People like to start goals at the beginning of things: a new year, a new month, Mondays, your birthday etc. It gives you the feeling of a fresh start or a clean slate. People also experience an increase in motivation at these landmarks, which can increase the urge to start or restart a goal or intention.
I’ve found that when my coaching clients want to start a new goal they fall into two categories: the schedulers and the adaptables. The schedulers pick the times, the days, the exact place they want to accomplish their goals, e.g. “I’m going to go to the gym Mon, Wed, Fri next week at 3pm and I’m putting it on my calendar.” The adaptables give themselves more room: “I plan to exercise 2-3 times this week, I have time either in the morning or in the evening so whichever one works better with my schedule I will do.”
The schedulers are using the SMART goal method: setting a goal that is Specific (go to the gym), Measurable (3x per week), Achievable (fits in their schedule, doesn’t involve a lot of change), Relevant (aligns with client’s values/goals), and Time-bound (has a start date). This way of starting a goal can be successful, especially for people who tend towards being scheduled in the first place.
The adaptables are using aspects of the SMART goal method, but adding a few layers of flexibility to it. Instead of the specific action of going to the gym, they plan on “exercising”, which could mean many different things. They are giving themselves different options on time because they know they might feel more motivated at different times on different days, or last minute conflicts might pop up. They’re basically broadening the options out to cover for barriers that might come up. This way of starting a goal can also be successful!
In the podcast Hidden Brain, host Shankar Vedantam interviewed researcher and writer Katy Milkman about her findings on goal setting and follow-through, how knowing our common pitfalls is important but not the sole solution, and how making our goals malleable can help with our success rate.
So what can you take away from this? Here are a six steps that can help you build a sustainable practice:
- Spend some time thinking about your goal and how it relates to your values and purpose. Are you wanting to start this because it’s truly important to you and based on intrinsic value? Or are you doing it because someone said you “should” be doing this? Goals that are based on your values and are intrinsically motivated are more likely to be successful. Goals not based on intrinsic motivation can still be successful, but they will probably require more support, reminders, and maintenance.
- Decide what approach is better for you: a true SMART goal or a more malleable approach. What fits better into your work/life schedule? What have you had success with in the past?
- Find a support person or two. This can look like someone who is doing the same new practice as you or simply someone you have talked to about starting a new practice and can check in with your progress. Think about what you need from them and let them know: encouragement, accountability, a listening ear, someone to ask questions, etc.
- Start small, much smaller than you think you need to. Do you want to exercise more? Start with a walk around the block a few days a week. Work out the kinks, see what feels good. Once you feel comfortable with that small step, add a little more time to it. Give yourself options and ask yourself what you need. In the book Atomic Habits by James Clear, he states “A habit must be established before it can be improved. If you can’t learn the basic skill of showing up, then you have little hope of mastering the finer details. Instead of trying to engineer a perfect habit from the start, do the easy thing on a more consistent basis. You have to standardize before you can optimize”.
- Keep a journal or memo in your phone and jot down your experiences. Notice how you feel before and after your practice and make a note of it. This can be a good way to remind yourself that after your walk you feel more clear-headed or after meditating your anxiety has lessened. It can also help you to remember why this goal is important to you when you don’t feel like doing it. Bring a moment of mindfulness to your practice before and after and check in with your progress as your goal develops.
- Use that “fresh start” mentality to your advantage. If you skip a day, a week, or something stressful happens and you need to re-prioritize, remember that tomorrow is a new day and you can start anew. It’s natural that your new goal will have ups and downs. Just because you have a down day or week doesn’t mean you aren’t able to accomplish your goal. Scale the goal back down, focus on a fresh start tomorrow, and remind yourself why you want to do it. If you continue to struggle, return to step one and ask yourself some questions: what’s getting in your way? What’s not aligning with your values? Why might you be struggling? What other resources or support might you need?
Starting a new habit and working towards a goal takes time, energy, and patience. Hopefully the above steps can help you make a sustainable goal plan and work through the barriers that come up. If you want more support, I am holding a workshop to talk about New Year's Resolutions in February. The workshop will focus on your goals/habits for 2022 and how they are progressing, working on more support/resources, and making a plan to move forward. You can register here. I hope to see you there!