New year’s resolutions can be so seductive. I’m always lured into them. They offer an inspiring and hopeful start to the year. Get fit. Tick. Spend more time with the kids. Tick. Read more books. Yep, check that off too. Yet they’re often all too easily forgotten, abandoned and for some of us just plain overwhelming.
Does this sound familiar?
The traditional approach to increasing the probability of succeeding at resolutions has been to set SMART goals – specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-limited. Over 35 years of empirical research has established the importance of these principles when setting most goals.
While setting goals increases the likelihood of success, there are potential traps to depending on goal attainment for developing richness and meaning in our lives. The satisfaction of goal attainment tends to be short-lived, and is often overestimated. There is also the question of what happens after the goal is reached.
An alterative approach to goal setting is to link new years resolutions to our values – the things that really matter to us deep in our hearts. Values are intrinsic, positive and tend to generalise across different parts of our lives. They have an energising effect and can be accessed at anytime.
When we find ourselves struggling to achieve what we set out for, rather than simply giving up or assigning ourselves a mark of failure – as often the outcome with goals – we only need to bring to mind what really matters, open up to ourselves, and take action towards that value.
The following steps can help with clarifying and taking strides towards one’s values.
Step 1. Know what matters.
In the depths of your heart what is it that you value most? When you look back on your life in years to come, what do you want to remember? What brings a deep sense of satisfaction? What have you been doing in your life when you felt energised, vital and a sense that life was really worth living?
Step 2. Open-up.
Taking steps towards what really matters is likely to bring up negative feelings like anxiety, sadness or anger. Think about it for a moment, falling in love risks being hurt; asking someone out involves anxiety and the potential pain of rejection; trying a new skill often brings failure. The reality is that opening up to difficult emotions is the cost of admission to a deeply meaningful and satisfying life. Fortunately, skills such as mindfulness and self-compassion can make opening up to these emotions easier. I’ll blog further about these ideas in future posts.
Step 3. Effective action.
Turning values-based resolutions into reality involves taking daily action. Incorporating SMART goals can be helpful here, but it’s important to remember that no matter what the outcome of your goal, you can always take steps towards a value. In fact, you have hit upon a value when the list of actions you could take is almost endless. For example, most people I talk with identify ‘relationships’ as a value. This is not surprising given that we have evolved to be social beings. If this value resonates with you, try this brief activity before reading the next paragraph. What could you do at this very moment that is a step towards nourishing your relationships?
Did you think of something? Perhaps you thought of holding someone close to you in mind for a few moments. Maybe you made a mental note to contact someone you haven’t spoken to in a while. Or you might have made a silent promise to tell someone important to you how much you value his or her friendship.
Effective action doesn’t need to involve highly ambitious plans. Turning new year’s resolutions into habits involves linking them to values and peppering your life with daily action.
Happy New Year everyone!