This article first appeared on Forbes
It’s that time of the year. Most people are losing momentum on their New Year’s Resolutions. And with it, a belief in themselves. Willpower is running on empty, and self-criticism (or blame) is louder than ever.
If that sounds anything like you, or if you’ve given up on goals more times than you care to count, here are a few research-backed tips that’ll help you set goals that pull you forward, and pursue them with the ease and energy of someone who knows they have what it takes to achieve them.
They’ll also help revive those dwindling New Year’s resolutions that may be fast becoming a thing of the past.
Tip # 1: Set Goals That Are Larger Than Yourself
We live in a world that glorifies self-improvement, and it’s not that easy to ignore the constant calls for a leaner body, a “healthier” diet, a more perfect looking home. While many of these goals may be worthwhile endeavors, they fail in the long term because they’re often tied to nothing other than our own desires. That’s not the way we’re wired. For much of evolutionary history, self-improvement goals did not even exist. What did were social goals that required us to look beyond ourselves and be loyal to our tribes in order to succeed. And unless we underpin our goals by why they matter to others in the long run, we’ll give up on them once the initial energy wanes or the going gets tough.
Tip # 2: Be Prepared for Difficult Times
People who succeed at their goals are also those who are exceptionally prepared for them. Not only do they know what steps they will take to move forward, they also know what they’ll do to keep moving when times get tough. One strategy that helps is called If Then planning – a technique that helps resist temptations by short circuiting the emotional brain. If your goal is to go for a jog when you get home from work, but your emotional brain throws a daily tantrum for Cheetos on the couch, having an If Then plan like “IF I crave Cheetos on the couch when I get home, THEN I will eat veggie chips after my jog” will help you stay in charge of your goal.
Tip # 3: Have a Support Group
Support groups are excellent because they achieve more than a single purpose. One, they can keep you motivated by providing encouragement, ideas and good old social bonding—all sources of positive emotions that are essential in goal pursuit. They also help keep you accountable. It’s easy enough to press snooze on your phone when you need to be out alone on the jogging trail. It’s so much harder to do when you know a running buddy is out there waiting for you.
Tip # 4: Get Your Environment on Your Side
Creating the right environment is another essential strategy in effective goal pursuit. This is because our environment gives us cues that determine the way we subconsciously act. Opening the fridge and finding a double chocolate cake right before your eyes is not the right cue when you’re trying to lose weight. Professor Rob Baumeister, who researches willpower, has found that willpower is a depleting resource. This means that the more you have to use it to argue with yourself about why a certain behavior is a good thing, the less you’ll have left to actually carry out the behavior. If you’re trying to eat healthy, stock your pantry and fridge with healthy options and you’ll make it much easier for yourself to reach your goals.
Tip # 5: Learn to Play Badly Well
Despite your best efforts, you’re bound to face failures on your journey. There will be days when you give in to your cravings. Or when you just don’t have the energy or willpower to stick to your goal. You ate the box of cookies, you vegetated on the couch all day. What now? Will you dive into the pantry and rummage for those hidden snacks or rush out to buy new ones? Or, will you forgive yourself for being human and move on despite the setback? One great way of doing so is practicing self-compassion meditation. Research shows that by helping you be gentle on yourself, it provides you with the courage to go out and do the right thing.
As humans, we’re wired with a brain that intentionally wants to pursue long-term goals. The problem is that it’s slow and thoughtful, a newcomer in our evolutionary journey. What’s quicker and louder is the short-term brain that simply wants to avoid pain and approach instant pleasure. How well we manage this remnant from our past is what will determine the success of our goals.
If you’ve been slipping on your resolutions, first forgive yourself, and then use these five tips for a quick restart.