Goals & Habits: Living Your Best Life in 2021

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‘Tis the season for New Year’s resolutions. 

We’ve all done it, committed to losing 20 pounds or finally taking up guitar, and proclaimed our new-and-improved selves to our friends or families, only to sheepishly slink away from our goals in less than a month. We’re not alone; research shows that most give up on their New Year’s resolutions by Jan 19, with 80% abandoning them by mid February. 

Why do we do this to ourselves, year after year? And why do we keep failing, despite our best intentions? It might be because we’re focusing on goals alone, rather than the habits and systems we set up to achieve them. It’s fine to set goals, but the important part we often neglect are the daily habits that support these goals, which is where our daily focus should be. 

For example: If your New Year’s resolution is to keep a clean and tidy home, you might set a goal of cleaning it twice a month. That’s fine, and you’ll have a clean home for a few days each month, but for most of the month you’ll still be living in a mess because your habits haven’t changed (such as putting your clothes in the laundry basket instead of on the floor). A habit that you could create instead is setting an alarm once a day that reminds you to spend just fifteen minutes sweeping the floors, organizing the papers on your desk, or catching up on those dishes from breakfast. Doing a bit each day–and making time for it— means that you’ll never again spend a whole weekend day in drudgery, and can save deep cleans for a couple of times per year. 

Your habits, however, should be informed by your goals. Goals should be “SMART,” meaning Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. “I want to be healthy” is not a SMART goal, because it’s not specific: “healthy” could look different for everyone. Do you want to participate in AIDS LifeCycle, or control your diabetes? Do you want to bench press 200lbs, go vegan, or drink less beer and more water? Get specific; you can’t shoot for the moon if you don’t aim for it!

Measurable” means your goal has to be something you can quantify; otherwise, when will you know you’ve reached it? “I want to be able to jog for an hour without stopping” is measurable. “I want to improve my cardio” is not.   

Attainable” means something that’s realistically within your grasp. If you’ve never acted before, “I want to be a movie star within a year” is unlikely to come to fruition. The “relevant” part  is your why… how is this goal meaningful to you? In other words, “I want to learn Spanish so I can communicate with my spouse’s family” or “I want to learn Spanish for my trip to Paraguay next spring” are going to be more compelling reasons to keep you motivated than “I want to learn Spanish because I think it would be cool to be bilingual.”

Timebound” is what keeps you accountable; this goal isn’t a “someday” thing because “someday” never comes! If your goal is to run a 10K, make it timebound by finding a 10K race a few months away (covid permitting) and signing up and paying for it. Unless you’re willing to lose your non-refundable investment, you’ll know that come that future date, you’re running a 10K… whether that is a miserable experience for you or an empowering one is completely up to you, and how you choose to train (or not) over the next few months!      

Choose a few goals you’d like to accomplish and start building the habits necessary to achieve them. 

It can be helpful to break up longer-term goals into bite-sized three-month goals to stay focused. For example, a big goal like learning to sail, buying a sailboat, and taking a trip to Acapulco might end up being a multi-year process that can feel unattainable at the start, but by examining the different aspects involved, you can check them off one by one. The goal for the first three months might be to find and enroll in a sailing school. The next three months might entail opening a savings account to automatically deposit money each week towards your future boat, and so forth. 

What daily habits can you incorporate to support your goals? Think of the habits as the different horses harnessed to your carriage (the goal) pulling you forward. You’d like to travel? Budget for it by eating out less and cutting back on frivolous purchases. You want to get fit? Focus on habits that incorporate exercise whenever you can and encourage nutritious eating. Want to learn a new skill? Procure whatever materials you need and make time for practicing the skill regularly. Pay special attention to areas of overlap. For example, if one of your goals is to get fit, and another goal is to save money for travel, cooking at home supports both of those goals– so emphasize this in your planning! Schedule the time for grocery shopping, cooking, or meal prepping, and make sure you have a few things prepped and ready to eat for when you’re too tired to cook, so you don’t order take-out!

Creating morning and evening routines around our goals can be a great way to create stability and forward momentum in the types of lives we want to lead. Don’t leave your most valued goals to chance or short-change yourself; put your most important goals first, not last! Carve out time for the habits that support your goals and put them in your calendar; for many people it helps to tackle our goals (through our habits) first thing in the morning, through picking up that guitar or breaking out the Spanish grammar book or lacing up the sneakers to go for a jog. Be sure to start small and leave room to build up as you become more comfortable with working these habits and routines into your life; getting too ambitious and tackling several huge goals at once is a surefire way to burn out. Baby steps are absolutely appropriate; yes, Stephan King writes 2,000 words a day, but he’s a professional who’s been doing it for going on 50 years. If you’re going to write the next great American novel, it’s completely ok to start with 500 words a day and work your way up from there. Incremental changes, over time, lead to big results!