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Resolve to Set Better Goals

AU Psychology professor Brian Yates shares tips on how to reach goals and change habits.

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Person on top of a mountain.

We’re two weeks into 2024. How are your resolutions going?

While a recent Forbes survey of 1,000 Americans found that improving fitness, finances, and mental health and losing weight are among the most popular resolutions, research indicates that most people won’t reach those goals. According to the same survey, the average resolution lasts just 3.74 months. The reason why is simple: changing behavior isn’t easy.

“It’s relatively easy to stop any of these behaviors for a short period,” said psychology professor Brian Yates, “but keeping it going is especially hard.”

In honor of the new year and—perhaps, in some small way—a new you, AU Now talked with Yates, who has taught self-management courses at AU for nearly five decades, about how to set better goals and what psychology can teach us about sticking to them.

Work to Understand Your Behavioral Patterns

While setting an intention is a good place to start with any goal, Yates said changing a habit begins with understanding your behavior.

For goals that involve removing something from your life—whether cigarettes, social media, or junk food—knowing what leads you to that behavior can help you anticipate the scenarios that might lead you to relapse.

One way to examine your behavior more objectively is through a time map. Yates recommends tracking how you use blocks of time for a week, which provides key insights into how you spend your time compared to how you intend to spend your time—and reveals when you’re most alert and productive.

It also helps to point out where you fall short—for example, in skipping the gym—which enables you adjust your schedule and come up with solutions to avoid that pitfall in the future.

Tracking your habits—good and bad—via the time map will help you “become more of a personal scientist,” Yates said. “It can be a good thing to learn to understand oneself better.”

Lean into Good Stress and Limit the Bad

Even goals intended to improve our lives can cause stress in the interim. So too can committing to too much all at once. But Yates said all stress isn’t all bad.

There are two types of stress, he explained: distress, which is counterproductive and negatively affects you, and eustress, which energizes us and motivates us to make a change. Growth comes from finding a balance between the two.

“If you ramp up those goals, a certain amount have some stress, but there’s an optimal amount that will actually maximize performance and be useful,” Yates said. “Some of us push ourselves too far and get into the distress area.”

Don’t Try to Summit the Mountain in One Climb

Breaking a goal into a series of smaller ones is key to finding that balance.  

Just as climbing Mount Everest necessitates breaking the journey into daily treks, reaching less adventurous goals requires working up to your ultimate task.

“We tend to seek magical solutions and we don’t stick to it,” Yates said. “We set our goals so that we might land on Mars, when we should really talk about maybe reaching the moon through smaller steps.”

Yates recommends people seek advice from friends, family, and others who have achieved a similar goal to determine what’s realistic but still challenging. “We all learn from and support each other,” he said.

What did you set out to accomplish in 2024? Share your goals with AU Now here.