Have you ever asked yourself why we have New Year’s Resolutions? Why do we need the new year to spur us into making changes? And why do they...
I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that the New Year ushers in a spirit of hope and newness. I feel re-energised and ready for anything. I used to make my New Year resolutions and then somehow expect them to happen just because it was the New Year, but by the end of January I’d stuck myself with a long-term gym contract, only been for three workouts and forgotten the combination of my locker padlock.
So what makes the difference? How can we set goals that we actually achieve? How can we make sure our New Year resolutions bring about lasting change?
From working with my coaching clients over the years, I have noticed three main themes that scupper our ability to reach our goals.
1. Your goal isn’t positive
Often, clients tell me what they don’t want rather than what they do:
“I don’t want to be in this job any more.”
“I don’t want to dread every time I’m given something new to do.”
To which, I ask them:
“What do you want instead?” then “What will this give you?”
The brain is brilliant. I really love mine, and the way it can think around all kinds of gnarly problems, but one thing it can’t do is process a negative. In order to deal with a negative statement, it has to think about it first – “don’t think of pink elephants” – and then dismiss the idea. We’re focusing more on the thing we don’t want than on the positive image of what we do want.
Other variations on this are, “I want to lose weight,” and “I want to give up smoking.” Wanting the lack of something just isn’t the way to go so focus on what you will have once you have achieved your goal.
Coach yourself: Make sure your goal is stated in the positive
2. Your goal isn’t clear enough
All of the positive goals I listed above are statements of your promised land once you have taken the steps to get there, but all too often people set goals which are either too big, or too unclear. And the one I hear most from clients?
“I want to be more confident”
Often it’s a piece of unhelpful feedback they have been given in an appraisal, or a voice they’ve been carrying around with them from a school teacher or other authority figure. I ask them, “What does that mean to you?” And often people don’t know, or they can’t articulate what they think or how they feel.
Feedback like this is useless because it is often just a statement of opinion by the person giving it. As a goal, “I want to be more confident” gives you no start or end point. ‘More confident’ than what, or who? And when do you want to be more confident? And by how much?
Without a clear picture of the change you want to make, I can almost guarantee that, come February, you’ll be with me, searching for your padlock combination and wondering why you haven’t done what you promised yourself.
Coach yourself: Be clear on how you will know you are achieving your goal
“What will I be doing / feeling when I am confident [insert your own goal here]?”
“What will others see me do when I am confident?”
3. You’re not motivated enough to make the change
Think about a goal you have set yourself that you haven’t achieved. What feeling do you get about that goal? Disappointment, guilt, boredom? Nothing?
Another reasons why we don’t achieve our goals is that we are not committed enough to making the change. We simply don’t have the motivation, or energy, to change our behaviour. And this may be for two reasons.
First, it’s not actually our goal. It may be something imposed on us by our work, our family, our community – you need to be more of a team player; you must speak up in meetings, you ought to spend more time at home, you should volunteer your time. Look out for words like ‘must’, ‘ought’ and ‘should’ in your goals. They imply some external driver to your goal rather than the motivation coming from within you. For example, a client was wondering why a task had been on their to-do list for weeks when it would be quite simple to do and tick off. They eventually realised it was something they had been asked to do by someone else and that they didn’t feel strongly enough about it to get it done.
Second, there is a better reason not to achieve your goal than to achieve it. This is known as ‘secondary gain’. When someone tells me they can’t achieve their goals, or make a change, I encourage them to explore the benefit of the status quo and what they stand to lose by achieving their goal. I now understand I find it hard to go to the gym because I don’t like being tied down to a planned regime. It is more important to me to have the freedom to go out at lunchtime for some stimulation, or to spend time being quiet and reflecting than it is to get fit by going to the gym. A client couldn’t understand why they were procrastinating in finding a new job and came to realise that it was more comfortable not having to prove themselves in a job they hated rather than facing the fear of rejection by putting themselves out in the job market.
Coach yourself: Test your motivation for achieving your goal
How much do you actually want this?
What is the worst case scenario if you don’t do it?
What impact will this have on others if you do / don’t do it?
What will you have to give up if you do this?
Are they clear and of a manageable size? How will you know when you are achieving them? How much do you care about achieving them? Is it OK for you not to achieve them? If the answer to this last one is ‘yes’, what led you to making this particular resolution in the first place?
If you would like some help in achieving your goals (this New Year, or at any other time), please do get in touch.