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Zoë Petersen

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New Year’s resolutions: How to make them and how to make them stick

Experts say that, if we want our resolutions to last beyond January, we need to make them concrete and attainable. But we also need to make them ambitious — and that’s where God comes in

Already, posts about New Year’s resolutions are popping up in my Twitter feed, and I’ve been chewing on a few of my own. As I scroll and consider my options, I’ve been wondering how to make New Year’s resolutions that stick past January and actually lead to the lasting change.

As it turns out, we shouldn’t make resolutions at all if we’re going to land on something amorphous (“I’ll lose weight!”; “I’ll stop eating bread! Again!”; “I’ll spend less money!”; I’ll be a better, more patient mom!”). Rather, experts say we should be setting concrete, measurable goals that have an expiration date.

According to the experts, resolutions like, “I want to be happier” are useless because they’re almost impossible to track. To set better goals, one place to start is with the widely lauded SMART acronym: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-based.

But many experts say that it’s not enough for a goal to be “achievable.” It also has to be ambitious enough to spur us forward. And whatever target we turn towards has to reflect our values.

John Doerr, a venture capitalist and author of numerous books, including “Measure What Matters,” said personal objectives — in other words, concrete goals with measurable outcomes — are “a vaccine against fuzzy thinking.”

But, when coming up with an objective, “You must answer the question: why?” Doerr said in a Ted talk titled, “Why the secret to success is setting the right goals.” Our objectives, Doerr added, should marry “passion and purpose.”

Resources and abilities

At the same time, we also need to be realistic about the goals we’re setting, according to Gary Latham, professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and the author of numerous books about goal-setting and motivation. We need to be honest with ourselves about both our resources and abilities.

Latham said the first step is introspection. We need to ask ourselves, “Is this something I believe I can do and why do I believe that?” We might then consider turning to someone we trust — who knows us and our abilities well and who will be honest with us — to ask them if the goal we’re setting seems realistic or if it exceeds our abilities.

We also need to ask ourselves if the timing is right, Latham said. For example, a divorced mother of young children who lacks family support or money for child care shouldn’t set her sights on medical school in 2022. While she doesn’t need to give up on the dream, an honest accounting of her resources means that she might have to delay it.

Values are really important, too, said Latham. Are we pursuing something because we want to or because someone else said we should?

He offers the example of someone who is in medical school not because he wants to be but because his parents pushed him in that direction.

“The first bump in the road you’re going to look for a reason to abandon that goal,” said Latham. “We need to follow our hearts to some extent.”

Our goals should also be framed positively, Latham said.

“Put your emphasis on the behavior you desire and not the ones that you don’t desire,” he said. “Positive wins every time.”

So, rather than something like, “I won’t eat cookies,” we should say, “I will eat fruit when I want a snack.”

We should make our goals public, as well, by telling friends or family about what we intend to accomplish. This will help to hold us accountable.

In addition to setting long-term goals, Latham said, it’s important to set realistic and measurable subgoals, which will become stepping stones to help us along the way.

Subgoals not only keep us on track, they are moments of feedback that offer us the opportunity to adjust our expectations, if need be. If we fail to hit a subgoal, we don’t need to give up. Goals aren’t carved in stone, they can be tweaked.

So, according to experts, personal objectives need to be specific, measurable, time contingent and attainable. They need to be broken down into subgoals and there needs to be an element of accountability. And we need to have the resources and ability to attain them.

But this checklist still doesn’t solve the most difficult question: How do we find the sweet spot between setting objectives that are ambitious enough to spur us forward and avoiding those that are unrealistic and unreachable?

Some say that’s where God comes in.

Aligning our goals with God

Zienab Fahs, director of Safe Spaces at the Michigan chapter of the Council of American Islamic Relations Michigan, explained that whether an observant Muslim is setting goals for the New Year or just dealing with everyday tasks, “Our No. 1 intention is to serve God.”

“Even when we’re not on the prayer mat, we’re still in a constant state of worship even if it’s not a traditional sense of worship,” she said, adding that reaching one’s full potential is the greatest way to worship God.

As for how to execute those goals that will help one fulfill their potential, Fahs said, “Islam teaches us to take small steps” — a sentiment that dovetails with expert advice.

But some religious leaders offer faith-based perspectives on goal setting that are somewhat contrary to what the experts say.

In his lecture “Transformed: How to Set Personal Goals by Faith,” the Rev. Rick Warren, of California’s Saddleback Church, said goals should “stretch your faith. The bigger your goal, the more your faith will be stretched and that pleases God.”

“Let the size of your God determine the size of your goal,” said the Rev. Warren. “Tiny God, tiny goal. Big God, big goal. No God, no goal.”

Still, the Rev. Warren acknowledged that humans make mistakes when setting goals. “We set them too low and we try to accomplish them too quickly. … We overestimate what we can do in a year and we underestimate what we can do in 10.” So we should be thinking big and we should be thinking long term, he said.

Our goals, the Rev. Warren said, should be wild. When we share them, they should make people laugh.

Ultimately, our ability to set and reach goals boils down to two things: confidence and hope, said the Rev. Ray Johnston, senior pastor of Bayside Church in Granite Bay, California, and author, most recently, of “The Hope Quotient.

“Nothing great ever happens to people if they don’t have some level of confidence,” said the Rev. Johnston. “As a Christian, my confidence is rooted in God.”

Hope and confidence, he added, “come from the promises of God and not a politician.”

The Rev. Johnston also believes that hope is something that must be continuously cultivated. In order to achieve this, he starts his day reading a devotional — even before he’s gotten out of bed.

“All day I’m trying to connect with God,” he said.

Keeping that tie strong is what imbues him with hope. And hope, the Rev. Johnston explained, is what allows us to believe in and look towards a brighter future.

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