It’s around this time that typically those resolutions we made for the New Year start slipping away. Despite our best intentions and the promises made on the 31st December, 80% of resolutions are forgotten around this month and only 8% are ever achieved according to studies. Without a doubt, the pandemic has curtailed a number of people’s goals, but we shouldn’t let it block all of our aims for the year ahead.

Why set goals?

Given we don’t seem to be very good at achieving our goals, is there any point in setting them in the first place?

Science will tell us that goals are important for our wellbeing. When we achieve them, we feel a sense of accomplishment; our brains are flooded with dopamine, which makes us feel good. And this occurs whether the achievements are big or small, like ticking off our to-do-list or graduating from university.

Setting goals can help us direct our focus, work out what we need to prioritise and assist us in decision-making. Also, it’s been found that it’s not just achieving our goals which is important for our wellbeing but the journey to get there as well.

Why do we fail?

It seems that our determination will only get us so far when it comes to reaching our goals.

Before we set out on our journey to achieve them, we need to make sure that the goals we’re setting are truly important to us. What’s more, we need to be clear on what it is we’re aiming for from the outset.

If the goal you’ve outlined isn’t that important to you (maybe it’s someone else’s goal instead?) or the goals set are too vague and unrealistic (this is where the SMART goal-setting strategy can help) you may find your motivation wanes over time.

So what goals should we strive for?

You might be surprised to learn that there are several different types of goals (e.g., values-based, self-concordant or intrinsically rewarding). And researchers have identified which are more likely to be achieved and those that will most boost our wellbeing (even better)!

The focus here is going to be on self-concordant goals, those that are aligned to our values, needs and interests. These are the goals that help us achieve the vision we have for our best possible selves. Even when we are faced with hurdles, we’re still motivated to pursue these goals, which is why we’re more likely to reach them.  

Self-concordant goals aren’t driven by external sources (e.g., money, social status or an impressive job title) but rather they meet our three basic psychological needs according to Ryan and Deci’s Self-Determination Theory. Just as food, water, sleep and shelter are important for our physical wellbeing, Ryan and Deci suggest that we’re more motivated when our goals satisfy the following:

  • Competence – we want to learn and grow
  • Autonomy – we want to have choice over our actions and control the direction of our lives
  • Relatedness – we want to strengthen our connections with others and feel as though we belong.

By building these three needs into our goals, we create the energy required to persist, we’re more likely to achieve what we set out, and we experience greater wellbeing as a result. So when reflecting on or defining your goals for 2021, it’s best to consider how they meet these needs.

What about goals at work?

Goals play an important role in boosting performance within workplaces. What’s more, when employees are aligned to the goals of their organisation, they’re more inclined to achieve them. These days the traditional ‘carrot and stick’ approach just doesn’t cut it anymore as a way of motivating employees.

Involving team members in the goal-setting process can enable them to have a stake in contributing to the organisation’s objectives. Additionally, it’s important that workplaces frequently and clearly communicate their goals to their teams, so everyone knows what they’re aiming towards particularly when many teams are still operating remotely.

So if productivity or motivation has been lacking for your team lately (a common complaint over the past 12 months), perhaps it’s worth considering how your employees’ psychological needs of competence, autonomy and relatedness are being met. Are teams given independence and control over their tasks so they can prove themselves? Are they being provided with interesting and challenging work so they’re engaged and can grow and develop? And how is a sense of belonging and connection amongst the team and stakeholders being created?

It’s not too late to revisit or set your goals for the year ahead. Ensure they’re unique to you, they align with what’s most important and they meet your needs. That way you’ll be more likely to stay on track and reach your goals. And when you get there, make sure you celebrate your success!