Setting Goals for the New Year

Written by Sadie Grant

The turn of the year is often a time of reflection and renewal. Especially after such a strange and tumultuous year as this one, 2021 may feel like the perfect opportunity to rebuild and reimagine who you are and who you want to be. But this year, we would like to offer an alternative to setting New Year’s Resolutions: Setting bite-sized goals.

While New Year’s Resolutions can be inspiring and uplifting, they can also be daunting, overly vague, and difficult to fulfill. Today, we are going to dive into some of the common challenges that arise around New Year’s Resolutions and share tips for setting more achievable, energizing goals.

Why Do New Year’s Resolutions Go Wrong?

Most studies indicate that about 80% of New year’s Resolutions fail (Ali, 2018). In fact, most resolutions fail as early as February. Why is this goal-setting process so often flawed?

Resolutions are often vague.

How does your resolution align with your values? How can you integrate it into your life? And where did it even come from?

If you had difficulty answering these questions, your resolution may be difficult to achieve. When we are not able to explain and clarify our goals, we are apt to become confused in the process of trying to achieve them. Setting vague intentions can lead to indifference and dissonance. If we break down our goals into smaller tasks and behaviors, on the other hand, the process of growth becomes more fluid and can be better tailored to where we are and where we want to be.

– Resolutions can be daunting.

So you want to learn to play guitar. Or perhaps you want to become more physically active. Or maybe you want to spend more time with your family or friends. What is the first step?

When we do not know how to begin to achieve our goals, looking down the road ahead can make the journey feel daunting and maybe even hopeless. Furthermore, when we state resolutions, we often experience external pressure to succeed. Feeling pressured by loved ones, our own circumstances, or society can be intimidating, and thereby limit our capacity to reach )or even begin the journey toward) our resolutions.

– When we set lofty goals, it can be difficult to notice progress. 

Your resolution was to get organized. But it’s been a week already, and all you’ve managed to do is dissect a few drawers. And a member of your household decided to turn the living room into a temporary project space. In other words, things have never felt more disorganized. 

When we have big aspirations, we often forget that the process of achieving such momentous change is sloooow. If you don’t see any signs of progress, you may be inclined to question whether your goals are achievable or even worth the trouble.

– We may not be ready for this type of change, and that’s okay.

You enthusiastically set your resolutions. But now you are searching for every excuse to step away from your goals. You no longer feel the same sense of passion or connection. 

Growth and change are never a linear process. In fact, growth usually involves some major bumps, dips, and even backtracking. If you no longer feel inspired and energized by your resolutions, it may be more helpful to set new goals that meet you where you are, right here and now. Compassionate course-correcting like this might even inspire a sense of adaptability, resilience, and perseverance.

So how can we set ourselves on the path toward growth?

Although New Year’s Resolutions are often never realized, naming aspirations and setting goals can still pave the way for change. In fact, you can follow your dreams with more success and authenticity when you set smaller bite-sized goals, or tackle a goal piece by piece.

A growing body of psychological research related to accomplishing goals indicates that three effective steps can help facilitate change (American Psychological Association, 2019):

– Set a clearly defined goal, taking into consideration motivation and aspirations

– Observe and adapt your behavior so that it aligns with your identified goal(s)

– Budget and build your will-power and discipline 

Furthermore, according to the American Psychological Association, certain actions have been shown to help people develop the willpower necessary to achieve their goals (2019):

1. Focus on one aspiration at a time.

Addressing one clear goal is more effective than taking on multiple goals at once. Set a concrete objective, such as practicing drawing techniques for 30 minutes each day, or clearing out old clothing from your closet. Once you have accomplished one goal, you can devote your energy and willpower to the next goal.

2. Do your best to limit or distance yourself from temptations and distractions.

Take the time to create a space in which you can focus on your goal. For example, if you are working on a project, consider setting aside a place in your house where you can work without distraction. Or if you are working on harnessing more self-compassion, remove features from your environment that might elicit shame or self-doubt, such as social media accounts that promote unrealistic standards of beauty or living.

3. Create a preventative plan.

Plan for obstacles in advance. Research suggests that having a plan helps us to overcome temptations and distractions without expending too much energy (Duckworth et al., 2010). For example, if your goal is to save more money, you may tell yourself, “if someone asks me to meet at a restaurant for a meal, I’ll suggest that we cook at home instead”.

4. Record your behavior.

Consider monitoring your behavior as you move toward your goal. For example, if you want to develop your capacity to speak a second language, record your progress. Tracking your growth may help you to recognize your accomplishments and modify your behavior when needed.

5. Congratulate yourself along the way!

At each milestone, reward yourself for your hard work with an enjoyable and generative activity. For example, after using a new skill to improve communication with a family member, gift yourself a walk in your favorite spot, or enjoy a long, luxurious bath.

6. Take care of your body to the best of your ability, meeting yourself where you are at.

Our bodies need sleep and nourishment. Food and rest can support us to meet our goals by boosting our energy and giving our bodies the nutrients necessary for wellbeing.

7. Ask for support from others.

Research indicates that creating a support system can help us to reach our goals. Tell trusted friends or family members about your aspirations so that they can encourage you along the way.

This New Year, consider giving yourself the gift of gentle, forgiving, and dynamic change. Perhaps that looks like setting a small goal instead of a New Year’s Resolution, or maybe simple allowing yourself to rest and reflect.

Aspirations for growth can be wonderful, but it is also important to keep our expectations in perspective. Let 2021 be the year you respect both your ambitions and your energy. It’s okay to take a step back. Every amount of growth, no matter how small, is a victory.



Ali, S. (2018, December 05). Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail. Retrieved December 24th, 2020, from

Duckworth, A.L., Grand, H., Loew, B., Oettingen, G. & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2010). Self-regulation strategies improve self-discipline in adolescents: Benefits of mental contrasting and implementation intentions. Educational Psychology, 31, 17-26.

Harnessing willpower to meet your goals. (2019, December). Retrieved December 24th, 2020, from