Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.
Every new year starts out the same. We enter January 1st with a fresh list of New Year’s resolutions, one that we will complete this time, we swear. Gyms are overloaded with new subscriptions by people eager to start the year off looking fit and staying healthy. Michael’s develops a shortage of mason jars to later be repurposed into swear jars or some other means of reinforcing good habits. Students have a newfound fire within them to study harder and get the grades that they said they would get for their resolution.
Then it falls apart.
It might be in March when the year starts getting busier, and you prioritize less and less time for exercise when work is wrestling for more. Some may even make it until May or June until they finally give up. Others break their goals before January is over, their resolutions forgotten and taking refuge in the lonely corner of the back of their minds. Setting goals is an ambitious endeavor, but keeping — and achieving — those goals are arguably the most difficult part of the process. How hard can it really be, though? What is making New Year’s resolutions so difficult to maintain, despite how we are given another chance every year? The answer lies in how we choose to set our goals and how we approach them.
1. Set your goal in increments.
Perhaps the greatest mistake we make is setting our sights too high all at once. If you are a chronic soda drinker, for instance, setting a vast goal to completely avoid soda by the end of the year can seem like a daunting task. A year is 12 months, 365 days. In that perspective, 365 days can seem like forever, and people are more likely to give up when faced with such a long trial.
Instead, consider setting smaller goals throughout the year that you can expect to accomplish. The soda addict can perhaps decrease their intake to only once or twice a week by the end of February, then once or twice a month by the end of July and so forth. With incremental steps, the process is gradual and more manageable, and we can feel ready to achieve our original goals by the end of the year.
2. Think day by day, not year.
The prospect of a year is also a hurdle to overcome in and of itself. It’s easy to get discouraged when it seems like the end goal is so far away. Rather than consider your resolutions as a year-long commitment, change your mindset to be day by day. During the times when you’re just about ready to give up, focus on simply meeting your goals for just one day, then see how you feel at the end of the day. Wake up the next morning, and tell yourself again to get through just one more day. In a day by day mindset, your goal evolves into bite-sized pieces you can easily chew, and the year will also pass by faster than you anticipate.
3. Document your progress.
Although it may seem tedious at first, keeping track of your progress can provide greater incentive for you to stay consistent and determined. Consider logging in how many minutes you spent at the gym or how many times you swore. For more intrinsic goals, perhaps invest in a journal and record your daily thoughts and ways to change your inner dialogue. At the present moment, we often fail to realize our progress, but looking back at our records can help us see how far we’ve come and motivate us to maintain our momentum. The act of documenting itself can also serve as a small reward, something to look forward to and a mini goal to persist within your daily schedule.
4. Celebrate the smaller successes.
If you break down your resolution into smaller goals, then each step should be celebrated as a mark of progress! Treat yourself to a nice snack or an off-day as a pat on the back for making it this far. Celebrating your baby steps can serve as an incentive to keep going until the next milestone, and it’s also positive reinforcement of your progress, which is a key aspect of habit formation. If you only regard the end goal as something worth celebrating, the chance of burning out can become much more likely. Yes, delayed gratification is an important part of self-discipline, but even too delayed of a reward can be discouraging.
In the end, achieving a New Year’s resolution is no simple feat. Even with these steps, you may find yourself not where you’d like to be by the end of the year. However, I encourage you to focus less on the end result and more on the progress. Come December, the soda addict may not be completely weaned off of her love of soft drinks; however, her intake is now once or twice every three months as opposed to four times a week. Any progress is still progress that deserves recognition, and it puts us that much closer to achieving our goals next year.
Subscribe here for all the latest news on how you can keep Thriving.
More on Mental Health on Campus: