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New year, improved me: Be easy on yourself setting goals

There are a variety of tropes and traditions that we adhere to, for some reason or the other. Some return to clichés like New Year's resolutions for comfort  —  a cheap, but meaningful psychic “reset.” In all honesty, I’m jaded, but I still think it’s worth the time to rethink some of the expectations we have when setting goals. Here are a few of the things we commonly get wrong when it comes to trying to get a fresh start. 

Making goals without a tangible plan

Time and time again, I’ve set a goal and sat on it. Maybe I’d say that I’ll write every day, sounds simple enough right? But without an actionable plan — what time I’ll write, where it might be useful to keep a spare notebook, how I’ll stay focused — it all falls apart. 

Often, we hope that good intentions are all we need, that things will fall into place just because we’ve willed it to be so. Effective goal setting has to be a mix of aspiration and practicality, catching a moment of inspiration and crystallizing it into a daily, weekly or monthly practice. 

Keeping this aspect of setting goals seems the most obvious, and maybe that’s exactly why it’s so often overlooked. We know when we want to do better that it’ll require constant effort, but the actual motivation for whatever standard we’ve set for ourselves is fleeting, if not impossible to find at all. 

On the flip side, making a goal that you were once excited about into an overly rigid part of your routine can make you resent the objective outright. It’s dealing with this tension between fluid levels of intent and the recurring struggle to stick to a plan that matters. 

For me, it’s been a task that’s best dealt with by taking yourself seriously, but with a bit of compassion. 

Be able to forgive yourself for slipping up 

Unfortunately, we aren’t perfect, and we’re bound to slip off the beaten path on occasion. Invariably, we’ll miss some benchmark or checkpoint that works toward a larger goal. 

The go-to example is a New Years-inspired gym attendee who manages to go regularly throughout January, but who’s gone missing by Valentine’s Day. For our purposes, let’s say you might want to stick to a two-hour long study session every Friday night (I know, seems unrealistic, but just believe with me). 

Maybe you stick to the plan for the first three weeks of the semester, but slip up from there. After spring break comes and goes, well, forget about it. Yet, that shouldn’t be the case. If you can’t look yourself in the mirror and set yourself straight, then sticking to goals will be a constant challenge for you. Finding the resolve to get back on track after weeks of screwing up is a necessary skill. 

It’s terrifyingly easy to give up on yourself, and finding discipline after abandoning it is a daunting task. If there’s anything approaching a tried and true way to do this, I’d say re-examining why you set that goal in the first place, and whether it’s still a worthy thing to work toward can help you get back in business. 

Find some levity in it all

We’re approaching the age where the goals we set are less frivolous. Maybe it’s shooting for a certain internship. Horrifyingly, it may be looking to make a certain amount of money post-graduation. Try as we might, fighting against internal and external conflict, we may not meet these goals. So then what?

I think the most important thing to do in the midst of all this conflict is to keep spirits high. Give yourself credit when you deserve it, be gentle when you need to discipline yourself. Succumbing to negative thoughts and actions will only set you further back, ultimately distorting your goal in general. Make the best of your situation without letting yourself needlessly fall victim to your circumstances. 

Setting and keeping realistic goals is always going to be easier said than done, but with the right attitude — both creatively and logistically — there’s no reason you can’t fix your eyes on the prize and keep striving until you reach it.  

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