By: Kamala Pilgrim, Ph.D., C. Psych (Interim Autonomous Practice)
It’s the time of year again when millions of us are thinking about all the goals we want to achieve. We typically start off excited to follow through with our well-intentioned resolutions. We say to ourselves with conviction, “This year I’m making some changes!” Our lives seem fresh and rife with opportunity – but by about January 10th we run out of steam, begin avoiding, or just give up on our goals. Psychologists note that one of the reasons resolutions tend to dissolve rapidly is because it is difficult to withstand the discomforts that are part and parcel of making changes. The ability to tolerate and adapt to challenges with a sense of awareness, openness, and focus, and taking effective actions that are guided by what we truly value, is key to creating and maintaining the life you want (Harris, 2008). Following are seven strategies to help you begin to move in the direction of your dreams:
1. Get crystal clear on your values
Resolutions are often framed as goals and not based on our core values. The difference is a value is a path on which we would like to continue moving over time while a goal is an outcome that we can reach…or not (Harris, 2008). The desire to be energetic is an example of a value, whereas wanting to join a gym is a goal. It is more effective for goals to follow our values, not the other way around. When our values are foremost, our lives develop greater meaning as our decisions are rooted in what we really care about. We also are more willing to make an effort if we understand how we believe attaining our objective will enhance our life.
To get started on clarifying your values, ask yourself the following:
- What matters most to you in life?
- How do you wish to feel each day?
- How do you want to interact with yourself and others?
2. Adopt S.M.A.R.T goals
Next, consider resolutions that reflect these core values.
E.g., If you want to feel more enthusiastic what actions can you take to get there?
Break these down into smaller steps based on behaviours you can do that are:
Develop short-term (can be done in the next few days and weeks), medium-range (can be done in a month or two), and long-term (can be done in the following six months) objectives that are in line with these S.M.A.R.T criteria.
Regularly reflecting on your values is critical to making them paramount to your life. It is important to remember what matters most to you and to allow those factors to seep into your psyche. Spend a few minutes every day, picturing in vivid detail how you will feel, act, and behave toward yourself and others when you are making choices in accordance with your values. Engage all five of your senses in this process whenever possible.
4. Know your pitfalls and trick your future self
Track your efforts to meet goals. Then reflect on times when you tend to fold in the face of temptation, throw in the towel, or procrastinate. Use this knowledge to set your future self up for success.
E.g., If you notice you never get out to the gym once you’ve arrived home from work, pack your workout bag the night before and go right after you leave the office.
5. Welcome hiccups
Develop and practice a self-compassionate attitude toward setbacks which will inevitably come. Instead of berating yourself, speak to yourself at these times the way you would to someone you love.
6. Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness is a state of awareness that involves paying full attention, on purpose, to everything happening in the present moment, without judgment (Kabat-Zinn, 2012). Since we spend so much of our time either worrying about the future or dwelling on the past, we miss out on the now, which is the only place where our power to make changes lies. Though a by-product of this practice is that the things we observe such as, distressing thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations will decrease in intensity, it is not the purpose. The aim is to make space for these experiences without resisting or attempting to escape them and to return to your core values to guide your actions. Doing this will both sharpen areas of the brain that govern self-control and build tolerance of uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and sensations. You can begin to develop this skill by practicing the following meditation every day:
“Sit in a chair or crossed-legged on a pillow. Take five, deep, smooth breaths in and out. On the end of your fifth exhalation, allow your breath to flow in naturally without any attempt to control it. As you breathe in mentally say the words, “inhale”, as you breathe out, mentally say, “exhale”. When the mind shifts to thoughts, practice noticing them as if they are clouds passing through the sky, and come back to your meditation. When an emotion arises, bring awareness to where you feel it in your body and breathe into and around the area(s) providing it with as much space as possible. Return to your meditation.”
Start with two minutes of meditation practice and work your way up to fifteen to twenty minutes.
As you pursue your values and related goals, unhelpful thoughts and emotions (I.e., those that would take you away from your values if you give them credence) will emerge. Use a similar strategy of gently acknowledging them and coming back to focusing your attention on the choices that align you with your most cherished values in the present moment.
7. Make goal engagement rewarding
If we are constantly in self-control mode, your body and brain will surely rebel. As much as possible, pair your goals with something pleasurable:
E.g., Write in your favourite café, light scented candles while doing housework, exercise while listening to music you enjoy.
Just make sure that whatever your chosen accompaniment, it is guided by your core values.
If you put these techniques into practice on a consistent basis, you can make some gains in achieving your goals.
CFIR psychologists are also always available to offer you support in defining and sticking to your objectives this new year 2018!
For more information please see the following sources:
- Harris, R. (2008). The Happiness Trap: How to stop struggling and start living. Boston, MA: Trumpeter.
- Kabat-Zinn, J. (2012). Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the present moment – and your life. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.
- McGonigal, K. (2012). The willpower instinct: How self-control works, why it matters, and what you can do to get more of it. New York, NY: Avery.