How to Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions on Track
By Amanda Felt, President of AEI
By now, you have likely set goals for yourself, both personally and professionally, for 2024. You may want to incorporate a new habit or kick an old one. Whatever your goal is, how likely are you to reach it?
If you are like most people, not very likely.
In fact, studies reveal that more than 90% of people do not accomplish their goals. February is the month that most goals are abandoned.
To help you recommit to your goals, we'd like to share a three-step approach that we use with our executive coaching clients. It is an approach to goal setting based on proven insights from psychology and behavioral science.
- Stay Purposeful: choose the right goals that align with your values and vision for yourself
- Stay Focused: create the environment that will set you up for success
- Stay Motivated: measure your progress and develop resiliency
1. Stay Purposeful
Too many people set goals that are a means to an end. The problem is that these types of goals aren’t inspiring. How we think about our goals has a much bigger impact on motivation than we realize. You want to choose goals with a purpose that embody an ideal vision you have for yourself and align with your values.
Identify your values and vision
Before we help our executive coaching clients set goals, we first have them articulate their most important values and vision for what they want to achieve personally and professionally. Goals that fulfill an end purpose are more motivational than goals that are a means to an end. Ayelet Fishbach, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business explains in her book “Get It Done,” that powerful goals need to feel worth the effort that it will take to accomplish them. “A powerful goal defines a desirable state, not the means to get there.” For example, a goal to pass the bar is more motivational than a goal to study for the bar. Or, a goal to be more strategic is more motivational than a goal to delegate more. Set a goal that is tied to a state of being versus a state of doing.
Create measurable subgoals
While we are more committed to purposeful goals that represent a state of being, we still need to actually do something to reach our goals. Purposeful goals need to be supported by subgoals that are measurable.
Take this example. “Stephanie” is a Senior Finance Executive reporting to the CFO of a global financial services firm. Stephanie was a participant in an AEI cohort development program that included a year of one-to-one executive coaching. To be promoted to a global role, what Stephanie envisioned for herself, she needed to operate more strategically but couldn’t see a way forward without more headcount added to her team.
Stephanie’s coach worked with her to identify goals that would reflect her values and vision and address the feedback she had received from AEI’s narrative 360-degree review. It was clear that delegation was important, but it was a means to an end. Stephanie’s higher-level goals, what gave her purpose, was to be a more strategic leader and elevate her team.
Identify goal conflicts
Sometimes we have difficulty commiting to our goals because the process of accomplishing them would put us in conflict with a deeply held value. This is the central premise behind Harvard Professor Robert Kegan’s Immunity to Change model.
Stephanie provides another good example. Stephanie and her coach knew that delegation was going to be difficult because it had the potential to conflict with Stephanie’s deeply held values of dependability and excellence. Stephanie wanted her work to be done on time and excellently. So, she worked with her coach to identify the work that absolutely had to be done on time and excellently. That work she would delegate slowly and retain a high degree of oversight. All other work, she gave herself permission to delegate and prioritize her goal to be more strategic and elevate her team.
2. Stay Focused
The “father of social psychology,” Kurt Lewin, is famous for his equation of behavior B=f(P+E) which translated means: behavior is a function of the personality and environment. A classic example of this is the Stanfard marshmallow study of 1972. Researchers studied 4th graders who sat alone at a table with a marshmallow in front of them. They could eat one marshmallow or wait and have two. Longitudinal studies revealed that those children who displayed higher levels of delayed gratification - they waited to eat two marshmallows - had better life outcomes.
Researchers studying motivation have looked at this classic study from a different perspective. When they viewed videos of the children waiting, they saw that the children who were able to wait for longer periods came up with games, covered the marshmallow up, or turned away from the marshmallow. In other words, they weren’t just relying on the strength of a disciplined personality but altered their environment to make the goal easier.
The point is, don’t just rely on a strong will to reach your goal.
Consider this scenario: I want to be healthy so I've joined a gym and I've chosen the exercise option that requires me to pre-commit. I have to register for group classes. So, on Sunday afternoon, when my motivation is high, I register for the morning classes I will take during the week. I pre-commit to getting up at 6 a.m. in the morning to attend the class. If I don't attend, I'm charged a fee.
You pre-commit whenever you schedule something in advance. Ideally you will have some type of reward for what you’re doing or a cost for not doing it.
For Stephanie, regular coaching sessions that focused on leadership and her goals served as a built in precommitment - or “leadership gym class.”
Goal stacking is a concept popularized by James Clear in his book “Atomic Habits.” The idea is to incorporate a new activity into an already established habit. These need not be significant activities, as engaging in “micro-habits” related to your goal helps to increase your commitment because of the principle of behavioral consistency. In other words, we are more likely to behave in ways that are consistent with how we have behaved in the past.
Going back to the Stephanie example, she commuted to work and would usually spend that time completing tasks that her team hadn’t accomplished the day before. Her new habit was to read a leadership article from the Harvard Business Review subscription that AEI provided. This small habit reinforced her commitment to being a strategic leader.
Goal stacking was particularly useful to Stephanie in helping her team take over tasks that she delegated. She asked them to look at their process that was already established and add in new activities that she had previously done.
