Since the waning days of December, many media outlets have run articles about the “right way” to pursue New Year’s resolutions. Their advice often comes down to a few takeaways about changing your environment, being persistent, checking your values and boosting your happiness. All of these articles have pieces of truth, but the one thing I know from casting my research net far and wide for almost two decades, and then coalescing that research into the bestselling book Creating Your Best Life (reissued on January 5th), that goal setting is a science that cannot be distilled into just one article with bullet points.
Goal setting, goal pursuit and goal achievement are multi-headed hydra, so if you want to be successful with any resolution, goal, dream or project that you are initiating, you will have to make a patient study of research in a variety of areas, and then personalize the application of that research to maximize your chances of getting to your own finish line. So in a series of forthcoming articles, some of this loosely excerpted from “Creating Your Best Life,” I will break down the best of the current research so that readers can get a taste of what really matters when it comes to goal setting and how to make it work for you.
IS THERE A RIGHT TIME TO SET GOALS?
Yes and no is the answer to this question. You want to embark on goal setting when you feel happy, upbeat, hopeful, energetic, and engaged in life. At the same time, you will probably derive many of those same benefits from actually creating your goal list, so don’t be too cautious about starting out of fear that the stars have to be aligned, you have to have all necessary resources at your disposal, or that you have to be perfectly healthy in order to be successful. All that matters is that you know that you want change in your life, and if that is the case, you will benefit from what is called “the fresh start effect.”
Some people find that different times of the year are easier than others for them to begin a process of self-discovery, so pay attention to your inner clock if that’s the case, and honor it while you gather the information you need to change and grow. For some, the start of the New Year signals the end of holiday overeating and general torpor, and that’s why so many dieting and exercise half-price specials abound in early January. January is also traditionally a time of buying self-help books, so your booksellers might be encouraging you to consider transformation at this time of year.
Psychologically, some people prefer to wait for a “spring cleaning” of their lives, because the return of flowers and birds cues them to think about their lives in terms of renewal and rebirth – and that is likely to be especially true in 2021 as the covid vaccines circulate and fears begins to dissipate. At the same time, many people find that the traditional start of the school year in September is when they like to de-junk their lives in exchange for new learning. So select the time of year that is best suited to your individual wants and needs, and don’t feel pressured into goal pursuit just because it’s in the news or popular among your colleagues.
THE FIRST STEP
Many of my clients like to start making a list of goals by reminiscing about, or writing down, things they’ve already accomplished and are proud of. Going through this type of writing exercise as you embark on a goal setting process is important for several reasons. First, remembering what you’ve done will flood you with positive feelings and images and create a hopeful state of mind. It will also strengthen your feelings of self-efficacy, which have been found to be predictors of goal accomplishment and happiness. Sharing these memories with other people also strengthens social connections.
Try this: write down five goals you’ve already accomplished and that you enjoy thinking about or telling others about. You might want to refresh your memory about these experiences by looking through photo albums or other memorabilia to stimulate your thoughts.
In fact, you should always be sure to have past successes captured in a way that allows you to remind yourself regularly of instances in which you’ve already proven that your commitment and energy get you what you want. Pictures on your refrigerator, computer, iPad, or other portable device might help you recapture these memories, as can song playlists that feature tunes that were popular during the time period when you had those big wins.
In the only study of its kind, led by Bruce Headey in 2008, more than 3,500 people from around the world were followed for fifteen years to see what satisfied them and made their lives meaningful and happy. According to this study, the happiest people:
● Are guided by clear-cut life goals;
● Are risk-takers who never make excuses and never give up; and
● Have goals in the areas of friendship, love, and helping others.
YOU NEED A VISION
Perhaps you already know where you want to be in one year, in five years, and even at the end of your life, and you’re just itching to get those goals on paper or somewhere else that appeals to you. If not, it’s time to start, and there are a variety of fun and appealing ways to do this. For example, the “Best Possible Future Self” journaling exercise used by researchers such as Sonja Lyubomirsky and Laura King to clarify one’s most-hoped-for life has been shown to enhance well-being and reduce goal conflict, as well as create optimism among people who did it. King even found that simply writing down short-term goals and projects had the ability to boost subjects’ mood and health, too.
