How to Flourish While Setting Goals for the New Year

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person writing new year's goals

New Year’s resolutions have such a bad reputation, and honestly, there’s a good reason for that – they rarely ever come to fruition. Just think about it:

We make promises to ourselves that we’re going to make use of the energy of the fresh start of a new year and take this opportunity to make some impressive changes. You can feel the potential and excitement in the air throughout the entire January.

Yet, sooner or later, the mundane reality of daily life settles in with its busyness, never-ending to-do lists, and simply too many responsibilities to tend to. As a result, these overly ambitious ideas are quietly abandoned and pushed to the back burner… Until the next year. 

Sounds familiar? Then you’re not alone! 

This guide to goal setting for the new year is here to help you learn the art and science of setting realistic, meaningful goals that stand the test of time and inspire you to harness your initial spark of enthusiasm and turn it into a flame of transformative change you can carry throughout the entire year.

Keep on reading to find out more!

The Challenges of New Year Goal Setting

It really boggles my mind how much easier it is to jump into the whirlwind of work and knock out one task after another from our to-do lists each week, compared to long-term goals, which we tend to postpone.

If you compare two objectives: one work-related, to be finished by the end of the week, and another, personal project with no expiration date, you can probably guess which task will most likely get prioritized and which we will procrastinate on.

Why is that?

Cognitive Tunneling

When faced with a sea of tasks to complete, we might aim for the easiest option to eliminate the overwhelm and decision fatigue, aka we engage in cognitive tunneling[1].

These easy options are usually all the urgent tasks with a deadline and consequences of not completing them we’d rather avoid. As a result, we automatically go into work mode, not wasting a moment of our time and getting the job done as soon as possible. Only to repeat this vicious cycle the following week.

As days go by, we ignore our own goals, moving further away from addressing our needs, dreams, and desires. 

“It’s very hard to achieve goals if you have the emergency brake on, and the emergency brake is fear.” - Tim Ferriss

Fear of Failure

Whether it’s learning a new language, starting a business, cooking healthy dishes, or reading more books, most often, we have an idea of what kind of life we’d like to live, what adventures we want to experience, or what undertakings we dream of accomplishing.

Yet, what stops us in our tracks is the fear of failure. It can paralyze us and sabotage our future happiness. 

If that’s your case, I invite you to explore that subject and ask yourself what it is exactly that’s preventing you from fulfilling your potential:

  • Perhaps you’re worried about the reaction of others?
  • Maybe you’re waiting for the perfect moment when you have more free time or figure it all out?
  • Or you’d prefer to find a way to avoid the discomfort that comes with a big change?

New Year’s Resolutions vs Intentions

What happens most often is that we set ourselves up for failure because instead of having fun and getting excited about new adventures, we add just another chore to our to-do lists, unintentionally pressuring ourselves to achieve perfection. 

What I found helpful when setting long-term goals is checking if my goal is more of a resolution or an intention. While the former can feel discouraging, the latter is more inviting and approachable.

Here’s how to differentiate between the two:

ResolutionsIntentions
thinking in terms of “shoulds” and “musts”wanting to engage in self-discovery
feels discouraging, intimidatingfeels inviting and tangible
adhering to societal expectations:i.e. starting a gym membership even though we don’t enjoy this form of working outaligning your goals with your authentic self and personal needs:i.e. your need to rest more results in scheduling time for weekly self-care 
emphasis on the end goal, which keeps you focused on the futureemphasis on the process, which keeps you focused on the present moment
judging and criticizing yourself when making a mistakeapproaching difficulties with self-compassion and vulnerability 

The Importance of New Year Goal Setting

Not following your long-term goals can feel like sailing at night without a lighthouse or any sort of reference point.

While sometimes it’s nice to simply enjoy that experience and take in all the spectacular views, not having a destination means going wherever the winds take you rather than being the main character of your life and choosing the direction you wish to move toward.

This lack of clarity might unnecessarily stress you out, make you anxious, or feel like you’re wasting your time, which can discourage you from implementing a change altogether.

That’s where setting goals for the new year comes in handy. It’s the perfect time to reflect on your past, become more conscious of your current situation, and make the leap to invest in your future self. Choosing your own long-term goals is a fantastic opportunity to:

  • clarify your core values and purpose in life,
  • imbue your life with meaning,
  • transform ideas into concrete actions,
  • stay focused and motivated,
  • prioritize your personal growth,
  • set yourself up for success in the coming year.

