Using Goal Setting Theory to Create Resolutions that Last

December 31, 2020
Life Coaching Podcast

The Everything Life Coaching Podcast, featuring JRNI Coaching founders John Kim and Noelle Cordeaux, is a deep dive into the experience and business of being a life coach. In this second episode of our Holiday Series, we discuss New Year’s Resolutions, and using Goal Setting Theory as an effective means to accomplish them. For the first episode, check out: Reflections on 2020 and Hope for the New Year. And you won't want to miss the final installment: Crafting A Future Vision to Serve You in the New Year!

We'll admit it - we always thought that New Year’s Resolutions were fluffy. That is, until we heard renowned goal setting and grit expert Caroline Miller speak about the fact that not only are resolutions a great way to set goals - but they really work!

The trick, according to Edwin Locke (one of the pioneers of goal-setting theory) is to make a plan: “If you’re going to be serious, you have to plan, keep records, and you may even need outside help.”

Getting Started

This might sound obvious, but you need to figure out if you’re prepared to make a change before setting a resolution, says goal-setting expert Caroline Adams Miller, author of “Creating Your Best Life.”  

Ask yourself: “What is one thing that I really want to change this year?” Just one thing! That’s another trick to effective goal setting - tackle one intention at a time.

Choose a goal that actually motivates you, rather than something you believe you “should” want to do. And remember, our goals can be either active or passive. 

An active goal is one that requires you to do something, and that will have a clear and measurable outcome (“Lose 10 pounds” or “Meditate daily”)

A passive goal is one that is likely to improve your quality of life, but might not have a tangible finish line (“Slow down”, “Spend more quality time with my kids”)

Now ask yourself….

Are you ready to commit?”

How do you know you’re really ready?

1. Determine if the motivation behind the goal is bigger than you. 

For example, if you want to lose weight, a “bigger than your ego” reason would be so that you can improve your health and regain the flexibility to do activities you love. A less compelling reason is to lose 10 pounds so you’ll look good in a pair of jeans that used to fit 5 years ago!

2. Ask: “What’s at stake?” 

What will you gain from pursuing this goal? How important is that outcome to you?

If your answer is “Yes, I’m ready!” then it’s time to get going.  

5-Step Goal Attainment Plan

1. Source the goal 

The first thing to assess is whether your goal will require self-regulation. Is it one where you will have to say no to something, or otherwise limit yourself in any way? It’s important to understand what you are working with so you can plan accordingly! 

“Self regulation is a limited resource. We wake up with a certain amount and it gets depleted when you call upon it.” - Caroline Miller

This is why it’s easier to stick to your resolution early in the day, but may tend to give in to old habits later at night. 

Consider how much energy will be required to work toward your goal, and set yourself up for success in advance. If the goal is to exercise three times a week, scheduling those workouts in the morning on specific days is more likely to lead to success.

2. Make it challenging

It might be tempting to pick a goal that is easy to accomplish, but if we lowball our goals it can be hard to stay motivated. Don’t limit yourself! Really think about how you can stretch in a way that is both realistic and achievable.

Locke says that study after study has shown that the goals we tend to actually stick with have these qualities: A) they are specific— something that can be measured, and B) they’re challenging enough to hold our attention.

Instead of vague resolutions, try embracing SMART goals.

You’ll know it’s SMART when the intentions you set for yourself are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-Bound.

3. Make A Plan

This is where the rubber meets the road! It’s time to drill down on the details and make a plan for how you’ll implement your goal.

Begin by determining whether you’re working towards a learning goal or a doing goal. 

“Doing” goals are easy to assess. You can check it off a list, and clearly see if you did it or not. There’s an end-point, and a Yes/No answer. (“Did I work out 3 times this week?”)

“Learning” goals require creative thinking. Since you don’t know exactly what the outcomes will be, you’ll want to run experiments to see how it’s coming together all along the way. ("Do I feel more rested?")

Create actions and metrics that are appropriate to the type of goal you’re pursuing.

If your goal is to “slow down”, that’s a learning goal. You’ll need to start with a definition of what Slow means to you. You’ll also want to check in with how you feel as you try on different strategies. Has what you’ve done resulted in a felt experience of “slower” or “rested”?

The data from your experiential outcomes can give you insight into what you may want to do more or less of. All along the way you need to keep asking: “Is it working? Am I getting closer to achieving my goal?” This level of self-engagement and evaluation is key, no matter what type of goal you are tackling.

4. Break it down

Once you have taken the time to think about learning vs. doing and an appropriate path forward, break your goal down into smaller chunks. Tackling it in parts makes it easier to do the two-step of checking in to see if your plan is working, and shifting around to get the results you want.

Make sure your action steps aren’t theoretical.

They need to fit into your actual life circumstances or it isn’t likely to happen. Ask yourself - “What feels accessible? How much time (and when) can I commit to this?”

Track your progress visually.

Have a calendar or other measurement system to see how you are doing on a daily or weekly basis.

5. Prime your environment and your relationships 

Something to keep in mind is that we take on the habits of the people we surround ourselves with. This doesn’t mean that you have to trade your friends and family in for a relay team if you want to start running! What it does mean is that you'll need to examine the extent to which the people in your life will encourage or discourage you. 

Quick example. Let’s say your goal is to quit drinking on weeknights, but your roommates like to have a glass of wine together most evenings after work. You’ll need to factor this reality - and the temptation it may bring when your self-regulation energy is low - into your planning.

This is where public accountability and positive support come into play, especially when it comes to New Year’s Resolutions. An open declaration of our intentions to other people really does help make them stick! 

We are more likely to follow through with our action steps when others hold us accountable and support us.

And there’s even more momentum when we’re pursuing our goals at the same time that we know others are tackling theirs. So if you really want to create momentum, find an accountability buddy or hire a coach!

And finally, remember to have FUN.

Resolutions and goals are all about changing your life so that your life becomes a place that you truly want to inhabit. 

Ready to help others achieve their goals?

If you’d like to put goal setting theory into practice as a coach, come check out JRNI Life Coach Training. Grounded in science, our ICF accredited program features authentic instructors, a robust curriculum, and fellow students dedicated to becoming a force for good in the world. 

JRNI Coaching: Vibrant community. Evidence-based life coach training. Lifetime support.


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