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What We Can Learn From Failed Resolutions + Tips For Setting Sustainable Goals

The start of a brand-new year often inspires many of us to make resolutions. The sense of newness that a clean slate brings can be wonderfully energizing, and I'm all in favor of taking a boost anywhere we can find one.

However, that same positive momentum can suddenly feel like it's working in the opposite direction as soon as the first setback occurs. That disappointment can trigger a spiral into self-criticism or just giving up altogether unless we know how to handle ourselves with both honesty and compassion.

As a clinical psychologist and admittedly a lover of goals, I'm eager to share a few of my tips to help you find a healthy stride with your resolutions this year, if you choose to make them.

Caveat: New Year's resolutions aren't for everyone. If you don't feel like making them, sometimes it's best to honor your intuition and take the year to just let things be–but if you're interested in making resolutions this year, you're in the right place!

3 tips for setting sustainable goals:

1. Normalize a learning curve (or reframe failure).

The most successful people in life understand that life's most challenging goals take time to achieve. This means that if you stumble on your goal path, the most productive thing you can do is not to consider yourself a failure–instead, ask yourself what the stumbling block is teaching you about how to prepare for next time.

Ironically, those of us who love to achieve goals are actually more prone to giving up at the first sign of "failure." We're so obsessed with the thrill of achievement that we sometimes struggle to tolerate the healthy, messy struggle that nearly always accompanies complex goals. By reframing hurdles as teachable moments, you'll empower yourself to reach higher goals than if you limit yourself to what you can successfully do on your first or second try.

2. Ask yourself: Is your heart in it?

Sometimes, we make goals or resolutions based on pressure from others rather than from a personal, internal drive toward the goal. Psychologists consider the former to be "extrinsic motivation" and the latter to be "intrinsic motivation." Intrinsic motivation, which comes from within, is the strongest. If you suspect that your goals come from extrinsic motivation, then consider getting in touch with your real goals and pursuing them wholeheartedly.

If your roadblock is a fear of letting others down, understand that you're likely to let them down regardless since chasing goals to please others rarely works–plus, it leads to resentment and wasted time. By being honest with yourself and others about your true ambitions, you'll likely be more successful and increase your sense of authenticity while simultaneously making room for a true support network in your life.

3. Overcome rigid thinking.

While it's true that goals are often best framed in specific terms (i.e., "I will do 20 minutes of cardio three times per week"), don't get too caught up in the details, and allow yourself room to see the bigger picture.

For example, say you have a pretty sedentary lifestyle, then start your new year with a resolution for a thrice-weekly fitness routine. Even if you only manage to include exercise in your schedule twice per week, I believe you can count that as a win. After all, you still made huge strides in promoting an active lifestyle.

Allowing yourself the chance to set goals creates space for you to "trend in the right direction," even if you may fall slightly short of your mark. Forgive the cliché, but sometimes we must aim for the moon to reach the stars.

The takeaway.

Remember, your resolutions should exist to support you, and the pointers above are meant to liberate you from static expectations. The key is just to make sure the goals you're chasing are truly your goals, and to give yourself credit for staying engaged despite (perhaps especially for!) encountering challenges along the way.

Please know that oftentimes, another big component of goal attainment is a sense of community and support (please do feel free to share your goals with me on social media, if you'd like). Whether your goals are personal or professional, private or public, small or large—know I'm wishing you the best of luck with any New Year's resolutions you wish to achieve!


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