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Why goals are better than good intentions

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Bettina Bendiner

Published

05.01.2022

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At the beginning of every year our lazy inner demon lets us down, making us abandon our New Year’s resolutions often after only three weeks. But it’s usually our own fault because we’ve put ourselves in that position – by going about things the wrong way when it comes to New Year’s resolutions.

The new year feels like a fresh start. Once all the overindulgence and festive season binging have finished, the urge to turn over a new leaf is very strong. The result? We make well-intentioned New Year’s resolutions. The classic resolutions are to eat more healthily, do more sport, lose weight and adopt a more sustainable lifestyle. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions. «Or as Goethe rather more prosaically put it: “Resolution is good, but fulfilment is difficult.»

A German statistics portal gives us the raw figures: in a representative study carried out in 2019, 24% of those questioned admitted that they had abandoned their New Year’s resolutions after no more than a month, with 27% making it past two months. Why does this happen? Because we make a resolution without setting ourselves a goal.

 

Between ability and action lies a great sea, its depths often lined with willpower, sunk without a trace

Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, Austrian writer (1830 – 1916)

What is the difference between a resolution (or an intention) and a goal?

An intention is usually expressed in rather woolly terms. «Losing a bit of weight» or «doing more sport» are intentions, and are too vague. A goal is much more specific – providing we use the SMART method when setting it. 

The SMART formula was coined by the American economist and business guru Peter Drucker. SMART is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. It’s the magic formula that turns good intentions into achievable goals. Instead of «doing more sport», we can say «I’ll go for a half-hour run twice a week for a year.»

Smart goals are realistic
If you’ve never put on a pair of running shoes in your life, you’re unlikely to be running a marathon within six months. That is setting the bar too high. It’s better to train for your first five-kilometre run and chalk up a success. That’s preferable because a five-kilometre run is an intermediate goal, a milestone on the way to becoming an amateur marathon runner. In 1938, the American psychologist Saul Rosenzweig came up with the concept of frustration tolerance, which essentially describes an individual’s ability to cope with setbacks when pursuing a goal. Frustration tolerance may vary greatly from person to person and can even take on a pathological element, but for most people, armchair psychology applies here: the more we are frustrated, the less motivation we have. That’s why SMART goals are realistic goals.

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You really can increase your willpower

The Austrian writer Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach (1830–1916) hit the nail on the head when she wrote, «Between ability and action lies a great sea, its depths often lined with willpower, sunk without a trace.» Because as the saying goes, «Where there’s a will, there’s a way.» What that means is that willpower is like a muscle that can be trained. One way to achieve this is through self-observation. If you have a tendency to slouch when sitting at your desk, you can regularly remind yourself to sit up straight. Similarly, coffee drinkers can train themselves to drink a large glass of water before their first morning coffee, thereby acquiring a new habit. Being more specific («drink two hundred millilitres before eight o’clock») instantly turns that into a SMART goal.

The American psychologist Kelly McGonigal outlines five easy ways to improve your willpower:

1. Every muscle needs a rest: Athletes have known for a long time that a rest day works wonders. So why not give your brain a break now and again? Getting enough sleep helps, as does meditating (in whichever way works for you). 

2. Be kind to yourself: Didn’t achieve your five-kilometre run goal? You can beat yourself up about it – or take the more sensible option and go easy on yourself. Then try again. 

3. Think about the person you want to become: Knowing how you would like to feel in the future strengthens your willpower to get there. Having a vision helps you set SMART goals for yourself. 

4. It’s okay to fail: Henry Ford once said, «There are more people who give up than people who fail.» Henry Ford is right.

5. We can learn to be frustration-tolerant too: People who cope better with unpleasant situations are more likely to achieve their goals. If you listen to yourself, you’ll be better able to withstand the let-downs. 

Don’t forget the reward!

We set ourselves goals and get annoyed when we don’t achieve them. But what we often forget about is the reward. Reward is balm to the soul. And don’t forget that it takes on average about two months for a new activity to become a habit. It feels good when something that was initially hard to do suddenly becomes second nature. And anyone who manages to motivate themself to do some new small thing every day is training their willpower at the same time. That’s a win-win. And the reward for our efforts.

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New year, new goals

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