The importance of effective goal setting

With Christmas celebrations under our (slightly looser) belt and the anticipation of New Year’s Eve just around the corner, it’s long been a popular tradition to reflect on the year that’s passed and create resolutions for the year ahead. Research has shown that about half of all adults make New Year’s resolutions, however, fewer than 10 per cent actually manage to keep them for more than a few months.

ABC Health’s Top 10 resolutions of last year were:

  • Stay fit and healthy
  • Lose weight
  • Enjoy life to the fullest
  • Spend less, save more
  • Spend more time with family and friends
  • Get organised
  • Will not make any resolutions
  • Learn something new/new hobby
  • Travel more
  • Read more
Sounds familiar?

Old habits die hard – the importance of effective goal-setting

How many of us have strictly stuck to a resolution for a whole year? For those of you who keep seeing the same patterns over and over, the following scenario may sound familiar. Say you want to lose 7kgs by the end of the year. You sign up to a gym membership and start off going steady for the first few weeks or months, then you take a weekend trip away, and the next weekend is too busy to find time to work out. Next minute you find yourself out of the habit. This leads to resentment of oneself for not succeeding in reaching your weight loss goal, and a feeling of guilt that can cause us to create even worse habits. If we think larger than ourselves, we find that external factors can also play a part in distracting us from a goal, like opposing interests and values of a social circle.

The idea of a new year’s resolution was claimed to have been created by the ancient Babylonians some 4,000 years ago, but unlike the contemporary West, their year began in mid-March when the crops were planted. The babylonians made promises to the pagan gods and, if kept, it was understood that the gods would bestow favour on them for the coming year. If the promises were to be broken, they would no longer be in the god’s favour.

The early Christians are also said to have their own history of making resolutions. For them, the first day of the new year was time to meditate on one’s past mistakes, resolving to do and be better in the future. In fact, in 1740, the English clergyman John Wesley, founder of Methodism, created the Covenant Renewal Service, most commonly held on the eve of the new year, which involved a service of singing and celebrating this time of renewal.

Why it’s important to make goals or resolutions

In their article on ‘Common Goal Setting’ Lifehacker identifies that, “one of the biggest benefits of creating goals is that they force us to focus our time, attention, and energy on a specific objective, instead of scattering our focus and our resources among the broad range of possibilities dying for our attention.” Creating goals and resolutions can be very motivating and progressive: for careers; financials; family; health; and, on an individual level, they can help us on our journey of personal growth.

However, we have to be careful when making resolutions or setting goals as they can often turn out to be a double-edged sword when people tend to align performance with self worth. We have to make sure we don’t strive to reach an idealised version of ourselves or keep changing our definitions of success so that true satisfaction is unobtainable. In Adam Philip’s book, Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, he says “We are always haunted by the myth of our potential, of what we might have it in ourselves to be or do.”  

In a Womankind article by Madeleine Dore called ‘How Do you Measure Your Life?’, the author identifies that the obsession with our potential is prevalent in highly developed societies where our physiological and safety needs are met. The theory goes that the lower levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are met, therefore leaving us to focus on higher goals such as self-actualisation.


Dore says most of our daily activities or goals are exotelic, meaning we reap the benefits somewhere in the future, rather than enjoying them for their own sake in the present. “We need to learn to look away from external expectations or pressures, what we think we should be doing and find the experiences that possess inherent enjoyment for ourselves.” She shares the insight that goals that are borrowed from others or internalised from societal expectations about what we should be doing are not soul-fulfilling goals. In our culture, an individual or organisation cannot be considered successful unless goals are achieved. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says, “the problem arises when people are so fixated on what they want to achieve that they cease to derive pleasure from the present.”

Many people compare themselves with other people’s lives and achievements, but often it’s not even other people’s accomplishments that can make one feel like they’re lacking in some area of their lives. It is, in fact, their own expectations.

So, how do we actually create an effective goal or resolution?

There’s an overwhelming amount of goal setting advice out there, with the popular tips focusing on:

  1. Not being too specific. For example, “I want to lose 8kg by the second month of the year.” Instead, try to set yourself something more achievable like, “I want to run three times a week and only eat fast food once a week.” Then the specifics may be a byproduct of the resolution or goal.
  1. Quality vs. quantity. Setting too many goals can throw you off the challenge and cloud your motivation. However, setting a few relevant goals for the year can help you stay clear and focused on the intention.
  1. Don’t have unrealistic expectations, but find the balance. “If your goal isn’t scary and exciting at the same time, your goal is too small.”
  1. Start big and narrow the focus. Think long term, think about the deeper meaning of why you want to achieve the goal, and start to filter out the crap. Come back to a single or a few intentions that resonate with you at this present time to enrich your life.
  1. Making public goals can sometimes be more powerful than private goals, as they come with a sense of accountability and others can get behind you for extra support.

When we get down to the core, our goals should all be about learning and growth.

For the more nerdy of us, research in a wide variety of field and laboratory settings has shown that H.A.R.D goals have the greatest impact on performance (Ragnar, 2014). H.A.R.D (heartfelt, animated, required and difficult) goals act to focus attention, mobilise effort, and increase persistence at a task (Ragnar, 2014). Incorporating H.A.R.D goals will help create a growth mindset, rather than the previously fixed mindset of, “I have finished the task and I am done, that was too easy.”

S. M. A. R. T goals are also an effective way to set a goal. as they keep you accountable. It is realistic, it has a deadline, you have to make sure it is attainable and within your abilities, and you must have a way to measure your success (or lack thereof). Coupling S.M.A.R.T (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Bound) goals with a Reach goal can help make your goals more effective. A Reach goal is an ultimate end goal that moves you. It need not have a deadline or even be terribly specific, but it must motivate you and make you really want to reach the end.

Make your goals work for you

Whatever goals you choose, it’s vital that you have some kind of emotional connection that makes you hungry to achieve them. There are some techniques that help your goals come to you like manifestation and the law of attraction (manifesting the goal or the outcome), visualisation (creating a vision board), and being aware of and in tune with the synchronicity around you. These can all help tie your emotional consciousness into the end result.

The most important thing to get out of the resolution/goal setting process is to learn from and enjoy the experience. Madeleine Dore says, “We cannot control how respected, accomplished and desired we become. All we can do is enjoy the experience- the process- and resist letting our expectations define us, or our potential overshadow of how we live now.”

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