Resolutions vs Goals

There are two things that I remember about the New Year and growing up in the South eating black-eyed peas on New Year's Day for "good luck" and writing my annual list of New Year's resolutions. My mother encouraged me to make a long list of character traits to develop and good things to accomplish in the coming year. The habit of making New Year's resolutions remained with me as I grew up. For years, I ritually wrote out my New Year's resolutions until it finally got through to me that, as an adult, I was making the same ones each year! Although "losing weight" was at the top of my list every year, the following January found me just as heavy (or heavier!) than ever. When I mentioned this to friends and acquaintances, many of them admitted that they, too, were not achieving their desired results with New Year's resolutions.

After much thought, I believe I've found the answer. Although the meaning of "resolution" is that one is resolved (i.e. determined) to accomplish a particular thing, it seems to me that most resolutions are more like wishes. A goal, on the other hand, according to the Merriam Webster dictionary, is "the end toward which effort is directed." Much more than wishful thinking is involved here. Perhaps if we made New Year's goals instead of resolutions, we would have more success.

More Than Wishes

Seeing goals as more than wishes is necessary to achieve success. Will power is important, but first you must have a reason to change that is greater than the ease of doing things the same way you've been doing them for a long time. One way you can develop a strong desire is by writing down positive effects that you expect to receive when your goals are met. For instance, weight loss may increase self-esteem, health and energy. Recognizing these positive outcomes will give you something specific to work toward.

Writing down your goals and the steps you plan to take to reach them helps make them real to you. It will also give you a visible plan for success. Write in detail what you wish to accomplish and what things can help you in your quest. Some examples of things that can assist you are books, magazine articles, support groups, and encouragement from friends and family. Review your list of goals often and put big check marks or stars next to the ones you've completed.

Specific and Attainable

Your goals should be both specific and attainable. If I just say, "I want to lose weight," that doesn't accomplish much toward making me slimmer. But by focusing on exactly how much weight I'd like to lose, and in what time frame I'd like to lose it, I will be more likely to be successful in reaching my goal. For instance, you may decide: "My goal is to lose 20 pounds in the coming year." Once you've decided on a concrete goal, brainstorm ideas of what would help to make that goal a reality and divide your goal into smaller sections. For instance, "This week I will reduce my fat intake by one third." Or "I will walk half an hour each week day this month." By being specific, you will increase your chances of success.

Goals also should be realistic and attainable. If you set a goal to write a novel in a couple of months, there's not much chance that you will succeed. However, a big job such as repainting the interior of a house is not as formidable when it is tackled one room at a time. Size your goals so that they are not so big that they are unreachable nor so small that they don't challenge you.

Divide and Conquer

One thing that hampers change-making is dividing our energies into too many directions. A long list of habits to break, changes to make, and life styles to rearrange is enough to make even the most determined person give up after a short trial. Instead, narrow your list of goals down to the one or two changes that are most important to your health and well being and concentrate your energies on those. When you've achieved success with these, you can then select a few more areas to work on. This will keep you from becoming overwhelmed by too many demands on your time and will power.

Life changes almost always involve habit breaking. Habits are ingrained into us by years of usage. Just think how much trouble it would be if you had to think every morning, "Now I'm going to get dressed, brush my teeth, etc." Most of the things we do are by habit. The problem is that sometimes habits are harmful instead of helpful. When you have decided that a bad habit needs changing, you will have to battle the results of years of routine and custom. Knowing in advance that habit-breaking will take effort is the first step in overcoming an ingrained practice.

I've found that one of the best ways to get rid of a bad habit is to replace it with a good one. For instance, instead of focusing on denying yourself those fattening foods (that taste so good), concentrate on adding delicious fruits and vegetables to your diet. Or when trying to break a habit of piling up bills and letters, concentrate instead on making it a habit to sort through and attend to each piece of mail as it arrives.

Another help in habit breaking is to change as many of your daily routines as possible. Doing things differently in several areas will help you to break out of customary practices ruts! that you want to change.

A Success Story

Jane had been trying valiantly and unsuccessfully for years to quit smoking. It was always at the top of her list of New Year's resolutions. This year, after learning about goal setting, she began by listing all the positive results that would occur if she did not smoke. This helped her to develop a strong desire to eradicate her smoking habit. She then made a chart specifying how she would cut down on the number of cigarettes she smoked and marked a day when she was determined to quit completely. This divided her goal into manageable segments. In the meantime, she began changing her habits in other areas of her life to make "the big change" easier. For instance, she drove to work by a different route, started taking long baths in the evening instead of her usual quick morning shower. Jane also paid attention to her health in other ways by improving her diet, getting exercise, and making sure she got enough sleep each night.

Jane was determined that she would succeed, but she also realized that, being human, she could fail, so she made plans for that eventuality. She decided in advance that failure would not cause her to give up, but that she would try again. Focusing on the things that worked and adding new techniques to her "ammunition for change" kept her on track and positive. She also found friends who would encourage her efforts and hold her accountable by checking often to see if she was on track.

When the big day finally arrived when Jane was to quit smoking completely, she was surprised to find that it wasn't as hard as she'd imagined. She had prepared herself for the change and had worked up to it gradually. It's now been over six months since she quit and she is happier, healthier and feels more in control of her life. She is now using the same goal-setting techniques to lose weight.

Reward Yourself

As you achieve each step of your goal, reward yourself. Of course, if your goal is weight loss, you don't want to reward yourself with an ice cream sundae! Perhaps an item of clothing in a smaller size would be a better choice, for both reward and motivation. As you are successful in reaching the planned steps to your goals, you will be encouraged and strengthened in your desire to reach the end.

Rewards for each stage are helpful to encourage success and inspire wholehearted focus. Small steps that lead to a large goal are not as overwhelming as simply keeping the end in sight. Just as on a journey, concentrate on your daily progress and make room for rest stops.

Instead of making goals once a year, as in typical New Year's resolutions, consider reviewing and adjusting your goals as you accomplish each stage of your objectives. This year, try making committed goals instead of half-hearted resolutions and see if you don't have better success!

Suggested Resources

If you'd like to learn more about goal setting, here are some resources you may find helpful.


"Make Success Measurable!: A Mindbook-Workbook for Setting Goals and Taking Action" by Douglas K. Smith
"Goal Analysis: How to Clarify Your Goals So You Can Actually Achieve Them" by Robert Frank Mager

2003 Marie DisBrow

[This article first appeared in the January 2003 issue of Simple Joy and was reprinted in the January 2004 issue of Write To Inspire.]