Leverage social relationships
AEI recommends that our executive clients share their goals with key stakeholders for two important reasons. First, effective leaders leverage their informal relationships to accomplish their goals. In social science, this is referred to as “social capital.” In the example above, Stephanie aligned her goal of being a more strategic leader with the needs of a colleague leading a newly formed business unit. Stephanie worked with her colleague to identify the reporting data her team could provide to aid critical strategic decisions. By sharing her goal, Stephanie was able to create a strategic relationship that was mutually beneficial.
The other benefit to sharing goals is that it allows you to prime others to see changes that you are making. Marshall Goldsmith explains in his book, “What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There,” that it can be harder to change perceptions than it can be to change behavior. Once people have formed an opinion of who you are and the behavior they expect, it can be very difficult for people to recognize or accept change.
Stephanie shared specific feedback from her 360-degree review and her personal goals with her team about wanting to delegate more in order to be a better leader. She wanted her team to know that their feedback was heard. She also wanted them to recognize the changes that she was making and how those changes would help her accomplish her goal of elevating the team.
With these changes, Stephanie had more time to hold consistent one-on-ones with her team, which enabled her to understand and support their own personal goals. As leaders, it can be tempting to simply see direct reports as a means to accomplishing our own ends, but the most effective leaders take the time to understand what’s important to the people who report to them.
3. Stay Motivated
Despite all our efforts to create purposeful goals and set ourselves up for success, we inevitably face adversities and setbacks. If not, your goals may not be adequately challenging. The most effective ways to stay motivated is by measuring your progress and building your resilience.
Pay attention to your emotions
Emotions are a helpful gauge of progress. We feel proud, excited, or eager when we feel we’ve made more progress than we expected. Conversely, we feel frustrated, shameful, or anxious when we feel we should be further along. Depending on your personality, you may direct those feelings at yourself, at others, or a combination of both.
Don’t allow positive emotions to take your “foot off the pedal,” or negative emotions take you to what James Clear refers to as the Valley of Disappointment – the period after you’ve begun working on a goal when progress is slower than expected or not visible at all.
Stephanie was able to work through these feelings in monthly coaching sessions and develop resilience to work through setbacks. A peer coach can help you process your emotions and answer whether you need to set more realistic expectations, substitute a subgoal that’s no longer working, or adjust how you’re measuring progress.
Leverage quick wins
Motivational science reveals that we feel most motivated at the beginning and end of a goal. That is why gyms are so much fuller in the month of January and why you start to work harder as a deadline approaches.
Focusing on quick wins will help you see immediate progress and avoid the drawn out “middles.” Stephanie focused on sub-goals that she had the most control over and could easily implement, e.g. establishing a consistent schedule of one-on-ones and reviewing the work versus doing the work. And she measured her progress by the week versus over the course of a year. For her team, who would be creating different financial reports on their own, she had them measure accuracy and timeliness at periods that the team determined rather than waiting for the end of the reporting period. This allowed her team to feel a sense of accomplishment for the quick wins, and Stephanie to feel confident in the quality of work before it was due.
Resilient leaders reduce the emotional reactions to stressful or negative events and are able to view situations more objectively, enabling them to learn from both positive and negative feedback and more quickly adjust and rebound. Getting enough sleep, eating healthy, exercising, and having a support network are all critical to having the bandwidth to manage emotions. In addition, there are two psychological states to help build resiliency.
Take on a growth mindset
Research has shown that we operate along two extremes: a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. If you have a growth mindset, you believe that your skill set and capabilities can be developed. Whereas, you have a fixed mindset if you believe your skills and capabilities are static. A growth mindset is crucial to overcome challenges. As Stanford psychologist Carol Dwek shares in her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” “The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.”
Stephanie received some critical feedback from peers who felt that she was still “in the weeds” and hadn’t recognized the progress that she felt she was making. Stephanie did not take this as a sign of failure but information that could be useful. Was this a perception issue or were there adjustments that Stephanie could make to how she was going about working toward her goals? She realized that it was a bit of both. Stephanie did a better job of connecting with key stakeholders to get their input and share the work that she was doing, especially the strategic work with her colleagues. In addition, she noticed areas where she could be more proactive.
Avoid mental traps
Another effective way to build resiliency is to be aware of mental traps that can limit our belief in ourselves and our ability to be resilient. Two mental traps to avoid are “all-or-nothing” thinking and “catastrophizing.”
Stephanie had to confront those mental traps early on to stay motivated. As she was developing new skills, so, too, was her team as they struggled through certain tasks that Stephanie could do much faster and better. In the past, Stephanie would have stepped in. Now, Stephanie was in a position to challenge limiting mental traps. She avoided the all-or-nothing trap by reminding herself that she had already identified those areas of her team’s responsibility that needed to be done accurately and on time. And she avoided catastrophizing trap by recognizing that any errors that were made would be identified and could be used as a learning opportunity. Through the process, her team learned and were better prepared and more capable.
At the end of the year, Stephanie was promoted. She had shown herself to be a more strategic leader and had elevated her function. By following the three steps, she was able to stay committed and reach her goal.
So, with 2024 underway, now is the time to recommit to what you want to accomplish and follow these steps to stay purposeful, focused, and motivated.