Here is a secret that not many people like to talk about: You don’t need to wait until the New Year to set a resolution. You can set goals for yourself any time, any day, at any moment when you notice that there’s something about your life that you’d like to change. In fact, if you set your goals for that reason — because you really do care about making a change in your life, not just because it’s January and that seems like the thing to do — researchers have found that you’re more likely to stick with it.
But when you decide to make a change is, overall, a lot less important than the actual change you decide to make. Goal-setting, though it seems like just the first step toward starting a change, is actually a crucial practice. The wrong goals, or goals without followthrough, or goals without expectation of success, are all essentially recipes for failure.
Setting effective goals is as much about wanting to change something as it is about knowing what you can potentially changing. Make use of these goal-setting (and goal-keeping) tips whenever you get the urge to make a change.
If you’ve failed before, it’s not you — it’s the goals. Finding yourself setting the same goals — and failing at them — year after year isn’t a sign that you’re weak. Instead, says Art Markman, Ph.D., who specializes in human behaviors and, specifically, habit-forming, it’s a sign that your goals aren’t realistic. “The difficulty that we have is when we systematically fail at things,” says Art, who defines systematic failure as “when there’s something that we’d like to achieve but we haven’t been able to, over and over and over.”
“Where there’s systematic failure, that’s where we need to do a better job of setting these goals,” he says. As an example, he points to what he calls “the Netflix effect.” Adding a bunch of movies that you know you should watch to your Netflix queue is taking the first step toward watching them — but what if you just never seem to actually want to commit to watching them, and instead, find yourself going back to the same 30 Rock reruns over and over? It could be because the goal of sitting through an entire documentary about plagues or the desolation of the rainforest just sounds too cumbersome. Instead, you’d be better-served to acknowledge that difficulty, and set a goal that is more feasible.
“What I would recommend is, agree to watch them for, like, 10 minutes. And say, ‘if I don’t like it in 10 minutes, I’ll shut it off.’ Because a lot of those movies are really engrossing, and once you start, you’ll watch the whole thing.”
Similarly, huge, life-changing goals might just feel too intense to ever really commit to. Instead, setting smaller goals can help you get started — and once you see results or begin to form habits, it’ll be easier to ladder up to the bigger goals you’ve always tried to set.
Effective goals change more than just your mind. “If you want to change your habits, you have to influence your environment,” Art explains. Our environment drives so much of how we behave and act that expecting to just change your personal mindset without adjusting anything else is setting yourself up for failure. Smart goal-setting means recognizing that not only will you need to change your own behavior, but also, the world around you and how you move through it. If your goal is to eat more healthy food and you live alone, replacing the food in your home is a good start. But if you live with a family, you’re going to need to carve out some cupboard space for your own new snack options, or convert the household to be supportive. Either way, understanding that will-power alone isn’t enough can help you pick goals that you’ll actually reach.
The best goals are also instructions. “Research in psychology finds that one of the best ways to make sure you actually achieve your goals is to use implementation intentions: ‘if-then’ plans which specify exactly what action you’re going to do and when,” writes Jess Whittlestone for Vox. These kinds of goals are also sometimes called “trigger-action plans,” wherein you set not only the goal, but also what will lead you to it. For example, if your goal was to always write on Sundays, a trigger-action plan would attach writing to an activity you already do on Sundays. “If I do laundry on Sunday, I will also write.” And because your laundry theoretically really does need to be done, the writing will follow.