Another popular tool is called “The Magic Wand.” This simple exercise encourages you to imagine that you have a magic wand that can create the life and situations you most long for, with no limitations on its power. Imagine that each of your personality deficits, financial dilemmas, and all the seemingly “unfixable” problems in your life are solved and anything is possible. If you take a moment to think about your life in this way, you might get an immediate snapshot of what you most desire.
ONE MORE DAY WITH . . .
Another way to go about uncovering secret, or less obvious, goals is to ask yourself whom you would spend another day with if you had the chance. One popular book posed this hypothetical question and struck a chord among readers, encouraging them to think about the opportunities they might be missing in their own lives to spend time with a valued person, like a grandparent or friend. Posing questions in terms of potential regrets is an interesting way to uncover your values and shape current goals.
For some who have had brushes with death, this type of all too-real exercise — “If you had limited time to live, what would you do and with whom would you spend time?” — has been one of the most life-changing experiences they’ve had, and it has turned many of them into inveterate goal seekers in the present who refuse to ever take another day for granted.
You may find that a goal or set of goals emerges from this thought provoking exercise:
1. If I could spend one day with someone who has passed away, who would it be and what would I ask or tell him or her?
2. If I could live without regrets and spend the day with anyone of my choosing, who would that person be and what would I ask or tell him or her?
THIRTY DAYS TO LIVE
Many Christian-based congregations have adopted a movement called “30 Days to Live,” which encourages worshippers to live their best life now, and to spend the next thirty days of their lives striving to be as kind, loving, giving, and spiritual as possible. This movement has benefited many who found that imagining an imminent death prompted them to become better people, and to strive to leave a more positive legacy than their current life.
WHAT ARE YOUR VALUES?
Identifying your goals as uniquely yours and connecting them with your values are two key indicators of whether or not you will pursue your goals with vigor and excitement. If you are a bit unclear about your values, or don’t know how to describe them, here is a fun way to do that: Quickly think of who your favorite characters are from books, movies, plays, or any other type of literature or popular media. Then write down each of their most obvious qualities. This will give you a clue about what you admire most in others, and what you also probably hold dear and consider a code that you try to live by, too.
For example, one of my male clients grew up at a time when typically “masculine” traits, such as those personified by John Wayne, were admired, and as a result he internalized a value system based on being tough, resilient, and honest. Another male client who did the exercise described above immediately mentioned the movie Rudy, which is about the scrappy football player who never abandoned his dream of making it onto the legendary Notre Dame football team, and whose perseverance earned him the respect and friendship of the coaches and the rest of the team. Some clients name biblical figures as favorite role models, and will point to Job’s grit or Jesus’ kindness in the face of anger as the values they most admire. Generally speaking, a worthwhile value will elicit your best behavior and make you a better person.
The VIA Character Institute has a free, well-validated personality test created by positive psychology founders Dr. Martin Seligman and Dr. Chris Peterson. This is the first assignment to all of my clients because of its simplicity and power. Take fifteen minutes and do this survey and then write an essay about a time when you have used all five of your top strengths together in a positive way. This will put you in touch with how your values, and your expression of those values in the right dose, creates a blueprint of who you are at your best.
As you embark upon the process of writing down your goals in the format that best suits you, you should also ask yourself the question “Why not?” as you create your future. This type of limitless thinking has set a number of people free as they have designed their goals. Instead of approaching the process with a “Why me?” attitude, they have transformed this question into “Why not me?” or “What if?” and have thereby altered their perceptions of themselves and changed their goals accordingly.
This article is partly inspired by Chapter Five, “Creating The List That Works for You” in the newly-reissued version of “Creating Your Best Life.” To receive a free download of the new introduction and Chapter One from the book, along with worksheets to help guide you with goal setting, click here.