might mark on my calendar the days I go to the gym)

A: Attainable – the goal should be something you can actually achieve, but isn’t so easy that you don’t get a sense of accomplishment from it (so going to the gym once per week may not be challenging enough and vowing to swim from Cuba to Florida may be overreaching, but some gym time a few days per week is just right)

R: Realistic – choose something that is sustainable (e.g., I probably can’t commit to two hours at the gym every single day, but 1 hour 4 days per week is feasible)

T: Timed – when do I want to check in on my progress? (Maybe after two months, I can reward myself with new workout clothes if I have stuck with my planned gym schedule.) Timing also can be key in setting short-term, intermediate-term, and long-term goals (points along the way of your journey).

I’ll write another post soon with additional ideas for reaching your goals.


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