There is no break from the deluge of New Year's resolution experts and self-described goal-setting strategists on television and radio at this time of year, many of whom are repeating the same advice that careens from blog to article to motivational speech. I've heard it all before - reward yourself, make it specific, SMART goals, and so on. If you close your eyes, everyone begins to sound the same.
What I'm not hearing or seeing is some of the most essential information - all research-driven - that will really alter your chances of success, and I'm not sure why it isn't being disseminated more widely. Perhaps it's because so many urban legends like the "Harvard Study of 1950" (written goals versus unwritten goals leading to money and success), have become so ingrained that people actually believe these bromides without looking a little deeper. Maybe it's because the Law of Attraction sounds easier; want it, believe it, write it down and you'll get whatever you want! Poof!
The point of this column is to open a few eyes to the less-known and poorly understood factors that can help you make or break the coming year if you want to set and achieve goals that will change your life. With so many people struggling with record levels of "vital exhaustion" and recession-related woes, it makes some sense to come into the 21st century of goal setting advice, with much of it flowing from the world of Positive Psychology - the science of happiness - and where it intersects with the science of goal accomplishment, which I have studied for years.
Here's what everyone should know to make their New Year's resolutions something other than another set of wishes and dreams that go nowhere, and that might remove incentives to ever try again:
- Get a little bit happier first. It is now rock-solid science that being in your most positive frame of mind and functioning is the most powerful predictor of any type of success. A landmark 2005 study by Lyubomirsky, King and Diener showed that success across every single life domain was preceded by being in a flourishing emotional state where positive emotions outweighed negative emotions by three to one. We do not get happy because we are successful; we become successful because we are happy.
- Learn how to put yourself in the most positive frame of mind at all times. Flowing directly from point #1, Positive Psychology researchers have shown that half of our daily happiness flows from what we think about and what we do. The voluntary behaviors that work for almost everyone include exercise, meditation, journaling, using one's signature strengths, practicing forgiveness and expressing gratitude. If you are one of the people who is considered to be languishing - approximately 80% of us, according to esteemed researcher, Barbara Fredrickson - as opposed to flourishing, either incorporate more of what has been shown to be effective, or come up with your own plan of known self-starters.
- Don't set too many self-regulation (willpower) goals at once. Roy Baumeister of Florida State University and his research colleagues have discovered that our storehouse of willpower is a finite resource that gets depleted throughout each day, depending on how often you call upon it to override temptation. That means that setting too many willpower goals at once - like losing weight, spending less, exercising more - is destined to fail. Australian research has found that if you pick just one willpower goal - like exercising in the morning - and focus for six to eight weeks on just that improvement, all other self-regulation behaviors will improve, too.
- Prune dead wood in your social and professional life. Christakis and Fowler have found that behavior is contagious, including gaining weight, quitting smoking, being happy, being lonely, and even having willpower. If your network is full of people whose behavior and values are contrary to what you are striving to accomplish, you stand a strong chance of failing, no matter how much effort you exert in the right direction. Don't make it harder for yourself than you need it to be; Caller ID and email blocking exist for a reason, and you can limit time and energy that is currently going to "black holes" by simply having higher boundaries.
- Fill your environment with positive "primes" (cues) that set you up for success. There's no debate that every moment of every day is filled with aromas, words, people, colors, music and other "primes" that make you happy, sad, tired, energized, focused, creative, and grateful, among other emotions. The problem is that most of us are asleep at the wheel to the primes in our lives, and we allow them to dictate what we do as opposed to seizing control of what we expose ourselves to. One unusual tip: change your computer passwords to reflect your goals, and consider getting a vanity license plate or an email address that does the same thing.
- Do hard things. No one wants to go outside their comfort zone, but that is exactly what the research shows you must do to achieve worthwhile, life-changing goals. This is where I challenge the conventional advice to have "reasonable and reachable" goals, because "challenging and specific goals" (goal setting theory) produces the best results, and it's often by shooting for the stars that we get farther than we would with what is called "low" goals, which might also be defined as "reachable." Research from the University of San Francisco, called the "No Pain, No Gain" research has also found that the things we are proudest of at the end of the day, and that produce the greatest self-esteem, are the things we probably didn't enjoy, and that might have made us miserable while doing them.
- While you are doing hard things, take more risks. The research shows that we regret what we don't try, and not what we try that doesn't work out. The happiest people among us have also been found to be risk-takers, who don't quit when the going gets hard.
- For women only: Get some goals that are yours, and yours alone this year, and then carve out time to actually pursue them. For the first time in history, women are now more unhappy than men, with the disparity emerging at midlife. Researchers say it is because women only have around 41 minutes each day to pursue their own meaningful goals; everyone else, including parents, children, husband, friends and work colleagues, have come first for too long. You don't want to pass out programs for other people's lives. Get on the stage of your own life this year with some goals, accountability and other shifts listed above.
- Use "if-then" scenarios to conserve emotional energy and triple your chances of success with hard goals. Peter Gollwitzer found that if you specify a certain cue that you will encounter during your day, and you decide what action will follow seeing that cue, you are three times more likely to be successful. Example: "When I encounter a stop sign, I will think of three blessings I have in my life." If you create this agreement ahead of time, you will not have to make a fresh decision to initiate hard behaviors, which is exhausting. Make it a foregone conclusion and save your energy for other things.
- Have goals, if you don't already. The happiest people wake up every day to clear-cut goals, short-term and long-term, that involve building relationships with others, making a difference in the lives of others, and making the space you inhabit a bit kinder and brighter. What a great way to enter 2011!
For more information about how to accomplish goals and use the science of Positive Psychology to be more successful, see my latest book, "Creating Your Best Life" (Sterling 2009, paperback 2011), which is now available in multiple languages and on the Nook.