Setting Goals For The New Year In 3 Steps

Picking your goals for the upcoming year is one of the best ways to invest in your growth. 

Yet, to succeed, aka to set goals that are personally meaningful to you as well as tangible, it’s good to approach that challenge with compassion, honesty, humility, and patience. 

A little investment now can go a long way if you give yourself a real chance!

Step 1: Reflect on Your Past Year

Yes, you read that correctly! To move forward, sometimes it makes sense to take a step back first.

Rather than setting a goal for the year ahead in a rush, consider taking some time to look back on the past year and review it. After all, the greatest teachers in life are our past experiences. They offer a richness of lessons, insights, and resources that we can plug into at any given moment, giving you clarity on what to focus on or eliminate. 

That’s why I warmly invite you to take the first step and reflect on the months that passed and look for nuggets of wisdom and guidance in them:

Start by finding a calm, quiet space in which you can rest. You can set the mood by burning incense, lighting candles, playing soft music, or grabbing your favorite beverage.

Next, close your eyes, breathe deeply, and focus on the past 12 months. Perhaps some images will pop up. You may feel certain emotions arising. Take it all in with an open heart. Observe these memories, thoughts, feelings, people, adventures, or places. 

Finally, open your eyes, grab your journal, and note down your thoughts whenever you’re ready. Let go of expectations to write something perfect. Simply go with the flow without any judgment. You might feel like:

  • listing more significant memories,
  • writing down some reflections that appeared,
  • formulating an intention for the year ahead.

After that initial exercise, it’s time to introduce some structure and reflect on your past years one category at a time.

Consider retracing your year chronologically, reflecting on events that happened each month. It’s also a good idea to take a closer look at different areas of your life, including social, professional, romantic, personal, etc. 

Can you see any patterns, conclusions, or lessons forming? 

Here’s a little questionnaire to give you some inspiration:

  1. What were your biggest highs/lows in the past year? Why?
  2. What activities/projects made you most happy or fulfilled?
  3. What would you like to keep on doing that you did throughout the past year?
  4. What are some bad habits you’d like to break permanently?
  5. What did you miss doing in the past year?
  6. How did you deal with your obstacles/hardships this past year? What worked the best?
  7. What was your favorite way of supporting your physical and mental health?
  8. What do you feel most grateful for when thinking about the past year?
  9. What mistakes did you make that you’d rather avoid making in the future?
  10. What activities/places/people were energy-giving and which were draining? Why?

Step 2: Paint the Vision for the Year Ahead

Did you know that the bigger a child’s dream, the higher the chances of making it come true?[2] 

It always amazes me how big children can dream compared to adults. Granted, children don’t have to provide resources, pay taxes, or deal with toxic people at their workplace. The reality of life can overwhelm you or even break your spirit, pushing you to keep your dreams small and manageable.

While that approach might spare you some emotional distress, disappointment, and heartbreak, it will surely make you feel stuck, discouraged, and pessimistic when planning your future.

“Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit. We are all the same in this notion: The potential for greatness lives within each of us.” - Wilma Rudolph

Instead of limiting yourself or underrating your abilities, the next step is to take a leap of faith and let yourself dream big for a moment… Ask yourself: 

  • What would I like to achieve in the perfect world? 
  • What do I want more/less of in the coming year?
  • In what areas would I like to develop/improve or build a new skill?
  • What passions do I want to spend more time on?
  • What are some new things I’d like to try?

Think of your vision as the initial spark that lights up a fire. In terms of a process, it shares some similarities with painting. First, you need an idea and a sketch. It serves as a foundation for building the rest: vibrant colors, different textures, objects, people, places, etc.

Step 3: Break Your Big Goals Down

Aiming high and staying ambitious should be complemented by a reality check and creating a concrete plan. Honoring your dreams while considering potential obstacles: that’s how you set yourself up for success. 

WOOP

Gabriele Oettinger, a psychology professor at NYU[3], explains how to successfully distill specific goals from an idealistic vision with her tool called WOOP:

W = WishWhat do you want to achieve? Try to be specific.
O = OutcomeWhat is the ideal result of your wish? 
O = ObstaclesWhat hardships will you most likely face on your way?
P = Plan What can you do to keep going and overcome these obstacles?

