Eight Tips for Staying on Track With Your Goals From Professor of Neuropsychology Eric Zillmer, PsyD
By Eric A. Zillmer, PsyD
January 27, 2023
Drexel University College of Arts and Sciences Carl R. Pacifico Professor of Neuropsychology Eric Zillmer, PsyD, shares eight tips for staying on track with your goals in 2023. This article originally appeared in Drexel News
No doubt, “planning is everything,” as President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said.
Continue reading to learn eight tips on how to make sure you are on track with your 2023 New Year’s resolution(s). Sweat the details but understand the big picture, keep it simple but be flexible, and … most importantly, be kind to yourself and have fun!
The new year provides us with an opportunity to not only review our past year, but also to prepare for the future. In fact, January originates from the ancient Roman mythology of Janus, the god of all beginnings and transitions. Symbolically, Janus looks both ways, at the same time, and is thus responsible for the naming of the month of January. Thus, it is at the beginning of the month of January when we reflect on our past year and set goals, wishes and hopes for the new year.
Setting goals feels instinctively natural to us around this time of the year. It allows us to be focused, stay in the present and aspire to greater things that can add meaning to our lives. This anticipation of what the future holds can be very satisfying and is a known ingredient for happiness.
Goal setting is an established motivational technique that has been pioneered and researched by psychologists. It is the backbone of good business practices, and it works. So why can’t we manage our own personal business plan of losing weight or completing long term fitness goals. After all, fulfilling our goals will only make us happier.
It should not come as a surprise that our brains have complex neuronal networks dedicated to planning, and even for planning-to-plan, all of which represents the most recent evolution of our nervous system and the highest level of cognition — the prefrontal lobes. But there are hidden neuropsychological “traps,” including bad memories, guilt, anxiety and fear. January can also be filled with regret.
As we are renewing our gym memberships at the Drexel Recreation Center or making an appointment with Drexel Nutrition Sciences Services (free for Drexel employees!), let’s take a look at the ingredients that make it more likely to adhere to our New Year’s resolutions. That is, what to do when you get stuck.
New Year’s resolution “failures” are often related to not knowing enough about the ins and outs of goal setting as well as deciding on the initial goals to be too high. As a result, many of us have become apprehensive about settling on New Year’s resolutions only to be disappointed once again. So, if you are encountering problems achieving your resolutions, review the eight ingredients below that will make you more robust in adhering to your plan and also having fun along the way.
1. Go to Plan B
It is ok to fail, reevaluate your goals periodically, and give yourself permission to change them. I am writing this on my laptop’s Mac operating system version 12.6, which should tell you something about Apple’s business plan. Going to plan B does not mean giving up on plan A. It just indicates that it may be time for a modification, like a halftime locker-room pep talk with yourself. Typically, you would not abandon your game plan, but you would keep components of plan A in place while adding new, revised, fresh and updated ingredients — ergo, plan B.
2. Keep It Simple
Most goals are not met because they were poorly conceived and are unrealistic. It should not come as a surprise to learn that most goals are set too high, which produces predictable failure. Adjusting goals downward is important, as is maintaining a positive perspective by using a stepwise, easy-to-hard approach towards your ultimate goal. While most of us are motivated to use outcome goals (e.g., “I will finish a marathon within one year’s time"), performance goals are much easier to control, (e.g., “I will run a certain amount per week”). Start small and work your way up.
3. Divide and Conquer
You have to set several related goals: dream goals, big goals, realistic goals and many incremental, small to intermediate-type daily goals. Emphasize task goals and downplay ego goals. Goals have to be specific, measurable and under your control. Be sure to provide a build-in follow-up and evaluation.
4. Understand the ‘Why’
You have to make your goals meaningful, not just transactional. Goal setting works, but only if you internalize your goals. Why do you want to lose weight, live healthier, become more fit, read more books or learn how to play an instrument? It is good to understand the underlying motivation of your goal. After all, you came up with it, so it must be important to you. If you figure out the “why,” the “how” will follow. By setting goals, we agree to approach our goals as a problem-solving opportunity. Instead of being purely results-driven, it also becomes process-oriented, and process-oriented goals of your actions are less dependent on the behavior of others. Then, if you hit a rough spot, remind yourself of the importance of the “why” of your goal, which will keep you going.
5. Overcommunicate Your Goals
New Year’s resolutions cannot remain a secret with you. You have to write your goals down, chart them and even make them public, like telling your friends, for example, that you will quit smoking this year. Your environment will hold you accountable. Plus, all of the research in sport psychology on building a winning team chemistry point to the fact that communication is the key factor.
6. Nurture a Social Support Network
It's a good idea to recruit a solid support system, aka your cheerleaders, that can be kind to you when you're not able to be kind to yourself. If you get stuck, ask for help. Get feedback from a coach or a training partner to ensure that you have a realistic sense of where you are and what you need to do. Retaining a personal trainer, nutritionist, guitar teacher or coach or being part of a group of yoga enthusiasts, for example, is essential in keeping going. By doing so, your training partner, coach or friend might pick you up and say, “you're doing great” when you have a bad moment, or they could tell you, “Hey, this is a tough one, you might want to put some extra work into it.” You will be grateful for the support, and perhaps you might do the same by assisting others in reaching their goals in the future. Relationships with others are a key ingredient in a happy life.
Pick a goal that is inherently fun for you. For example, pickleball is becoming very popular in Philadelphia, and I watch my neighbor Terry take an Uber several times a week to go to pick-up matches. He loves it. That helps.
8. Remember Janus
And finally, stay true to the inspiration behind the month of January: a journey with a beginning and an end! As mentioned earlier, Janus was the Roman god of portals and thus it is good to conceptualize our New Year’s resolution as a journey, like moving through a symbolic doorway to transition towards something new. It is natural to have ups and downs in journeys — you could miss a plane, chart a different course and revise one’s travel plans.
In staying true to the origins of the month of January, we have to realize that the mythology of Janus includes not only a new beginning but also an end. Therefore, one should pick a point in time that serves as the conclusion of your journey. Part of the regrets around New Year’s resolutions are related to never calling it quits, but letting it linger on into unfinished business, which causes guilt that often hangs around much longer than it should. In fact, the journey is often more interesting than the end goal itself anyway, but you need to have an end point.
Ready, Set, Goal!
In summary, setting goals can be a great catalyst to clean out our closet of mental stress. Especially now, during these uncertain times, it is therapeutic to take control. Overcoming obstacles is part of the challenge and will feel rewarding in achieving a long-term goal. Remember, you are on an adventure — then, once completed, plan your next one!