Failure is not an option.
It’s a new year and if you’re like most people, you’ve probably made a bunch of resolutions – I know I have. Get fit, lose weight, give up alcohol, give up smoking, spend less, fall in love and be kinder are some of the most popular.
In fact about half of the population in both America and Australia make New Year resolutions. But according to the University of Scranton, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, only about 8-12 % of us actually achieve them. I admit I am one of the 88%. In fact I don’t think I have ever achieved a single resolution that I have made during the euphoric period of seeing an old year out and a fresh, un-blotted, unstained new one in. Despite this, I, and most of us, keep doing it. People are, after all, mostly optimistic.
Interestingly, not many of us make resolutions about our work lives. We seem to think that being a better person, being more focussed or more disciplined applies only to our personal lives. But given that most of us spend anywhere between 25-60% of our lives at work, a couple of resolutions might make all the difference. Even if only 12% of us achieve them!
So, how do we improve our chances of achieving the goals we so faithfully set on January the 1st every year?
Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist and an expert in willpower and how we use it, says that the “most common problem is that people make multiple resolutions”. With each resolution we make a commitment to use our willpower but our supply of willpower doesn’t increase with each new resolution. Each time we try to keep just one of the multiple resolutions, we use up some of the precious willpower that is needed to keep the others. So, in effect, we are working against ourselves and severely limiting our ability to attain any of the goals we’ve set.
According to psychologist Lynn Bufka, PhD., we fail because most of us are too optimistic and think too big. She says we should be “setting small, attainable goals throughout the year, instead of a singular, overwhelming goal on January 1”, which will give us a much better chance of achieving what we are striving for.
Instead of having an over-arching vague goal of “being more organised”, perhaps we could commit to honouring and mastering just one organisational tool at a time – a synchronised calendar or a dynamic To-Do List. Small, simple, specific goals that once achieved will give you the joy of being more organised.
Baumeister is emphatic on this: “Only work on one resolution at a time. If you want to make several changes in yourself this year, do them one after the other, rather than simultaneously. In fact, succeeding at the first one can be a kind of exercise that strengthens your willpower and thereby improves your chances of succeeding at the others”.
Knowing we are moving closer to achieving a goal gives us the motivation and inspiration to continue, so it’s important we can “touch” our progress. To do this, we need to be able to measure where we are up to. Clinical Psychologist, John Norcross of the University of Scranton says, “We say if you can’t measure it, it’s not a very good resolution because vague goals beget vague resolutions.”
For example, instead of resolving “to get back to the gym”, we might commit to three sessions per week starting now, and measure our success by how many classes we actually attend.
At work, instead of setting a vague goal to “be better prepared for meetings”, it may be more achievable to commit to scheduling time prior to each meeting for prep work.
The same way that organisations publish Mission Statements and Codes of Conduct to stay focussed and accountable, so too should we make our own goals visible. Another way to build accountability is to share your goal with friends and report on your progress – Facebook can be an ideal channel for personal goals.
Some people use “vision boards” , while others employ good old fashioned whiteboards or post-it notes stuck around their space. Whatever works for you is fine.
This is the hard part. While setting a goal significantly raises your chance of achieving it, our resolve usually starts to flag when we hit tough spots. And we usually blame our failure on a lack of willpower – “if only I had more willpower”. But willpower is in our control. It is not something we buy and set to automatically “top up” when it dives to a certain level. We have as much as we think we have.
Research tells us that people who believe they have good self-control are generally more successful at achieving habit-changing or lifestyle modification goals than others.
The iconic children’s book, The Little Engine That Could, sends the best message of all: “I think I can. I’m sure I can. I know I can!”
No matter how simple the goal and no matter how hard we try, our journey to achieve it will not be without a few blemishes or falls along the way. Change is not easy and can cause discomfort. It is normal to seek out our comfort zone for some respite – just make sure your comfort zone isn’t the vice you are trying to kick!
Sydney University psychologist, Professor Thigarajan Sitharthan says “it takes most people three or four serious attempts at a goal to get there.”
The trick is to treat your goal as a journey and accept there will be obstacles, challenges and setbacks, many of them unforeseen. Forgive yourself when you fall, pick yourself up and try again.
And don’t forget to reward yourself for progress!
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