Goal Setting 101: How to Formulate New Year’s Resolutions

39265827971000509_wrCHJmP0_c Setting resolutions between Christmas and New Year’s is one of my favourite traditions, it’s the perfect time to do a mental system reset and start the year with a fresh new outlook and enthusiasm. If you haven’t had much luck sticking to your new year’s resolutions in past years, this post will teach you a few simple techniques to increase you chances of success and also make the whole process a lot more fun.

What are your new year’s resolutions for 2013? Tell me in the comments!


The easiest way to self-handicap before you’ve even started is to choose the wrong goals. The number one mistake to avoid at this stage is a half-assed attempt at something you don’t really care about, not only because it is a waste of energy but also because it will undermine your goal reaching efforts in the future by reducing your confidence. Scrap ‘I guess I’ll try and go to the gym again’ or ‘I really should update my blog more often’. Rather than choosing a goal you think you SHOULD have, figure out what would truly enrich your life and get you one step closer to your dreams. Achieving goals takes a lot of perseverance, so make sure the ones you select are worth the effort.

If you can already think of a few possible goals, do a quick 3-minute brainstorm and write down every goal that pops into your head no matter how silly it may sound. Brainstorming can be a powerful technique for generating ideas and un-loading your brain, but only if you let your ideas flow freely without censoring or restricting them. Once your list is finished, pick up to four goals that would make the biggest positive impact on your life. Only choose four if you really found four goals that excite you; one lukewarm goal could boycott three perfect ones by using up your energy and willpower. And: Only one of your goals should involve a habit change (eating healthier, quitting smoking, etc.), i’ll explain why below. Here’s an example of a basic goal brainstorm:

Get into grad school
Read more
Spend less than I make
Get my thesis published
Meditate daily
Stop smoking
Run a half marathon
Start a journal
Get into painting
Move to a bigger flat

If you haven’t yet got any specific goals in mind but definitely want to ‘upgrade’ your life in 2013, try the second method. Start by rating all main areas in your life on a scale of 1 to 10, e.g. career/school, health, financial, intellectual, etc. The key here is not to overthink it, but let your subconscious emotions guide you. Then, focus on any areas that you gave seven or fewer points and brainstorm ideas on how to improve them. Lastly, pick up to four actions that can be turned into goals. This is an example of the second method using a few standard life areas; feel free to tailor them to your lifestyle, for example include your hobbies, philanthropy, blogging, etc.:

Social Life

ask for a raise + stick to a budget
go to gym twice a week

redecorate bedroom

read for an hour before bed every night


Once you have chosen 1 – 4 goals you are super enthusiastic about, fine-tune them and decide on the specifics. ‘Blog more often’ is not a good goal, neither is ‘Get fit’. Formulate goals according to these three rules:

  1. Goals have to be specific and measurable; not only to keep you accountable, but also to enable you to create a detailed action plan and track your progress. Instead of ‘Get fit’, try something like ‘Run a half marathon by May’.
  2. Goals should be neither too easy to reach nor unattainable (both are huge demotivators), and exciting enough to give you a ton of enthusiasm. If you only just manage to write one blog post per month, vowing to post every day isn’t a realistic aim, while posting twice per month probably won’t give the necessary dose of motivation to persevere. Similarly, if you currently run 10k, aiming to finish a half marathon in three months’ time might be the perfect stretch goal for you. An 11k goal will just bore you, but trying to complete a full marathon might burn you out and ultimately cause you to give up. Try to hit that sweet motivation spot located right between boredom and strain.
  3. I also recommend you choose a medium-term focus. Varying the time frame of your goal is essentially another way to manipulate its difficulty. If you aim to lose 10 pounds within a year you are giving yourself a lot of time to slack off and also, you won’t be able to visualize the outcome very well simply because it is still so far away. On the other hand, trying to lose 10 pounds in 3 days will discourage you and weaken your confidence. Medium-sized time frames of about 2 – 6 months are ideal, because they allow you to aim for an exciting, worthy goal without making you feel overwhelmed by the long journey ahead.


It might sound like a cliché, but motivation really is everything when it comes to achieving goals. A surplus of motivation translates into more energy, determination and perseverance, all of which you need to get through tough patches and keep going after setbacks.

The good news is that your motivation levels are entirely dependent on your own thought process. You do not have an intrinsically fixed amount of motivation for any given task; rather, the way you think about it, i.e. which elements about a goal you highlight or ignore, shape your motivation. This also means that you can easily influence your own motivation levels. Let’s say you want to stick to a tighter budget. Perhaps until now you have been emphasizing the restrictions that come with sticking to a budget: all those slightly tougher morning commutes without your daily latte and tedious calculations. If so, then you have probably completely ignored the awesome things that you will get for sticking to your budget, such as peace of mind (which counts for a lot!), no overdraft payments and perhaps a cool vacation in the summer. Try to consciously divert your attention towards the plus sides of your plan until they overpower your negative associations. The easiest and most effective way to do this is to draft a pro and contra list, but with a twist: Instead of listing the benefits and downsides of your goal, write down the benefits of sticking to a budget but also the downsides of NOT sticking to a budget. Carrots + sticks = supercharged motivation.

