Goal Setting in the New Year

by Dr. Chelsea Graziano, Assistant Director of Case Management

New Year, New You. Right?

As December 2020 came to a close, many of us had high hopes for a new beginning to 2021. However, it seems like 2021 still leaves a lot to be desired. The approach of New Year’s Day signals the finish line of the previous year and the starting point of the year to come. Many of us will use that theoretical milestone to make changes in our lives. New Year’s Resolutions, aptly named goals that we resolve to complete by the year’s end, are a major tradition for many people around the world. I am sure that many of you have already begun to think about your goals for the upcoming trip around the sun. But why do so many of those goals fail?

With all the chaos that encompassed the greater part of the last year, many of us turned inward to work on the one thing that we can control: ourselves (and to a certain extent, our environments). Personal goals were plastered everywhere for much of last year. You could not use social media without seeing individuals pledging to use quarantine to lose weight, eat healthier, take classes, finish projects in their homes, etc. However, no matter how good the initial intentions were, when coupled with the stress of world events and the isolation of COVID, many people set themselves up for failure with lofty goals that were simply unachievable. If I learned one thing in 2020, it was to be flexible with my goals and gentle on myself.

Unfulfilled goals often lead to frustration and can foster unwillingness to attempt goals in the future.  Since a goal is useless to you if it cannot be accomplished, work to create goals that will assist with your success and not hinder it.  One way to increase the likelihood of success with your personal goals is to use the SMART Goal Technique when creating them.

Many people will vow to use the new year to set a goal such as “lose weight,” “get healthier,” or “save money.” Those goals can all be worthy things to strive for, but what do those vague statements really mean? At face value they can seem overwhelming. Where do you start? What if instead your goal was more Specific, Measurable, Attainable/Achievable, Realistic, and Time-sensitive, or SMART? This same goal of “get healthier” using the SMART goal system might instead look like one of the following: Complete a 30-minute workout video 3 nights per week or drink 8 glasses of water per day. The difference is that I know exactly where to start, and I know if I am making progress. Large goals are great, if they are broken down into easily measured, small steps, that are easier to achieve. Turn the goal of saving $600 dollars by the end of the year into a goal of saving $50 from each of your paychecks on payday into a locked savings account. Small steps, that are realistic, feel good once completed and go a long way to increasing your motivation to complete the larger goal by the end of the year. If you are interested in learning more about how to set SMART goals, there are great guides and plans available online or you can reach out to your case manager for more information.

Another important part of goal setting is giving yourself enough time to incorporate it into your lifestyle. If you goal includes behavior change, then commit to making those new steps a habit. Research has shown that it takes a minimum of 21 days to form a habit. That means that for minor behaviors, you need to take active steps to incorporate them into your schedule for a minimum of 3 weeks before they can begin to become a habit. So, if you find yourself giving up on a step toward your goal because it does not feel natural after the first week or two, then the best advice I can give you is to keep at it. Remember that this is true for minor behavioral changes, such as switching to drinking water with dinner. Larger changes require an average of 66 days for them to become automatic behaviors. (Lally, van Jaarsveld, Potts, and Wardle, 2009).

Additionally, the language that we choose to use in setting our goals can also go a long way to increasing our likelihood of successfully achieving them. Language helps to frame our thoughts and ideas about the world around us. Language has the power to increase our internal motivation as well. Approach-focused goals are those that spotlight our ability to do something (ex. I will pack lunch at home for work 4 times per week). Avoidance-focused goals are those that attend to our ability to not do something (I will not waste money by ordering lunch out). Researchers have shown that goals that use ‘approach language’ are more likely to be successful compared to those that are based in ‘avoidance language.’ These goals are based in the psychological idea that it is easier to replace a behavior than it is to eliminate a behavior. Instead of vowing to yourself to swear off something forever, a daunting task that feels extreme, choose to make a goal of participating in a healthier behavior more often instead. (Oscarsson, Carlbring, Andersson, and Rozental, 2020)

No matter what your goals may be, the techniques outlined above will help you to create a plan of action toward achieving them. Using this knowledge in the new year, or any time for that matter, will help to increase your chances at successfully achieving your goals. Most importantly, remember to be gentle with yourself and allow for flexibility in your goals. Nothing and no one is perfect, and achieving your goals will take time, effort, and patience, and maybe a bit of trial and error!



Oscarsson, Carlbring , Andersson, & Rozental. “A Large-Scale Experiment on New Year’s Resolutions:        Approach-Oriented Goals Are More Successful Than Avoidance-     Oriented Goals.” PLOS ONE          (First published: December 09, 2020) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0234097

Lally, van Jaarsvelf, Potts, & Wardle. “How Are Habits Formed: Modelling Habit Formation in the Real       World.” European Journal of Social Psychology (First published: July 16, 2009) DOI:             https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.674