Achieve your New Year Resolutions

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How the competitive, the time-focused, and those who tend toward workaholism set—or should set—goals. Learn how to achieve the goals you set, especially when life gets in the way.

A 2016 study showed that 41% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions (1). Yet, by the end of the year, only 9% feel they were successful in keeping them. So, what prevents people from fulfilling their resolutions? A 2014 survey reported that 35% of those who failed to keep their New Year’s resolutions said they had set unrealistic goals. Another 33% didn’t keep track of their progress, and 23% forgot about their resolutions altogether. Ten percent felt they made too many resolutions. Yet, year after year, January arrives and the process begins again: a new set of goals—or intentions—that we hope we can achieve this year.

There is a lot of history when it comes to intentions (2,3). Reference to setting an intention is found in many ancient texts. Judeo-Christian practices focus this concept on the heart, or the “leb” in Hebrew. The leb is the inner man/woman, mind, will, inclination, or resolution. The practice of yoga incorporates setting a “sankalpa”: a heartfelt desire combined with a specific intention. When it comes to intentions, it is all about a state of being.

Goals are a more recent phenomenon that focuses on doing. Goal setting theory was developed in the 1970s, and is largely attributed to two scientists named Locke and Latham (4). They found that making goals challenging tended to result in higher levels of effort and performance. Goals effect performance by creating focus and perseverance, and generating energy. Commitment, confidence, difficulty and support can all influence whether or not you achieve your resolutions.

A touch of goals with a dash of intention

Women are helpers. Oftentimes, this feminine instinct can lead to imbalance whereby a woman’s focus is completely outside of herself. Her needs take last place. Or, grit takes over and, against better judgement, she pushes to meet the goal despite so many signs nudging her to redirect or abort altogether. Perhaps she isn’t even dedicated to that specific goal—rather, she wants to build a new habit, and the underlying resolution is just a means of getting there. But that’s a formula for failure, because an amorphous desire for change is not enough on its own. Blending goals within a framework of intention is a great way to accomplish the changes you seek while giving yourself the flexibility you need to adjust as you go along.

Our underlying intentions can provide a strong foundation on which specific objectives can be set. That’s why it’s important to understand what those intentions are. The “word of the year” practice is a nice way to thematically envelope a set of goals. You start by selecting a word that will serve as a guide for the year ahead—a theme that directs a state of being. The first year I did this, my word was believe, and I tried to call the word to mind every time I made a decision or expressed an opinion. ‘Do I have confidence this is true?’ I thought. ‘What do I believe?’ I’d ponder. You can up your chances of figuring out your word of the year by setting aside a time of quiet reflection. Choose a repetitive activity, meditate, or spend time outside. In other words, open yourself up to receiving the intention, rather than forcing it to come.

Shall we make it a habit?

The practice of visualization is a helpful first step toward setting a goal. This is where one visualizes the ideal self and the actual self, followed by an awareness of any discrepancies between the two. Where do you see yourself in a year? What’s working well for you? How do you need to grow? Looking at where you want to go, decide whether the change is finite (a self-contained objective) or more like developing a habit.

There are many different kinds of goals (5). For example, they can be time based (annual, long-term, short-term, milestone) or categorical (e.g., career, financial, personal development, spiritual, educational, relationship, physical, and health). There are also several different types of goals. Process goals, for instance, are focused on the process of goal pursuit (e.g., running 3 times a week), while outcome goals are focused on an end result (e.g., running a 5k in less than 35 minutes).

The idea of SMART goals is often attributed to Robert Rubin based on Peter Drucker’s work. SMART is an acronym representing the attributes of a smart goal. A smart goal is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time based. The SMART acronym can be used as a checklist of sorts to assess the quality of a stated goal.

To make sure your goals are both achievable and relevant, it is extremely important to cross check them against your values, beliefs, and experiences. Is the goal a high priority for you in this particular season of your life? As the old proverb goes, “there is a time for everything and a season for every activity under the heavens.” Unless a resolution resonates with you right now, it’s easy to lose commitment to keeping it.

Where there is no vision, the people perish (Proverbs 29:18). One only has so many hours in a day and setting too many intentions or goals can lead to lost focus. Here, the disciplined pursuit of less, or the practice of essentialism as described by Gregory McKeown, can help. What do you value? What do you believe? What do you hold sacred? Answering these questions and using the answers when setting intentions or goals can support a practice where only the most essential resolutions are made.

When the goal is more of a habit than a specific objective, SMART can be combined with the concept of periodization, which breaks goals down into manageable feats. Periodization sets a macrocycle (one-year goal), mesocycle (monthly goals), and microcycle (weekly goals). This helps to set milestones for the one-year SMART goal, which might otherwise feel amorphous.

Tracking progress is also very important. Goal setting theory emphasizes the importance of feedback in maintaining commitment. SMART goals can be tracked by writing down milestones and using wearable devices. But you can also track intentions through reflective processes. One of my favorite methods of reflection is journaling. The practice of journaling draws you out of your head and allows the mind to become visible through words. There is no formula to journaling, but one can begin by reflecting on what went well or not so well during the prior day and plans for the day ahead. Quotes, stories and thoughts can also be collected as part of the journal.

A year is a long time to focus on one specific outcome or process. The practice of creating a vision board works really well to keep intentions and goals that are set top of mind. Vision boards offer a visual cue of the underlying intention or goal. Having these posted in an easily viewable area can provide a subtle reminder of the resolutions throughout the year. There are many different ways to create these boards. Methods can be as rudimentary as cutting and pasting photos to digital images. The end product is a collage of images that are symbols of the New Year’s resolutions.

When life gets in the way

The hope is that with time we grow healthier and wiser. If that is true, then progress may mean intentions or goals need to be adjusted, especially if they turn out to be unrealistic. It’s ok to alter your goals to better address the underlying intention! Perhaps the resolution needs to be dialed back or leveled up. There’s no reason to keep pursuing a specific objective if it becomes counterproductive to what you are trying to accomplish. Give yourself the flexibility to recalibrate. Life happens, and sometimes grit can become misplaced.

I have a growth mindset

Moving from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset allows dreaming and aspirations to rise to higher levels. A growth mindset believes that gifts and skills can be developed while a fixed mindset says they are innate (6). You should view each goal through the lens of a growth mindset.

It’s been suggested that the average person makes 35,000 decisions every day. Some decisions have greater weight than others. Using goals and/or intentions can serve as a guidepost for those decisions that are more meaningful. It can help to focus on directing life instead of simply responding to life circumstances. Theodore Roosevelt once said that “the best thing you can do is the right thing. The next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” Progress over perfection and vision is needed to move forward, otherwise you risk going in circles or, worse yet, nowhere at all.

Photo credit: Adam McCoid via @unsplash. Many thanks for sharing your talents!

1. [accessed 1/4/22].


3. Blue letter Bible interlinear concordance, “leb” [accessed 1/4/22].

4. Locke EA, Latham GP. Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation. Am Psychol. 2002;57:705-17.

5. [accessed 1/4/22].

6. [accessed 1/4/22].

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