Have you started the new year full of good intentions and resolutions to improve your wellbeing, challenge yourself and achieve your personal and professional goals? Have you wavered yet?
As humans, we are naturally inclined to seek out challenges and find purpose in our lives. Setting goals is a common way we motivate ourselves to push forward toward the things we want to achieve. This has implications for our happiness and success, as it ensures we consciously consider the things that are important to us and actively pursue them. On a deeper level, satisfaction in life is inherently linked to having something positive to strive for, savouring the journey and celebrating our progress along the way.
This blog will show you how to use positive psychology to set resolutions and goals to help you stay motivated and achieve what you want for yourself in the year ahead. We’ll show you how to set a positive goal, how to stay motivated, and how to overcome obstacles to achieve success.
Pursuing goals isn’t just second nature, it is vital to our functioning. In the absence of goals we tend to flounder. - Robert Biswas-Diener
Step 1 – Set a positive goal
The New Year is a milestone often used to embark on your next major goal, and yet come February many New Year’s resolutions have fallen by the wayside. This is often because the goals we set aren’t orientated towards the positive outcome we want to achieve. For example, if you set a goal such as “make more time for family and friends”, it might seem positive, and yet it’s actually more focused on the action than the outcome. This can mean that even when the goal is something you feel good about and want to do, it can end up feeling like a bit of a burden, especially when you’re tired and busy.
By tracing your goals to the positive outcome and purpose behind them, you can find a stronger foundation to build on. Why do you want to spend more time with family and friends? Perhaps, to better show them how important they are to you and develop and strengthen your relationship.
So, let’s try that again: “I want to strengthen the relationships I have with my family and friends and show them how important they are to me by finding moments to prioritise them”.
When we build goals around positive outcomes, they become more attractive and meaningful. This will generate positive emotions that refuel the brain and allow us to perform at our best. This in turn helps us create the healthy habits necessary to change behaviours and achieve our goals.
By focusing on the positive outcomes we want for ourselves, our goals become more authentic. These goals are ‘self-concordant’ because they are in line with our intrinsic values (such as intimacy, community or growth) rather than extrinsic values (such as status, money or image). This focus on intrinsic values is inherently more satisfying and fulfilling, which enhances wellbeing and has a flow on effect for motivation, allowing us to achieve our goals. This isn’t to say that you can’t set a goal around an extrinsic value, simply that you are more likely to succeed if you can frame it around an intrinsic value. A common New Year’s resolution revolves around earning more money (extrinsic). This goal is rarely motivated by the numbers on your bank statement, it’s usually a means to a positive end. For example, having more freedom to travel and see the world (intrinsic), or to pay for your child to learn an instrument (intrinsic). Following goals through to their positive outcomes is the first step in the journey to achieving them.
Step 2 – Stay motivated by developing a positive mindset
Setting yourself a goal with a positive outcome that aligns with your intrinsic values is a great start to harnessing the motivation to achieve your goals. Another powerful tool to harness is your mindset.
Sue Langley offers a wonderful story of how she shifted her mindset to become one of Coogee Beach’s most self-concordant runners! When faced with the prospect of running, Sue had always responded with “I don’t do running, I’m not a runner”. This was a belief that crept into her brain at a young age and hung on tight, creating a ‘fixed mindset’ about her ability to run. A fixed mindset views basic qualities like athleticism as fixed. You’re either athletic or you’re not.
Also, and importantly, a fixed mindset views challenges and hurdles as reinforcing personal limitations. Imagine if, with a fixed mindset, Sue took a few running steps on the beach only to feel puffed and out of breath, she might have thought: “see, I’m not a runner”.
As you can see, having a fixed mindset can significantly impact your ability to achieve your goals. Even if you are able to muster the motivation to make an initial attempt, if it doesn’t miraculously turn out that you can run effortlessly long laps of the beach, it’s going to be difficult to find the motivation to try again.
This is why it’s important to cultivate a growth mindset in order to achieve our goals. A growth mindset operates from the perspective that abilities can be developed through dedication and effort. Cultivating a growth mindset increases productivity and motivation, as setbacks and challenges are instead seen as hurdles for us to overcome, rather than an end point.
Using the work of Carol Dweck, the leading researcher into fixed and growth mindset, Sue consciously shifted to a growth mindset to achieve this goal. Using the power of the word ‘yet’, Sue took her fixed mindset mantra and tweaked it: “I’m not a runner, yet”. Combined with this simple shift, Sue also harnessed the power of a positive outcome; she wanted to support a colleague on their fitness journey. Finally, she gave herself a hit of positive emotions by creating a playlist filled with songs from the 1980s and singing along. Armed with these positive tools, Sue has become ‘a runner’ who you may find running up and down Coogee beach. In fact, over the holidays she achieved a personal best in distance, two beach-lengths!
Step 3 - Stay on track
When starting a new goal, finding small things that don’t take a lot of time, thought or effort to use as prompts and reminders are a great tool for staying motivated.
Sometimes the simple act of writing down your goals can be the kick start you need. Find yourself a goal journal to write in and detail your experiences and the positive outcomes you are seeing as you progress toward your goal. Make time to celebrate your milestones and savour and enjoy the positive emotions that arise out of your success. Share your goals with the people around you to stay accountable and help inspire you to keep striving. Supporting your friends and family achieve their goals can also be just as empowering and inspiring as achieving your own.
Attaching your goal to a habit or routine you already have can be an easy way to remind yourself of your goal and stay on track. For example, if you have made a resolution to read more books, and catch the train to work, you could set aside that time for reading each day. A common practice is leaving a note or reminder on the bathroom mirror so that every morning as you brush your teeth you are reminded of the positive outcome behind your goal. You could also set yourself milestone reminders in your calendar so that positive encouragement will pop up and you will be reminded of the progress you have made.
Step 4 - Be resilient in the face of setbacks
To persist and last the distance we need resilience.
The good news is that by setting goals that tap into positive outcomes, positive emotions and intrinsic values, by fostering a growth mindset and by creating proactive habits, we are already engaging in some powerful and productive strategies to build resilience.
Resilience is the capacity to withstand setbacks and adapt to the challenges life throws us. If you feel you need an extra boost to your resilience there are many ways you can do this. For example, exercise or deep breathing techniques will help you get oxygen to your body and brain and shift your emotional state. Mindful breathing is a great strategy as it’s something you can do anywhere and doesn’t need to take a great deal of time. Another strategy is to go out into nature or change your environment. This could be as simple as getting up from your desk and walking to a window for a few moments, or if you have a little more time taking yourself for a walk somewhere green and beautiful. When faced with a stressful situation, even a simple action like tidying your desk can create enough space (both mental and otherwise) to choose the best way to respond rather than letting emotions dictate your behaviour. This is key for achieving your goals, as using resilience building techniques will help you recover more quickly from setbacks and create reserves for you to draw on when you need a little extra motivation.
If you feel that you would benefit from learning more about the theory and science behind goal-setting, we have a one-day intensive coming up in Sydney. Positive Goals is also one of the core modules in the Diploma of Positive Psychology and Wellbeing. This is a great course for learning more about how harnessing positive psychology and wellbeing can help empower you and others to live the happy and successful lives we all strive for.
To learn more about creating positive habits to achieve your goals download our free eBook.
Happy New Year!