Remove the Pressure of Resolutions and Set Realistic Goals

Tips for setting and achieving goals

Verywell / Laura Porter

At the beginning of every new year, you might come up with lofty resolutions: cook more frequently, spend more time creating, exercise more, learn how to speak Italian. But how often do you achieve them?

Often these goals are too vague or you don’t properly plan for them. And they add to the pressure to make your new year better than the previous one.  

Setting and achieving resolutions can prove challenging for some and seemingly impossible for others. It is important to keep your goals grounded in reality. But even in the face of considerable obstacles, you can set goals and reach them. However, it may require a shift in perspective. 

Consider the following questions as you reshape your mindset:

  • What can you do differently this year?
  • What about this year is going to be different?
  • Have you tried this resolution before without success?
  • Have you properly planned to make this possible?
  • How will you feel if you get off track?

Nikole Benders-Hadi, MD, medical director of behavioral health at Doctors on Demand

You may not be in control of everything, but you can control your thoughts and responses to stressors. Focus on what is going well rather than what is going wrong to change your perspective for the better.

— Nikole Benders-Hadi, MD, medical director of behavioral health at Doctors on Demand

Set Intentions Instead of Resolutions

While a new year offers the chance to reflect and hit “refresh,” you may still be experiencing many of the same stressors as you did the previous year. The ongoing impact of hardship you may have faced in the previous year, along with many other compounding factors, can directly impact your ability to maintain new habits and routines. That's why it’s better to set intentions rather than resolutions.

“Some New Year’s resolutions are dead on arrival and will never really take hold. Resolutions like losing weight, living a happier life, and saving more money are likely to fail for several reasons, including but not limited to these resolutions being overwhelming, unrealistic, and too vague,” says Kerry Mitchell Brown, PhD, MBA.

Unlike resolutions, intentions are more fluid, more abstract. They can change as your situation changes. You can set intentions at any time. They are manifestations, offering you purpose and flexibility as you envision where you want to go and who you want to be.

An intention might be to “be more mindful of your actions,” or “give back more to your community.”

Goal Setting Strategies 

With intentions, you visualize the life you want. With goals, you give yourself direction. For a goal to be achievable, though, it must be realistic.

Kerry Mitchell Brown, PhD, MBA

Good intentions aren’t enough if you haven’t put enough time and thinking into planning the execution and achievement of your goals.

— Kerry Mitchell Brown, PhD, MBA

Some studies have shown that setting a simple goal is more effective than setting a complex goal. If you want to master coding, for instance, you need to figure out how to code. Giving yourself the goal of “signing up for and completing a coding course” is easier to accomplish than simply “learning how to code.” 

When setting a goal, try using the SMART method. The goal must be:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time bound

Let’s say your intention is to save more money. You can create a SMART goal of saving $50 a week for six months. This is a specific goal that can easily be measured on a weekly basis. If you miss a week, you’ll want to ask yourself why and consider saving an extra $50 the following week. Or, perhaps you’ll decide $50 is unrealistic and $25 is more reasonable. By the end of the six months, you’ll reach your intention. 

Dr. Mitchell Brown also recommends using the BSQ goal-setting format, which consists of three simple components:

  • Think Big.
  • Act Small.
  • Move Quick.

While big goals are well-intentioned, they are difficult to achieve if you don’t establish smaller, more accessible goals which can be accomplished in a more timely manner.

If you want to eat healthier, for instance, you could start by incorporating one additional vegetable a day into your diet. This is something you can do quickly and track easily. 

Tips for Setting and Achieving Goals

What works for one person might not work for another, so as you track your goals, pay attention to what’s working and what’s not. Maybe writing down a weekly to-do list makes you more likely to complete tasks. Maybe texting a friend every day helps you stay motivated. 

Limit Your Goals

Dr. Mitchell Brown recommends setting one or two goals at a time, because having too many goals increases the risk that you won’t achieve any one of them successfully. 

This doesn’t mean you can’t break your goals down into smaller goals, but having too many big ones can be overwhelming and hard to monitor. Try one, using a goal-setting method, and if that’s working, add another.

Establish Accountability Partners

Friends, family members, therapists, and/or online community members can help keep you accountable. They can also support you when you don’t reach a goal as planned or when your efforts start to falter. 

“There are no rules that you have to do it alone,” says Dr. Mitchell Brown. “Making your goals public and sharing with others increases your commitment and likelihood of success. Having someone to cheer you on or help keep you on track is important.”

Use a Journal

Journaling has many mental health benefits and can be used for writing down and tracking your SMART goals, expressing gratitude, working through challenges, and setting intentions for the day or week. 

“Sometimes, obstacles seem insurmountable, but taking time to write down your problems and thoughts can help to engage different problem solving areas of your cerebral cortex,” says Erik Vanderlip, MD, chief medical officer of ZOOM+Care.

If you’re anxious about something out of your control, refocus your attention on things you can control and you’ll find the anxiety improves.

Practice the Art of Saying 'No'

You might be doing something to please other people, protect a relationship, or avoid confrontation, Rashmi Parmar, MD, psychiatrist at Community Psychiatry, explains, but this will burn up your time, energy, and efforts in keeping up with your commitments, leaving you little time for yourself.

This can also lead to emotional turmoil or decline in performance in your daily routine. “Slow down enough to move past your impulse and listen to the rational and logical part of your brain,” Parmar says. “It will lay down the facts for you clearly enough to make a decision.”

Turn Off Your Phone

“It is natural to want to stay up to date on what is happening. However, there’s a fine line between staying informed and being obsessive. If your media consumption begins to border on compulsive, you’re likely fueling feelings of anxiety,” says Dr. Vanderlip. 

Dr. Parmar recommends shutting down your phone for a full day and focusing on the world around you. Observe nature, hear the sound of birds singing or the traffic on the road, or interact with people around you.

This will teach you the art of being mindful about yourself and your surroundings, she explains. If this proves helpful, try extending this another day or implementing a no-phone policy once a week. 

“We get into this loop of picking up the phone to check on one thing, but it quickly leads to another thing and then another,” says Dr. Parmar. “It can increase mental as well as physical fatigue, fueling procrastination.” 

Expect the Unexpected

Don’t let unexpected events, or self-care needs, deter you from your goals. Instead, take the time to reflect, pause, or simply take a breath before getting back on track. 

“Remind yourself that while setting goals is important, life often gets in the way, and you may have to adapt and adjust accordingly. Set your goals reasonably, make them fun to achieve, reward yourself when you hit your achievements, and get back on the wagon if you fall off,” says Dr. Vanderlip. “Understand that setbacks don’t have to detract from your achievements.”

Give yourself permission to pivot plans, too. You might skip a workout and do meditation instead, or cancel a call with a friend to go on a solo walk. Or you might review your goals and decide to completely rewrite them.

A Word From Verywell

As you work towards your goals, take note of what’s distracting you or draining your energy, such as doom scrolling, watching the nightly news, spending time with a certain person, or working without breaks. These behaviors may be diverting you from your intentions and causing you undue stress.

“If you’re experiencing symptoms of anxiety that interfere with your work, maintaining close relationships, or taking care of yourself, consider reaching out to a medical professional to discuss your options,” says Dr. Vanderlip. “There are plenty of ways that professionals can equip you with the tools you need to better cope.”

Ultimately, goal-setting should be beneficial and complimentary to your mental health needs, but if it's causing you additional stress or anxiety, talk to a mental health professional about more effective ways to set intentions and implement goals.

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