When a new year gets underway it seems to always be a time that individuals choose to set new goals, to reflect on their progress with previously set goals, and perhaps think about why some goals continuously roll over from one year to the next without much progress. We hear a lot about new year resolutions, and we assume that these resolutions are the same as goals. Perhaps you have wondered then: why don’t they usually work out? In short, one of the most common reasons is that resolutions tend to be crafted as dreams/wishes rather than goals. They are often not specific enough, lack a measurable outcome (i.e., how will you know when you have achieved it), they may not be very realistic or achievable in terms of their scope and they may not be time-bound (i.e., no real deadline, and usually no interim time-points where the individual plans to check on progress moving toward the specific goal). You might have a look at the very popular and public literature on “SMART” goals for more on how to transform your resolutions into more than just wishful thinking and increase the chances of them being actualised.
In this blog, I wanted to focus on some other issues which are just as important in helping us understand why some goals set (even when set SMART) do not reach the point of being fulfilled or actualised.
Values & Goals: The relationship
When our goals do not align with our values, this can be a problem. Values are general guides or principles of living. They are enduring sources of motivation that are stable, well into adulthood. Values are overarching themes we have about who and what are most important to us. Explicit knowledge of our values requires self-awareness. Interestingly too, what we do/how we live our lives is more indicative of our values that simply what we say our values are. While a specific goal may have an endpoint, values do not (they persist beyond a specific goal). Values are relatively stable, but they can change overtime as we have new and defining life experiences. When our actions are consistent with our values, we experience greater life satisfaction. Therefore, it is good to evaluate these values periodically and check the degree to which they match up with the goals you have set for yourself.
Person-Goal Fit: Is that a thing?
It absolutely is a thing! Person-goal fit (i.e., is your goal a good fit for you?) determines the effect of goal progress & achievement on well-being. Some goals are regarded as Self-concordant goals and they reflect autonomous motivations (that is, “I am doing this because I want to do this”) rather than controlled motivations (“I am only doing this because someone else says I should do it”). As psychologists, we pay close attention to this when a client comes in for therapy, because of its impact on change and well-being outcomes. If you have presented for therapy or are trying to change something because a family member, partner, or friend says you should, it is less likely you will stick to the course of pursuing that goal and less likely that you will feel a sense of achievement in relation to changes.
How are your goals oriented?
Another factor which is often not considered in how individuals set their goals is Goal Orientation. Simply put, goal orientation is the way people think or talk about their goals (the internal and external language that frames our goals). Goal orientation can be either approach or avoidance-oriented. An approach-oriented goal sees the person striving to achieve a pleasurable or desired outcome (e.g., I would like to expand my social network this year), whereas an avoidance-oriented goal will see the individual striving to avoid aversive or undesirable outcomes (e.g., I don’t want to be lonely this year). As you might guess, approach-oriented goals are more likely to be attained; they are related to the presence of positive emotion and positive action to follow. In contrast, avoidant-oriented goals are related to decreased happiness and health, increased anxiety and distress (compared to approach goals) and generally poorer performance. Research tells us that when we orient our goals in an avoidant way it promotes negatively biased perspectives and sensitivity to threat/failure (Strachman & Gable, 2006). Individuals with avoidant social goals (like the example given above) feel more anxious, rejected and lonely (Gable, 2006).
These perspectives on goals, the link to values and motivations, and the considerations around how our goals are oriented may invite you to think about those resolutions/goals that you may have made at the start of the year, and those you likely will develop throughout. Some food for thought. Until next time, take good care of your precious selves.