How many times in your life have you declared your New Year’s resolutions and said, This is the year. This is it. And how often did you fall off before it was even February? Yep, us too. Big sweeping resolutions are noble and they are, of course, made with the best of intentions, but let’s face it: They don’t actually work.
“The best way to not be able to follow through on a hope or an objective for yourself is to set your expectations unrealistically high or try to bite off more than you can chew at once,” says Jessica Schleider, PhD, assistant professor in the department of psychology and clinical psychology PhD program at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York.
And while there’s nothing wrong with thinking big, it’s all about how you plan to meet your goal that matters. If you want to increase the likelihood you’ll follow through on your biggest goals, whether that’s improving your cholesterol level, shedding a few pounds, or writing that book you’ve been talking about for years, here’s how experts say you can make success inevitable.
Don’t set a start date without a warm-up
First things first: You need a realistic game plan. That’s step one for any goal. You can’t say you’re going to hit the gym and start eating more veggies on January 1, but come December 31 you can’t find your running shoes and the only thing in your fridge is prosecco and an old pizza box. Give yourself time to create the ideal environment for success. That may mean giving yourself a week to clean out the fridge, go grocery shopping, and buy new sneakers. Remember: There’s nothing special about January 1. Start when you’re ready.
Determine if your goal is really just a wish
“People often confuse wishes and goals,” says Ben Michaelis, PhD, a New York City-based psychologist and elite performance coach. “A wish is something vague that you want or hope for, like ‘I wish I could lose 50 pounds.’ A goal is: ‘I am planning to lose 10 pounds by May 1 through consistent changes in diet and exercise.’ When people switch from the former to the latter they are far more likely to have success.” To move from making wishes to setting true goals will require you to get very specific with what you want and how you’ll achieve it.
Create SMART goals
Need help getting specific about what you want? Get clear on your goal by making SMART goals. “Without a doubt, the most effective goals that people can set are known as SMART goals,” says Dr. Michaelis. “These goals are specific and well-defined, measurable with clear pre-defined metrics, achievable and not just dreams, relevant to your life, and timely within a clearly defined start date and target date.”
Research has shown that getting this specific with your goals works. A 2019 study in the journal SAGE Open Medicine found that when obese study subjects set SMART goals they had a smaller waistline after two months compared to those who didn’t set SMART goals. In fact, the non-goal setting group actually saw their waist circumference increase.
Ask yourself the Miracle Question
“Imagine if a miracle occurs while you’re sleeping and whatever your top problem is right now in your life has totally disappeared,” says Dr. Schleider. “Then ask yourself, ‘How will you know that the miracle occurred when you wake up?’ Because you were sleeping, you have no idea that a miracle happened, so how will you know? What will you think differently? What will you do differently? What will be different in your life?”
She added: “Identifying what exactly will differ when some obstacle or problem is removed can help you figure out the right concrete steps you might be able to take to achieve that reality.” Dr. Schleider recommends starting any goal-setting exercise with this question.
Give a WOOP
WOOP stands for: Wish, obstacle, outcome, plan. Once you have your Miracle Question answered, you can use WOOP to achieve it. “This kind of exercise is forcing yourself to make a contingency plan for exactly what you’ll do, when you’ll do it, and what you’re going to do when it gets hard,” says Dr. Schleider.
Here’s how it works: “We first acknowledge the fact that if your miracle reality were so easy to achieve, you’d have done it already,” she says. “So we have to ask ourselves, what’s going to get in the way? The first step is identifying what your wish is, which you’ve already done through your miracle reality exercise. Then you identify your main inner obstacle: What thought might you have or what worry might you experience that will get in the way of carrying out your action plan? Then, think about one effective action or thought you can take to overcome that voice in your head that holds you back from following through on what you want to do. Write that down and what you end up with is an if-then action plan: If I have this inner obstacle thought, then I will think or do this.”
Work in inches, not yards
No matter how big or sweeping your goal is, Dr. Schleider suggests you start small, very small. In fact, she calls it moving just “one point closer” to your goal on a scale of one to 10, with one being the furthest point from your goal or your starting point.
“Define three concrete steps for getting one point closer to a 10 and figure out when and where those steps will happen and identify supportive people who can help,” says Dr. Schleider. “What I find helpful about this exercise of getting yourself one point closer to a 10 is you’re setting the bar intentionally low so you can set yourself up for success. Most people are confident in their ability to get one step closer, but they may not be so confident in their ability to accomplish their entire goal.”
Focus only on internal goals
There are some things in life that are out of our control. Maybe we wish other people would change or that certain circumstances would be different, but that’s not always the case or something we have any say over. When that’s the reality you’re working with, rethink your goal. “Setting a goal for yourself that is externally controlled rather than internally is a way to guarantee your goal will not be accomplished,” says Dr. Schleider. “An alternative goal would be getting better at coping with really difficult emotions about something that’s happening in your life. Plus, reorienting goals to ones that you can control versus just frustrations or wishing things were different is an important starting point.”
Assemble your cheering squad
“Getting other people involved is a key aspect of goal-setting,” says Dr. Michaelis. “Humans are an inherently social species and when we work together to keep ourselves focused and accountable we are far more likely to succeed.” This is one tip he always uses when setting goals for himself: “Personally, I use an accountability partner. Having someone who knows and ideally can identify with your goals to keep you on track is an invaluable resource.” Team up with friends who share your goals so you can cheer each other on to the finish line.
At some point on your way to achieving greatness, you will backslide into old habits. It’s only natural. Start by forgiving yourself for messing up, says Dr. Schleider. “If someone has a big goal and they mess up once, that self-criticism impulse kicks in saying, ‘I’ll never be able to do this, what’s the point? I should just stop trying.’ But failing once or falling short of your expectations once, is not a license to give up. It’s a license to be gentle with yourself just like you would be to a friend who was having a tough time meeting a goal.”
She added: “If you’re ever not sure what to tell yourself, just think about what you’d tell a friend. Once you can draw that comparison, it can get easier to give yourself a break and to allow yourself the space to try again rather than to just give up.”
Build in a reward structure when you’re devising your SMART goals and WOOPs. “People are not motivated by punishment,” says Dr. Schleider. “People are motivated by good things. If you tell yourself, ‘Well, if I don’t do this, then this consequence will happen,’ it’s a really good way to get yourself to not do something. Having consequences is not motivating. What’s motivating is positive outcomes that come from good behavior. Self-criticism does nothing but reinforce negative beliefs about yourself. People are much more successful generally in reaching goals when they institute self-kindness, which is a type of reward too.”