The secret to successful goal setting

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Welcome to 2021! Most people treat the beginning of the New Year as a hopeful opportunity to start over and make fresh resolutions which is a great idea. Having meaningful goals can give your life direction, enhance motivation and improve confidence. The only problem? Most of our high-minded intentions don’t live past February, only to be resurrected again the following year. Read on to find out how you can improve the chances of successfully reaching your goal significantly!

Now that we are a few weeks into the New Year, let me ask you–did you set yourself any goals for the months ahead?  And if you can still remember what it was (or to do more of, or refrain from doing), how has it been going? Reportedly, some 80% or so of people who make New Year’s resolutions have given up by February1. This is a staggering number which may discourage anyone from even trying, but it also raises the question of whether there is anything to learn from the remaining 20% who have much better achievement rates. Is there a secret to successful goal setting? And are there goals that are inherently “better” than others?

“Good” goals are those that make it as easy as possible for you stick with them, and that fill you with a sense of joy, pride, satisfaction or improved wellbeing once you have ticked them off or integrated them into your lifestyle (if the intention was to develop new positive, ongoing habits). While of course the nature and aim of meaningful goals will vary from person to person, there are some fundamental characteristics that make some resolutions more successful than others. Here are some tips that will help you stay on track:

  1. Choose identity-based goals
    The more your resolutions resonate and really matter to you, the more likely they are to come to fruition. When obstacles and distraction inevitably present themselves along the way, it will be easier to remain focussed if what you are trying to achieve reflects or supports a key priority for you. Goals that are aligned with your personal values tend to be intrinsically motivating and inspirational–but only if you are clear about this connection. Before you formulate your goal, it may be useful to consider and reconnect with your core values; the underlying ideals and aspirations that inform your decision-making and judgement (personal growth, independence, close relationships or professional recognition). If you are looking for some more clarity around your values, you can try a free online Value Sort activity.

    Another approach to choosing meaningful goals is about ensuring they fit in with your self-beliefs. The idea is to formulate an intention that clearly describes the kind of person you strive to be, rather than just the things you want to do. For example, your starting point could be a new and compelling internal narrative such as “I am someone who exercises a little bit every day”, or “I am someone who makes staying in close touch with their loved ones a priority”, with the aim to prove this statement to yourself with small affirmative actions on an ongoing basis. While willpower and motivation can help you start a new habit, it will be difficult to stick with it long-term if it is not grounded in your beliefs around your identity.2
  2. Modify your environment
    Your environment is full of triggers that impact on your behaviour, for better and worse. Make sure that the objects (and people) you surround yourself with help you achieve your goals–not sabotage them. For example, a kitchen pantry full of junk food will lead to different outcomes rather than a beautiful bowl of delicious fresh fruit on the kitchen table. A bedroom that basically functions as an extension of your office–including blue-light emitting screens and digital devices–will make it harder to get more quality sleep than a calm, cosy and device-free sanctuary. Routinely working with multiple apps, browser windows and documents opened at the same time will likely prevent you from reaching your goal of being less distracted at work. Where and when you can, intentionally design your environment for maximum support and minimal distraction or temptation.
  3. Start small–really small
    The idea of micro-steps is to break down your goals into bite-sized chunks that are “too small to fail”3. Instead of getting overwhelmed by big, lofty aspirations which ask you to completely overhaul your life practically overnight (and usually lead to early defeat), break your ambitious goal down into tiny steps. Let your motto be, “any action is better than none”. Think about it as laying the foundation for new neural pathways in your brain; a tiny first groove which you will deepen over time through repeated actions. For example, if you know that your constant low energy levels are due to chronic sleep-deprivation, start by planning to go to bed just 10 minutes earlier from tonight onwards. Once you have established this as a comfortable routine, you can try another 10 minutes, and so on. If your aim is to be more up-to-date with trends and emerging opportunities in your legal field or in business, but you struggle to carve out time for professional development, dedicate 5 to 10 minutes at the start of your workday to reading a relevant article. It doesn’t have to be a big investment to start with, just remember that consistency is key, and you are likely to see the compounding effects grow considerably over time.
  4. Have an accountability buddy
    A bit of friendly social pressure goes a long way. Research repeatedly shows that we are more likely to follow through with our intentions if we made them public: once other people are aware of our goals, giving up may come at the additional cost of appearing lazy, untrustworthy or inconsistent. More than just telling others about your plans, you may even want to ask a close colleague, friend or family member to keep checking in with you on your progress. Knowing that others expect particular actions from you can help you stay motivated, especially in times when your own willpower runs low.
  5. Set goals more than once a year
    The start of a new year symbolises new beginnings and fresh opportunities, and many people take it as a particularly auspicious time to make positive changes to their lives. But of course, New Year’s Day is not in any way different to the other 364 days of the year, and there is no reason we should limit ourselves to this narrow window in the calendar to assess our current situation, make critical decisions or take important actions towards positive change. In fact, if your goal is to be constantly growing, evolving, and living a balanced and value-aligned life, you may find that setting aside one time a year to think about what you want to change just isn’t enough.

If you would like to learn more, don’t hesitate to reach out to the QLS Solicitor Support service on ethics@qls.com.au or p. 3842 5843 to speak to someone in a judgement-free and supportive environment.


1 https://health.usnews.com/health-news/blogs/eat-run/articles/2015-12-29/why-80-percent-of-new-years-resolutions-fail

2 For more examples, have a look at James Clear’s compelling blog post on identity-based habits, or see his book “Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results

3 According to Arianna Huffington, microsteps are small, incremental, science-backed actions we can take that will have both immediate and long-lasting benefits to the way we live our lives. Read more here: https://thriveglobal.com/stories/microsteps-big-idea-too-small-to-fail-healthy-habits-willpower/

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