Health Matters: The Psychology of Goal-Setting

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January 2018

In January, people often set themselves up to fail by setting New Year’s resolutions. A different approach, one that can increase self-confidence and enrich your life, is to set some goals that are both fun and realistic.

Here’s the difference between resolutions and goals: resolutions are often based on absolutes—promises to yourself about what you will or won’t do ever again. Goals, on the other hand, are ways to focus your attention, to help you determine which direction you want to go. Goal-setting can add meaning to your life, and something I like to call “juice.”

Goals are so much better than resolutions because they are flexible, and they provide lots of opportunities to celebrate. When you succeed, your self-esteem improves, and this encourages you to make more goals and strive to reach them.

Because we’re human, it’s natural to feel frustrated when we don’t accomplish a goal the way we thought we would. As you set goals, keep in mind that things change and that’s okay. As you make progress toward your goal, you may realize the goal needs to change. So be it. Critical to the success of goals is giving yourself “props” for all movement toward them. Positivity creates positivity. Also, slip-ups will happen. Simply acknowledge them and move on to your next success. It is pointless to tear yourself down for missteps. It creates negativity which creates, you guessed it, negativity. Look at it this way, failure is often a precursor to success (just ask any famous actor or published author how many rejections they faced before hitting it big). The important thing is not to let a setback halt your progress.

To avoid getting stuck, divide your goal into the smallest possible parts. This allows you to keep moving the ball forward with very small investments of time or energy. On any given day, ask yourself, “What one small thing can I do today toward achieving my goal?” The eventual goal may be to apply for college, but if you don’t have any idea how to do so, rather than throwing your hands up, you could say, “Hmm, someone must know how to do this. Who can I ask?” Answering that question is all you do that day. That’s progress—that’s success you get to celebrate.

Another benefit of breaking goals into little pieces is you avoid feeling overwhelmed. When goals feel too big, people can shut down or procrastinate. Wanting to lose ten pounds may be a good long-term goal, but that’s a big change. It’s so big that you may decide to put it off until after your sister’s wedding or after the holidays or after any number of other “very good reasons.” Instead, if you ask yourself what ONE thing you can do toward losing weight today, you can probably order water instead of soda with your lunch. These little successes add up (or in the case of calories, they don’t add up).

Not only do you reach individual goals by continually taking small steps, you also create healthy habits, which makes future goals easier to attain. And small steps are far more likely to lead to lasting change than radically shifting your life too quickly.

As you work toward your goals, try not to compare yourself to others. It’s better to compare yourself to how you were doing last week or last month. Compete with yourself, because that is the only person who matters in this particular game.

Remember, we are all “works in progress,” whether we’re in our teens, midlife, or the later years. We never arrive; it’s a journey. We’re never done growing and changing and becoming. We can juice up the journey with some goals. Set goals you enjoy achieving at each step and you’re a lot more likely to reach them.

What’s your next goal? What one small thing can you do today to move toward that goal?

 

Serena Jones is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who works in the Behavioral Health Department of MCHC Health Centers—a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.

 

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