According to a recent study, it’s harder for depressed people to keep their goals than for people without depression. This should come as no surprise, but what is surprising is this: researchers have long believed that depressed people lacked motivation. The new study undermines this notion, suggesting that people with depression are just as motivated to set goals, but that they have trouble setting reasonable goals. They’re also more likely to abandon those goals when the going gets tough.

This study expands upon what we already know about goal-setting. Here’s what you need to know about keeping your New Year’s resolutions this time around.

Goal-Setting Among People With Depression

The study, which was published in PLOS ONE, compared goal-setting practices in people with depression to goal-setting habits in people without depression. To the authors’ surprise, people with depression set just as many goals as their non-depressed peers. However, depressed people were more likely to set goals centered around avoidance—such as not smoking, not losing one’s temper, or spending less money. People without depression were more likely to set positive goals, such as exercising more or spending more time with loved ones.

This suggests that depressed people often focus on deprivation when setting goals. So it should come as no surprise that they struggle more to reach their goals. Researchers found that people with depression thought that their goals would be more difficult to achieve. And, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, they were. People with depression were more likely to abandon their goals in the face of obstacles.

What We Can All Learn from the Study About Goal-Setting

The study offers important clues for helping people with depression set and achieve reasonable goals. But even people without depression can learn a lot from the research, since almost anyone can develop depression, and many people struggle with depression when they don’t achieve their goals. Some strategies for setting and sticking with New Year’s resolutions include:

-Rather than setting deprivation-based goals, set positive goals. If you’re determined to give something up, such as smoking, try to find something positive to replace it with. When achieving your goals makes you feel deprived, you’re less likely to succeed.
-Set small goals so that you can achieve rapid success. This helps you keep going in the face of obstacles, and reduces the chance that you’ll perceive your goals as impossible to attain.
-Consider how your mental health might affect your ability to achieve your goals. Some people with mental illnesses set goals in an attempt to reduce symptoms. For example, a person with depression might resolve to eat better, exercise more, or spend more time with loved ones. But mental illness can be a barrier to achieving your goals, potentially exacerbating symptoms and confounding a sense of helplessness. Treatment may be the best thing you can do to stick with your New Year’s resolutions.

Other Tips for Sticking to Your Goals

Goal-setting can improve your mental health, so don’t allow previous failures to get in the way of this year’s New Year’s resolutions. Consider the following strategies:

Get Support

Support can help you achieve your goals, so consider partnering with someone else. You might agree to exercise weekly with a friend, or even join a virtual community of people with similar goals. Support from others can inspire you to keep moving forward, encourage realistic expectations, and keep you accountable when you’re feeling unmotivated.

Create a Clear, Specific Plan

Amorphous goals like “lose weight” and “be happier” are doomed to succeed. Without a clear goal, you have no way of knowing when and if you have succeeded. Set specific goals, and make sure each goal is fully within your control. Weight loss depends on a variety of factors, so instead of resolving to lose weight, try resolving to exercise three times a week or reduce your daily caloric intake by 200 calories.

Outline the specific steps you intend to take to achieve your goal, and put deadlines on each step. This allows you to easily track your progress, inspiring you to keep going even when it seems like you’re progressing very slowly.  

Reward Yourself

Have you ever wondered why it’s so hard to keep a resolution that’s good for your health or mind? Our brains enjoy pleasure, and constantly seek reward. So when you’re giving something up, your brain feels deprived, and will do just about anything to inspire you to ditch your resolution. You can circumvent this impulse by building in small rewards, and by never embarking on complete deprivation. Rather than trying to give up all sweets, for example, try limiting yourself to one sweet treat a week. And when you meet your goal, reward yourself with something else—a relaxing massage, a splurge on something you’ve always wanted, or time with a close friend.

Expect Setbacks

The march toward achieving goals is rarely a linear one. Unrealistic expectations about immediate success, though, can sabotage your goals before you even start working toward them. Expect to have setbacks, and plan for how you intend to manage them. If you’re quitting smoking, for instance, strategize about what to do when you get a craving, and how you’ll get back on track if you give in. You might call a quit assist line or list all the health benefits of quitting. And if you slip up, you might view that slip-up as a march toward imperfect progress rather than an end to your resolution.

Setting goals is easy, but achieving them rarely is. This year really can be your year if you’re realistic and motivated enough, so don’t shy away from attempting to shape a better life.

References

Dickson, J. M., Moberly, N. J., O’Dea, C., & Field, M. (2016). Goal fluency, pessimism and disengagement in depression. PLOS ONE, 11(11). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0166259

How social support can help you lose weight. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/topics/obesity/support.aspx

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