Answering these questions is a great way to acknowledge not only the desired outcome but also the inevitable difficulties, which we tend to brush over when setting goals for the start of the year.

Actionable Steps

I dedicate this tip to all the dreamers who are not the best at time management or organizing their schedules. One of the biggest dangers of goal-setting is taking too much on your plate and getting burned out halfway through. However, making a specific action plan significantly increases your chances of succeeding.[4]

Instead, you can break your larger goal into small steps – bite-sized actionable tasks to complete weekly/daily that get you moving in the right direction towards your finish line. This way, instead of feeling overwhelmed and stressed out, this goal-setting process gives you the opportunity to:

  • take charge of your life,
  • see your goal as a more tangible and realistic endeavor,
  • boost confidence and motivation,
  • measure your progress,
  • prioritize one task at a time (which is far more effective),[5]
  • save time and energy.

Here’s an example of how action steps work:

Long-Term Goal: 
Learn how to speak basic French by the end of this year. 

Action Steps: 
Week 1: Review your schedule and determine when you have time for classes/study sessions. 
Week 2: Sign up for a beginner-level class in your area/an online course. 
Week 3: Block time weekly for revisions to ensure you follow your new schedule.

How To Maintain Your Goals Throughout the Year?

Once your goals for the new year are set, the real work begins! Maintaining your objective, staying on track, and not giving up is challenging, to say the least. It’s an everyday struggle, which can feel just as rewarding and exciting as it can feel draining or discouraging. 

Fortunately, there are so many tricks you can have up your sleeve to boost your motivation and help you stay focused on your goals:

Address the Urgency Bias

There will always be an email to answer, a call to return, and friends to catch up with. All these things will fight for your attention and make you feel like you have to prioritize them – it’s called the urgency bias[6], and all humans have it. 

Knowing that gives you an advantage of being able to prepare for the worst with a set of rules and consequences, i.e.: if my friend invites me for a coffee at 2pm, then I’ll ask them to meet up later, after my pre-scheduled work session.

You won’t have to rely on your strong will when these situations occur. Instead, you’ll be able to fall back on the rules you created for yourself.

Use the Beginner’s Mind

One of the traps we often fall into is assuming we already know the best way to achieve XYZ and acting as experts on life. Yet, one thing you can know for sure is that our human experience on this Earth is totally unpredictable, and approaching it with a beginner’s mind is actually a lot more enjoyable!

Pursue your goal as if you were engaging in each activity and task for the first time ever. Instead of casting your judgments or getting lost in some preconceived notions, embrace the uncertainty with the excitement and curiosity of a newbie!

I am not in competition with anyone but myself. My goal is to improve myself continuously.  - Bill Gates

Connect to Your “Why”

Clarifying the purpose and personal significance of your goal will make it more personal and meaningful. Understanding why you’re doing something can boost your motivation and perseverance to keep going when it gets really tough. 

When you feel that your goal aligns with who you are, pursuing it happens on a whole another level. Try your best to name the core values reflected in your goal and use them as a lighthouse that helps you stay focused on your priorities with an unflinching resolve and dedication. 

Consider creating a goal-setting vision board or coining a mantra representing the mindset you want to carry into this new year. It can be a sentence or a single word.

If you worry about procrastinating or giving up, form a positive belief that’ll anchor you in moments of struggle like:

  • “My hard work and perseverance will help me achieve my goal.”

If your goals revolve around being kinder to yourself, you can pick a reminder of your intention, i.e.:

  • “self-compassion / softness / warmth” 

Finding Success

The success of new year goal setting lies in the daily grind. Each day is a new opportunity and a new challenge. The truth is that you don’t need so much luck or incredible amounts of motivation. It’s all about showing up to the practice and doing your job. One day at a time.

References:

  1. https://dictionary.apa.org/cognitive-tunneling
  2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0014292122001143?via%3Dihub
  3. https://as.nyu.edu/faculty/gabriele-oettingen.html
  4. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/43327389_How_do_implementation_intentions_promote_goal_attainment_A_test_of_component_processes
  5. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/job.1778
  6. https://blog.rescuetime.com/fighting-the-urgency-bias/

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