Where do psychologists think we’re going wrong?

Where do psychologists think we’re going wrong?

When it comes to setting achievable New Year's resolutions, many people set themselves up for failure. Psychologists have weighed in on why this is the case. The reasons include:


The same thinking gets the same results

When in the mindset of wanting to make a change, many goals tend to stem from a place of negativity. Something feels off. Something does not satisfy us enough. Or something makes us feel unworthy. Whatever it is, the idea of a change will aim to achieve something positive, but may originate in the wrong headspace.

When the starting block is a negative mindset, accompanying emotions are placed front and centre, ready to drive the decision-making process forward. Where’s the positivity? Some may find the negative circumstance emotionally charging enough to get motivated, but for how long? If your starting point is already picking yourself apart and highlighting your flaws, where are your building blocks?

The key is in how you frame it. You may want to make a change that’s rooted in something that dissatisfies you (i.e. something you feel negatively about) but instead of basing your goal in the mindset of ‘reprimanding yourself (i.e. stop doing X, Y or Z), frame it in a more optimistic, productive and proactive way (i.e. sign up for a cooking class which promotes healthier eating habits and choices).

Vague ideas versus absolutes

Life goals - vague versus absolutes

It’s quite natural to sway towards one end of the spectrum or another. Depending on what issue or area of our lives is top of mind (usually where something is lacking or isn’t as satisfying as we’d like) at this time of year, the goal may very well reflect our psychological frame of mind and the accompanying emotions. We may opt for an ‘absolute’ decision and put our foot down on what we feel needs to change, or we may opt for a more ‘vague’ starting point, dipping our toes in the river, somewhat unsure of the waters we wish to swim in.

A vague approach under commits and is somewhat non-specific, and an absolute decision may over commit, placing a person at risk of setting themselves up for failure. “This new year I’m going to lose weight” versus “I am going to lose 10 kilos by April”.

Vague goals lack an important factor – a hook. It’s much like a story without an actual plot. Where is it going? When will something actually happen? How? And what exactly are we aiming to achieve? With little to work with, vague change is little more than an idea. Realistically speaking, it’s not actually a goal.

Making an absolute goal may seem like the better end of the spectrum, but is it really? It may be specific and definite – ‘I’m going to lose 10 kilos by April and I’m going to achieve it by going to the gym every Monday, Wednesday and Friday after work.” Sounds simple enough, but are we accounting for the responsibilities we will be replacing time in the gym with? Is it realistic to think that while you’re at the gym getting in a sweaty workout, the kids at home will look after themselves, and perhaps cook dinner on your behalf? Absolute goals will also need to factor in how our change in habits may impact those closest to us. The reality is, they just might. Your goal may disrupt your rhythm, and you’ll need to think it through so that you don’t overcommit or become overly confident without factoring in consequence.

Life is also laden with curve balls. You may get wacked with a terrible bout of flu for a week or two, or a tummy bug. You may need to spend extra hours in the office for an entire week to meet a deadline. This can easily wreak havoc with your ‘new routine’ and derail you and your newfound ambitions. An all or nothing attitude may motivate you, or it may shake up your plans and cause you to slack off a little; in which case your goal is already lost. Religious commitment may not be the most realistic approach. Life will happen; and you may just find that during your quest to achieve, you’ll be hopping on and off a moving bus, learning to be flexible without losing any gusto.

Reasonable goals

Positive, realistic goals

“Think big” may seem like a great idea at the time, but is it reasonable? And by reasonable, we mean, realistic. Thinking big and implementing something on that same level will very often show up the flaws of even the best laid plans, and quickly. If a goal is unreasonable, the ‘human response’ will invariably bring anxiety to the surface, or a growing sense of despondency, and lower feelings of self-worth.

Setting goals is often a one track minded effort – it focusses on an outcome (i.e. I want to get fit and healthy), but have you thought about the process? The process is actually where commitment lies, not the outcome. The outcome is the achievement… the prize or reward, the ultimate goal. The goal has a process, and this should be thought through.

Something to keep in mind about the process is what effect comparison will have. Through the process, you may find yourself constantly comparing where you are at now, versus where you want to be. The trick is not to allow this to become tiresome and whittle down your resolve. Find what motivates you during the process and keep your eye on the prize. If the process is reasonable and realistic, you should not lose sight of your goal.

4. Factoring in things beyond your control

Business woman facing obstacles

You are one piece of the puzzle that is this world. We co-exist with all sorts, and this means that things around us have an impact on us, and we impact the existence of others … in both small and insignificant ways and profound ways too. Outside influences beyond our control may alter the course of something, even if temporarily.

Your goal is not untouchable. It may just be that what you wish to accomplish is dependent on the decision someone else is in a prime position to make, like a promotion at work. Your goal may be to improve your job status, and you may set yourself up by making positive adjustments in order to gain the recognition you desire. You may achieve such recognition, but a senior employee may still make an otherwise decision based on other factors influencing their intended path (i.e. your goals and those of the business you work for may not be entirely on the same page).

Instances where a goal is reliant on external factors and influences, especially when these bear more weight on the outcome than what you are able to contribute or control yourself, may place it in a danger zone. It may not work out the way you want it to. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have failed to achieve, but rather that things beyond your control were in play. This is a gamble you must be aware of at the outset of making these types of goals in the first place.

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