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Maintaining New Year's Goals

We’ve reached the end of our very first month of the new year. Normally, this is around the time where the energy that blasts us into the resolutions we make starts to diminish. We start to fall back into old habits, energy dwindles, and the newness of the year starts to fade. Many of us fall into the alluring trap of the new year where we try to change too much, too quickly, with too little structure or reward system in place for said changes. If you’re struggling with maintaining your goals for the new year, it might be time to re-assess those goals, look at the why beneath you setting them, as well as some practical steps to implement change you do indeed want to accomplish.

As a counselor, I’ll admit, that resolutions for the new year aren’t my favorite. Often, they’re too vague, or focused on something that isn’t really measurable or even meaningful to the person. A few examples I hear year after year are “being more disciplined”, “have more confidence”, or “get in shape”. Typically, with goals like this, you set yourself to fail and enter into the dreaded shame cycle that hits for many of us around February or March when we inevitably fall off the wagon. Your goals need to be SMART- an acronym coined by the journal Management Review in the 80s. Originally used for the workplace, it works well for personal goals as well. The first letter of the SMART acronym stands for specific, which is why the goals mentioned above typically don’t create an atmosphere for success. The more specific you make your goal, the better you can track how you’re doing and what action you need to take. Take the goal I mentioned above of being more disciplined-what does discipline mean to you? Decide if that means going to bed an hour earlier, establishing a healthy morning routine, meeting business goals, etc. The next letter of SMART is measurable. You need to be able to track your progress with the goals you’ve set, especially if it’s a longer-term goal. This could look like journaling events that support your overall goal, or tracking numerically if your goal is related to doing something more or less. Your goals also need to be achievable. This is where I see most people slip up. We as humans tend to set too large goals too fast. We want change and we want it yesterday, but you have to start with smaller, more doable action. You want to start working out and you rarely hit the gym now? Make your first goal spending 5 minutes at the gym one day a week. That might sound insulting to some, but what we’re trying to do is activate a dopamine release that happens when you achieve a goal, no matter how small. Your brain likes completing tasks and that progress, even slowly, creates momentum for your nervous system. When the changes are too big to start, we increase our chance of failure which has a paralyzing effect. We perpetuate the cycle of all in or all out when we don’t give our brain the reward of dopamine from accomplishing and acknowledging small moments of growth. The other part of recognizing achievement is making sure you take the time to praise yourself when you do achieve small goals. Many of us breeze past these to keep going towards the next thing, but taking a moment, even just to close your eyes, breathe, and say “good job” to yourself can solidify the change you’re enacting in your life. Make sure your goals are also relevant to you. If your goals are motivated by self-loathing or by peer pressure from others or societal messaging, they usually don’t last long. Goals for your life are best founded on what is important to you, a value for you in some way. Taking some time to meditate or reflect on what you want to see more or less of in your life, for yourself, can help bring clarity for goal-setting. Ask yourself if the thing you’re trying to do is for you or for someone else and if you realize it’s for someone else ask yourself why it’s important for you to prioritize sthem above yourself. Lastly, your goals need to be time-bound. Make sure your timeline is realistic for how large the goal is and set up smaller goals along the way to motivate yourself as mentioned above. Don’t set yourself up for burn out by trying to go too quickly. If you have a long-term goal, set yourself up mentally for the long haul. Establish your intention for setting the goal, create checkpoints along the way, and build a support system to help keep you accountable throughout the process. If you don’t have a large support system, make sure you at least tell one person that you trust about what you’re trying to do and let them be part of your team in some way.

As I said earlier, new year’s resolutions aren’t really my thing. If they’re not yours either, but you still want to reflect as the new year is upon us, I’d suggest writing a few things you’d like to leave behind in 2022. This can be ways of thinking, opinions of yourself, doubts, a job, anything really. Write it down, then burn it as a symbol for leaving what you want to leave behind in the dust. Then ask yourself what you want to believe or have or think instead. Focus on the new, and when the old way or thing pops up again, remind yourself that you’re not carrying that any further into the new year.

Any and all of these processes are helped by accompanying gratitude. Reflect on moments of life that have brought you here, call out moments of joy or humor or deep feeling from the previous year and bring that energy and focus into the now. I like to do this by keeping a jar throughout each year filled with notes of events or moments that were special to me and reflecting on them in January of the following year. This helps ground and remind myself that not everything was bad and needs changing, some things just need remembering.

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