Increased financial confidence
A big summer vacation
Peace of mind
Less money wasted on random junk
Constant worrying about money
Living off soup at the end of the month
No summer vacation
Having to ask people for money


HabitsAt the beginning of this post I recommended you only attempt to modify one habit at a time. Why? Because changing an established habit is HARD. A habit is an automatic behavioural response to a certain trigger that your brain and nervous system have internalized and want to stick to at all costs. In order to break a habit you need to retrain your brain to change its responses,  or in other words break the trigger-response link and override it with a new link. Habits are automatic processes: at one point you made a conscious decision to do something (e.g. smoke) which gave you a reward (e.g. nicotine). Over time your brain learned to remember the link and automated the action to save energy. To replace a bad habit with a good one you need to repeat the process, although of course this time it will require considerably more effort, simply because the action you want to adopt is going to be the opposite of what your brain associates with the reward (not smoking is the opposite of smoking). Check out the graph above: At the beginning every action will feel like a big effort, but eventually your brain will internalize it and link it to the new reward (e.g. feeling super healthy), and the benefits will outweigh the effort. Here are a few more techniques that help to reinforce a new habit during the transition period:

  • Tie your habit to a certain time of day or another action in order to speed up the internalization process.
  • It takes about 30 days for a repeated action to become a habit, so stick to it at all costs during that first month.
  • Treat your habit like a daily to-do item: tick it off at night if you managed to stick to it during the day and do the same the next day.
  • Read through your pros and cons list daily to remind yourself of your motivation.


Now that you are all psyched up about your goals it’s time to put them into action. If your goal requires you to complete multiple actions in a certain order, you need a solid, time-bound plan with subgoals and individual steps. Let’s use the goal of getting into grad school as an example. Even if you have formulated it well (‘I want to be accepted to a good grad school by August’), applying to uni is a complex process and a well-thought out plan is essential for keeping you motivated and on track. I like to plan most of my goals using a combination of two techniques: backwards planning and Gantt charts.

Backwards planning basically means starting with the goal in mind and building a bridge of single steps to your starting point. To make use of our example, in order to get accepted to grad school by August, you would need to have applied by April (at least here in the UK), so your time frame is four months (January to April).

Consider which steps you need to have completed in order to send off that application in April. For example

  • Improve/ maintain GPA
  • Choose schools
  • Get profs to write references
  • Gain research experience
  • Ace application essays

The first things that you can think of are usually larger action groups that each require several individual steps. These are your subgoals. Analyse each subgoal and figure out which single steps and continuing actions you have to take to reach them.

For example:
To build up research experience you could aim to work as a student assistant to one of your profs during the term. To get the job you have to apply, but first you need to research which profs are currently taking assistants and are working on projects that could interest you. So, the first single step towards completing the subgoal ‘Gain experience’ is researching your options.

Here is an example of what a backwards plan for our example goal could look like:

Backward planningNow that you have all of your steps laid out nicely, enter them into a time-bound plan. I like Gantt charts to plan complex projects because they allow me to visualize both single and continuing actions. In the example Gantt chart below each square equates one week and every subgoal and its action steps are represented by lines which also show you the time span in which you plan to work on each. The end of the lines symbolize the deadline for each step.



Utilize the tools you have already created (your pro and con list and your action plan) to recalibrate your focus and motivation along the way. If you want, you can even get yourself a little journal for weekly or daily recaps to track your progress and celebrate small-scale achievements. Don’t be afraid to adjust your action plan if you need to; I revise my plans at least every two weeks to account for any subgoals that take less or more time than anticipated.

One last tip that has helped me to prioritize and focus on the important instead of the urgent (i.e. another form of procrastinating :):

  • Every morning, write down one single task that you want to concentrate on and no matter what, complete that task before you start anything else. You won’t care if the laundry isn’t done as long as you finished that one important task.

Click here for more posts on positive psychology and self-development!

*image via inflateddeflated

This will be the last post in 2012! I wish you all a happy new year and, of course, good luck (or rather, success) with your new year’s resolutions!


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  3. Excellent write up. People should realise how powerful goals can be. Since I constantly set and achieve goals, I tend to keep my new year resolutions to one – this year mine is “to have abs by my birthday”. This means I’ll need to factor in a lot of fitness and exercise, lose a bit of weight and keep fit. My birthday is in May, so it gives me a decent time frame. If I don’t make it by May, I still have time to complete it – similarly, I haven’t defined exactly what my abs will look like, but as long as they can be seen then I’ll be happy. : )

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  11. Tina

    Great post. My new year’s resolutions are following a regular posting schedule on my blog and finishing my Bachelor’s degree! Love your blog!

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