I know what you’re thinking: either Emmie’s confused, or her queue of posts is quite off. Clearly, the solar eclipse messed with her sense of time. (I didn’t get to see it because I’m currently in Europe, but no matter. I feel like I saw it, thanks to Facebook.) It’s August, almost September. Why is she bringing up my New Year’s resolutions?
Why, indeed: they mattered to you then, and they might still matter to you now, whether you’ve been a stickler about keeping them, completely forgot them, or failed to keep them quite immediately after January 1st. We tend to create, then attempt to keep, goals in ways that don’t serve us and our ability to reach them. This is especially true when we make New Year’s resolutions. We’re reaching for the stars, forgetting that true behavior change happens slowly and incrementally rather than immediately and noticeably.
I’ve wanted to write about goal-making and keeping ever since I got back from Mayo, where we had to make S.M.A.R.T. goals each morning in the Pain Rehab Program. (Don’t worry, I’ll explain what that is, and now I’ve even learned to add an “O” at the end of that corny acronym.) But I’ve thought about this even more since listening to an episode of the podcast Invisibilia entitled “Future Self.” (Yes, apparently I’ve become the kind of person who listens to podcasts. Isn’t it funny what a new year brings?). It talked about the importance of having an image of what our future self is: without it, we may struggle to get through hard times when motivation or encouragement is scant; if you have health conditions, symptoms are high and functioning is lower than what we deem acceptable; and circumstances are pressing us in a different direction that we do not like and cannot accept. However, if we get too fixed on the specifics of this murky future self, we will feel like (utter) failures, regardless of where we end up, if it’s not exactly that. And that can have dire consequences for our mental health – listen to the episode for more on that.
I think this is what happens to a lot of us when we enter into the new year, usually in small ways, but sometimes big ways. #Newyearnewyou, right? What was your 2017 future self going to look like, as you pondered during December of 2016 about the new year? Do you even remember? It may be something you can laugh at now – “How did I ever think that I was going to stop/start _____?! Oh me” – or it may be something that brings you a lot of frustration or even shame because you had hope for a different reality and self than you now have. So, here I am to encourage you in a few ways: Firstly, teaching you how to make a goal that has a chance to last; secondly, sharing a story to show you how goals may look
So, here I am to encourage you in a few ways: Firstly, teaching you how to make a goal that has a real chance to last; secondly, sharing a story to show you how a goal’s achievement may look different from what you expected, but still be achieved nonetheless; and lastly, writing a few words about your worth.
In regards to making a good goal: I’ll use an example goal that many people carry into the new year and can continue to work toward long into the new year, which is “to exercise more.” This is a start, but let’s look with S.M.A.R.T.[O.]:
S: Specific. “Exercise more” is quite broad, no? What kinds of exercise? Cardio? Muscle-building? Stretching? How often? Alone? With whom? Where? When during the day?
M: Measurable. Here we’re thinking days per week or month, minutes, etc.
A: Achievable. Is it attainable to move from exercising 0 times per week to 7 in one fell swoop? Nope. How about 0 to 2? 20 minutes rather than 60? You can move up from here, but start where you are and do what you can.
R: Rewarding. Why do you care about this? Why put time and effort into it? People achieve more goals when they’re motivated rather than fearful. If you are indeed being motivated out of fear – “I have a family history of diabetes type II” – can you reframe it to be something like: “I want to live a good, long life so that I can spend as many years as possible with those I love”? There’s usually a bunch of positive reasons to go for something, even if the initial reason is fear. If you can’t think of a personal reason why it matters to you, don’t bother trying to keep this goal. Make a different one.
T: Time-sensitive. When will you do this by? Or, to be more realistic, by what dates for different, smaller steps to achieve the larger goal? For a longer-term or even lifetime goal such as this one, think in terms of the logistics: “I will sign up for a gym by Friday afternoon” or “I will buy hand weights when I go to Target on Saturday morning” or “I will play tennis with Nicole on Monday night.”
O: Obstacle to achievement. What could stand in your way? For this one, I’m thinking things like “low endurance” or “love of my bed” or “embarrassment about being new.” Be honest. You need to be aware of your limitations in order to move through them step-by-step.
And then you write out your goal in fuller detail with all these pieces you’ve already done! And you check in with it from time to time in order to update it with progress or edit it for realisticness. Done and done. One last thing about making a good goal: the way you talk about it and its different steps can impact you! When talking or thinking about it, instead of “I should” or “I need to,” how about “I could” or “I can”? Now it sounds much more possible.
Secondly, a story about how goal attainment can look different from what we’re expecting, but it still matters nonetheless. I’m currently in Europe because one of my lifelong goals is to travel when opportunities arise and I have the means. One of my New Year’s resolutions was to be more self-compassionate (specified by the definition of self-compassion, measured by mood, attainable in that I started kind of low in this trait and knew I could improve, rewarding in having higher self-regard and self-care, time-sensitive depending on each week’s needs, and obstacled by… well… my perfectionism). I ended up getting the flu in the middle of my first week of three and a half, and it knocked (much of) the wind out of me for a solid week. As frustrating as it’s been to not be able to romp around as much as I would have liked to these past few days, it was important to leave time just to recuperate. Self-compassion isn’t always fun, but it matters so much – in this case, if I hadn’t left myself the space to do something I thought frustrating and boring, I would have been sicker for longer. Plus, one of my favorite moments of this trip so far has been reading a book while watching the sun set in Český Krumlov. Who says that every moment needs to be packed? Be flexible about methods and what it might look like to achieve your goal, but keep it, if it’s important enough to you.
Lastly, some encouraging words. Goal keeping is really difficult. It’s difficult to feel like you’re killin’ it one day, then the next time you look, you’ve missed a week. But guess what? Your value is defined only by your existence. You are loved not because you do, but because you are. Give yourself the grace to try again, even eight months later, to start fresh. Every time you slip, keep getting up. Fall down seven times, get up eight, no?