How to Set Goals for the New Year and Beyond

8 Tips to Make Lasting Change

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Every year, throngs of people—maybe even you—choose a list of resolutions for the next year. Generally, these are habits they will try to do every day or habits they will try to avoid for as long as they can. Unfortunately, many people forget or give up their resolution within weeks. A major reason for this is that it’s deceptively difficult to develop or deny ingrained habits ‘cold turkey.’

While the effort to adopt a resolution shows a wonderful sense of positive intent, a better alternative is to develop new goals for the future. And it helps to work toward them as a more gradual process rather than expecting to change immediately.

Rigid Resolution vs. Fluid Goal

Resolutions stay the same: “I will go to bed early.” “I will stop eating certain junk.” “I will go to the gym regularly even though I don't go at all right now.” If these are somewhat big changes, it may feel like a huge change with no buildup. Goals, however, can be tackled in steps, beginning with baby steps and increasing in difficulty as you become more accustomed to the change. This makes goals more realistic for lasting change.

Sense of Accomplishment vs. Sense of Failure

Goals give you a direction to aspire to, but with the baby steps you may be taking toward your goal, you can still feel like you’ve accomplished something and are on the right track, which will, in turn, keep you moving in the right direction. Once you’ve broken a rigid resolution, however, it’s easier to feel like a failure and give up.

The Scope of the Change

Resolutions are usually a means to a goal, but if you find a resolution too difficult to stick to, it’s usually dropped and forgotten. With goals, if you find a planned change too difficult to carry out, you can adjust the goal to a lower intensity, or drop that plan but pick a different new behavior to try that will still lead to the same end result, and not lose sight of the goal.

For example, imagine you want to get in the habit of exercising to be in better shape. You might make a resolution to go to the gym five times a week. But if you find that you just hate the gym, you probably won’t stick to your resolution, and you’ll be no closer to your goal. However, if you make ‘getting more exercise’ the goal, you may drop the gym, but switch to walking through your neighborhood each morning, and still meet your goal.

Now that you know some of why resolutions often fail and goals are a more realistic route, here are some tips for setting goals you can get behind.

Keep Your Future in Mind

Think of what you would have in your ideal life, and where you’d like to be in two, five, or even 10 years, and see if your goals bring you closer to that picture. If so, they’re good goals to stick with. If you can keep in your mind the image of where you would ultimately like your goals to take you, it’s easier to stick with them.

Think in Terms of Specific Behaviors and Broad Changes

Resolving to develop a meditation practice gives more room for growth and change than resolving to do yoga every morning. While you’ll definitely want to put your broad goals into specific behaviors, being open to more gives you room to experiment, and allows you to change course if you find that your chosen specific behavior isn’t working for you.

Think of What You're Adding, Not What You're Taking Away

Instead of making the goal to eat less unhealthy food, focus on trying to eat more healthy food. You may subconsciously feel more deprived if you think of taking something away rather than adding something good, and if you replace unhealthy food in your diet with healthy food, the same goal is accomplished.

It’s usually easier to add a behavior than to stop a behavior—so focus on adding more positive behaviors.

Create Habits

Once you have your goals set, keep them in the forefront of your mind. Keep them listed in your day-planner, have them as part of your screen saver, or post-it them in prominent places around your house for a while. Then, break them down into smaller goals, and think of what steps you need to take to reach these goals. Then, and this is key, create habits that can lead you to your goals.

Think of what specific habits you can maintain that will make bigger changes in your life, and embed them into your schedule in the easiest ways you can think to maintain them. For example, if you'd like to be more fit, commit to exercising for a reasonable amount of time.

You can increase it as the habit becomes more ingrained, but shoot for something that will help you feel accomplished but not exhausted, and something you can stick to. Assign a time each day when you'll practice this habit. It works best if this time is connected to an existing habit, like right before you shower, or on your way home from work.

Reward Yourself

Finally, reward yourself with something small for continuing to stick with it, until you make enough progress toward your goals that the progress becomes its own reward. Remember that change doesn’t come overnight, but as you work toward developing what is important to you, the change will come, and it will be lasting. Remember this, and enjoy building the life you were meant to live.

2 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Psychological Association. Making Your New Year's Resolution Stick.

  2. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Changing Habits.

By Elizabeth Scott, MS
Elizabeth Scott, MS, is a wellness coach specializing in stress management and quality of life, and the author of "8 Keys to Stress Management."