How to Set Good Goals for 2024 – And Stick to Them!
Dr Hanne Warren, Clinical Psychologist, Thea Psychology
As we dive into 2024, it feels timely to have a think about the things we want to achieve in the months ahead. Setting New Year’s resolutions is pretty common and for some it’s a yearly tradition. Actually managing to stay with those intentions and see them through, however, is a whole different ballgame. Most of us have been there, jotting down ambitions on January 1st only to find them gathering dust by the end of February. But fear not! In this piece, I’ll share some tips with you about how to set good goals for yourself and – equally importantly – how to stick with them over the coming year.
How to Choose a Good Goal
Make it meaningful. We all know the ‘run a marathon’ type resolution. And if that is meaningful for you, then great! But take a moment to consider what truly matters to you across your life broadly. Consider your social relationships, work, personal development, hobbies, family, health and spirituality. If there’s an area in your life that ranks high in importance to you but which currently receives less attention than deserved, prioritise goals in that area.
Aim for balance. The human brain is designed with three emotion systems that mean we have a need for drive (to achieve goals and feel motivated), to detect threat (to seek safety and feel anxiety), and to soothe (to slow down, rest and feel content). We need a balance of these systems to thrive. Many of us find ourselves in threat mode a lot, running from one thing to another feeling tense and stressed. If that resonates, consider goals that help you feel calm or connected e.g. weekly walks in nature or daily relaxation exercises. If, however, you often feel lethargic or unmotivated, consider goals that activate your drive system and make you feel energised or joyful. For example, join a singing group or learn a new skill.
Challenge vs. realism. We can get really carried away when setting goals. Excitement and overly-high standards can produce unrealistic goals destined to go awry. When choosing resolutions make them challenging enough that they will make a meaningful difference to your life, but make sure that they are actually achievable and sustainable in the long term. For example, if you’re trying to get physically active aim to exercise twice a week, not daily. You can always build on this down the line.
Adding in. Humans find it much easier to start new things than to stop things. In fact, the more we try to drop habits the more desirable they feel and the more we end up doing them! Rather than telling yourself to stop something, try adding something else in instead. For example, don’t ban takeaway but instead aim to cook homemade food more often. Don’t rule out lounging in front of the TV, but do add an evening walk to your routine. This approach will help to reduce unwanted behaviours as well as making your life richer and more varied. Win-win.
Choose carrots, not sticks. We can sometimes use New Year’s resolutions as a way to get really self-critical. Perhaps we aim to lose weight or exercise more to make our bodies feel more acceptable, or set perfectionistic goals for achievements to feel like we’re enough. If you can relate to this, then this is an invitation to drop the stick and pick up a carrot instead. Instead of goals based in self-criticism, try a goal that aims to help you to feel well. Short of ideas? Here are five activities that are scientifically proven to improve our mental well-being:
Connect with other people. Try turning off the TV at mealtimes to chat instead, or meeting up with friends in person.
Be physically active. Exercise stimulates the release of endorphins, making us feel happier and more relaxed.
Learn a new skill. Join a course or try out new recipes.
Give to others. Offer to help someone, or volunteer locally.
Be here now. Paying attention to the present moment as it happens (mindfulness) helps us to feel calm and connected and reduces worry and rumination.
How to Stick With Your Goals Over Time
Be your own wise cheerleader. Working towards goals can be really hard. It is normal to find it tough and face setbacks along the way. To keep you motivated, recognise and celebrate each little win as you go. And when the going gets tough, ask yourself ‘what would I say to help a friend in this situation?’. Instead of beating yourself up see if you can offer yourself some kind support and remember that it’s normal to struggle en route to our goals. You’ll be much more likely to dust yourself off and get back in the saddle – and you’ll feel happier along the way, too.
‘The 7 Rs’: There are probably thousands of tools available to help us face the challenge of sustaining new habits. They can mostly be grouped into what has been called ‘The Seven Rs’:
Reminders. Use screensavers, apps, post-it-notes, calendars, etc. to remind us of the goal we are working towards.
Records. Keep a record of our goal, noting when and where we take steps towards it, what helps, what hinders – and learn from it.
Rewards. If we’ve chosen a goal that taps into our personal values then it should be motivating in itself. We can increase this with additional rewards. For example, talk encouragingly to yourself (‘Well done! Smashed it!’), celebrate your progress with friends and family, or get yourself a prize after hitting milestones along the way.
Routines. Habits are easier to sustain and require less willpower when they become routine. Do your new activity at a set time and it will become a normal part of life more quickly, e.g. go for a walk before breakfast. You can also build the activity into pre-existing parts of your day, e.g. practice mindfulness on your lunch break.
Relationships. Share your goals with supportive friends and family, asking for reminders and help along the way. Support and accountability significantly improve your chances of seeing the plan through. You could also seek guidance from a psychologist, counsellor or coach.
Reflecting. Take time to reflect on how your goal’s going and notice any positive effects on your life. Notice non-judgementally what is or isn’t working, and what is triggering any setbacks.
Restructure your environment. Change your physical environment to support your new habit. For example, for healthy eating: remove junk food from the kitchen and put the fruit bowl in plain sight.
Overcome the greatest barrier to change. Humans are hard-wired to experience doubt and anxiety about new situations. This kept our ancestors precautious and safe. For you and I today, this means that as we approach a new activity we will experience uncomfortable thoughts (e.g. ‘I can’t do it!’), feelings (e.g. nervousness) and physical sensations (e.g. tension). It can make doing new things feel really uncomfortable – and so we often end up avoiding them. This is the number one reason for goals being dropped. We find reasons to not submit that application or to ‘forget’ we were going to try a new group. In order to do something new we have to face this discomfort head on. Have an honest talk with yourself, asking ‘Am I willing to make room for these difficult feelings in order to do this new thing?’. If the answer is yes, you can kindly and courageously guide yourself through those moments of discomfort – rather than hitting snooze and your intentions becoming a distant memory.
The Take Home
New Year’s resolutions can add to our lives in meaning, health and happiness when we choose our goals thoughtfully. Changing our behaviour is hard but the kinder and wiser we can be about that, and the more we use tools and tricks to support us, the more likely we are to succeed. Our local communities are full of businesses and organisations who can support you to learn, move more, connect with others and care for yourself. At Thea Psychology we work with women looking to improve their mental health by increasing their sense of self-worth, reducing perfectionism and people-pleasing, and building more balance in their lives.
So, what will you do to improve your life this year?
About the Author
Dr Hanne Warren is a clinical psychologist and founder of Thea Psychology.
Based in London, Dr Warren has extensive experience and interest in women’s mental health and well-being. She worked as a psychologist and therapist in the NHS for over a decade and now offers therapy in her independent practice online and in person in South East London (Bromley, BR7).
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