By Sasha Heinz, PhD
Lose 15 lbs — check.
Stick with a morning routine (meditation included, obvs) — check.
“Kondo” and redo my entire home, including the closets — check, check and check!
Wouldn’t it be nice to cross off your New Year’s resolutions like that?
But, no matter how many times you write them down, repeat them in the mirror, or vision-board them, it’s probably not going to happen.
Not because you’re a weak, pathetic person with no discipline. And not because you’re busy, going through a hard time, or have plantar fasciitis.
It’s that New Year’s resolutions are a form of goal-setting.
And to make the lasting change you want, setting a goal isn’t enough.
Let’s be clear, I’m very into goals. They help us direct our pulled-in-all-directions attention toward a desired end. Psychologists Edwin Locke and Gary Latham — founders of Goal Setting Theory — have found that goals improve our performance, increase motivation, and increase our subjective well-being.
But, here’s the rub, not all goals are equal. That’s right, there are actually “good” and “bad” goals.
In psychology, we call goals aimed at fame, image, and money “extrinsically motivated goals,” and a robust body of social science literature suggests that these goals have a negative effect on our well-being.
For instance, you want to lose weight so you’ll look great at the reunion. You do it. Your old classmates say “Wow, you look great.” And then you go home and eat the cake you’ve been resisting for all those months. And never stop. Because your “Why” — looking good for that event — is gone.
When it comes to lasting change, it’s all about “intrinsically motivated goals.” And what are those? Well, goals that are aligned with your values.
Move over, goal-setting. Meet value-setting.
Essentially, value-setting is about taking action based on the way you want to be in the world, as opposed to checking off the boxes and hoping everyone (including yourself) will love you for it.
So how do you do it?
Step 1: Define Your Values
Have you ever stopped and asked yourself just what your values are? Probably not. So do it now.
Put simply, your values boil down to what kind of person you want to be and how you want to show up in the world. Ask yourself this:
What do you want people to remember about you? What qualities do you most admire in other people? What qualities do you want to develop in yourself?
When you connect with your values, you’re able to move closer each day toward who you really want to be, even when life kicks you in the proverbial nuts.
Step 2: Pick Your Top 3
Of the values that emerge, choose three that are most important to you right now. Picking those doesn’t mean you have to drop the others — for life or even for the year.
For example, I’m a working mom. While I love both mom-ing and working, I can get bogged down by the obligations of life. It’s really important to me that, starting ASAP, my kids know me as a mom who’s playful, silly, and can laugh at herself.
So, for me, the value, playfulness & sense of humor gets top billing. Another value, cultivating beauty and excellence — which, for me, is partly about taming my Grey Gardens-esque yard — can take a back seat.
So, do you have your top 3? Let’s move on to the final step. Yes, now you can set those goals.
Step 3: Pick A Big, Bodacious Goal
You probably have a goal in mind already, whether it’s the New Year’s Resolution you blew off or a lingering “I would love to do that.”
Get ‘em all down on paper. Don’t cross anything off yet.
Maybe you’ve been saying “I’m going to meditate.”
How are you going to create a daily practice, and not be the person who has to mumble, three months later, “Oh, yeah, that…”?
What you need to keep you on track is to align it with a top value (or two). Like one of these:
Persistence. If being persistent is important to you, you get to be that persistent person you really want to be even when meditation doesn’t feel like it’s working.
Love of learning. If being a life-long learner is something you deeply value, you can satisfy it every time you sit down and try without judging yourself, just letting yourself experience it and learn it.
Now, the point of your goal is not “being someone who meditates” but about being someone who’s persistent, or who loves to learn.
And my money’s on you achieving that. And, if you don’t, select another goal that is more strongly aligned with your most dearly held values and it will be far more compelling to you.
Sasha Heinz, PhD, is a developmental and positive psychologist who assists organizations and individuals thrive through the process of change, achieve challenging goals and perform at their peak.