Set Realistic Goals for the New Year

“The great and glorious masterpiece of man is to know how to live to purpose.” – Michel de Montaigne

As you begin to live your life in 2012, ask yourself how you might be able to make successful New Year’s resolutions this year. How might your personally chosen goals for yourself have a greater chance of success this year than in past years? Many people have a tendency to set either too many or too unrealistic goals for the dawn of a new year. These shiny new hopes and dreams for a brand new year begin to collect dust and get cast aside as habitual patterns of behavior resurface. This year can be different… it’s up to you.

When goals are unrealistic, you are setting yourself up for failure before you even have a chance to begin to try out new behaviors. This is unfortunate, since great success can be attained through successively setting increasingly more difficult goals over time. Imagine you have never been much of a runner – in fact, you probably would be winded if you attempted to run around the block. Now imagine that your New Year’s resolution is to run 10 miles a day, every single day. Does your intuition tell you that this is realistic – and thus – attainable?

It seems quite unlikely. This same individual is more likely to achieve greater and more lasting success if he or she sets smaller goals. As each small goal is reached, then a successively more challenging goal is set. The idea is not to set the bar “too low,” but rather to set the bar at a height that is just challenging enough for you to be capable of surmounting it while causing you to struggle a bit in your attempts to do so.

Change requires that you push yourself outside of your “comfort zone.” Anything great and worth achieving is going to require some effort on your part. If your rewards or successes are simply handed to you through no effort of your own, it is difficult to see yourself in that accomplishment. When you make genuine and lasting changes to your life, you feel a resulting inner shift as you begin to look upon yourself, others, and the world just a bit differently than you did before your change.

Setting Realistic Goals for the New Year

As you set out upon this new year with optimism and motivation, ask yourself the following 5 questions in your quest to set realistic and attainable goals:

(1) Why do I want this?

This can be surprisingly difficult, but it is of the utmost importance that you honestly ask yourself why you really want what you want. What do you imagine might be different in your life or within your own psyche as a result of reaching your goal(s)? It is the real reasons for why you want the things that you want that will keep you motivated along the way. When you have a honest conceptualization of why you are doing the work towards reaching your goal(s), you can more readily push through moments of discomfort and learn from mistakes along the way. Most importantly, reflect on why you want it, not why someone else wants it for you.

(2) What is the base rate of achieving this goal?

Beuke (2011) explains that the “base rate of success is the percentage of ‘qualified applicants’ who seek to achieve a goal, who succeed. You can calculate the base rate of success by taking the number of people that succeed in attaining the goal, and dividing that by the number of people that try to attain it.” For example, statistically speaking, only one in 3,400 high school basketball players go on to play professionally. Perhaps this is an unrealistic goal for most people. On the other hand, the success rate at long-term weight loss is 20%. This is still a challenge, but it is certainly attainable with dedication and commitment to real lifestyle changes. As you consider your goal(s), research how many people have attempted the same or similar path in the past and the reasons they succeeded or failed.

(3) What factors increase the likelihood of success?

Investigate what leads to success at the goal you’re hoping to reach. A huge part of successfully reaching goals is doing your homework on what works and what doesn’t work in the quest to reach it. Increase your likelihood of success by learning about various ways of improving willpower and using self-control to effectively build new behaviors. It can be challenging to form new habits, but anything that you do consciously, purposefully, and consistently will eventually result in lasting behavioral changes. Part of the process is about really convincing yourself (on a deep level) that this goal is in your best interest, that you genuinely want to make this change, and that you understand the steps you need to take to reach this goal. Make sure your goal is concrete and measurable. For example, rather than saying you want to “eat less,” make a specific goal of how much you want to eat or what particular foods you wish to eat. These are all ways of increasing the likelihood of success.

(4) What is the cost of reaching this goal?

Do some research on just what it is going to take from you (and possibly people in your life) for you to reach this goal. Consider how much time, money, and energy you will need to put into your actions to reach this goal. Remember that any worthwhile goal is going to require some changes or sacrifices on your part. Whenever you make the choice to change your way of being in some way, you are simultaneously choosing to let go on some old way of being. Be prepared to say goodbye to old behaviors, beliefs, or attitudes as you embrace your new goal. Even when our habitual patterns of behaving are self-destructive, it can be very difficult to change and adopt healthier ways of being in the world. As I have written before, change will happen when the pain of holding on has become greater than the fear of letting go.

(5) What is the cost of failure?

Ask yourself what might happen if you don’t reach your goal(s). Begin with imagining the “worst case scenario” in your mind of what your life would look and feel like if you didn’t reach your goal(s). In other words, begin to develop a contingency plan. Try to avoid thinking of this as planning to fail, but see that part of making realistic resolutions for the new year involves being prepared for multiple possibilities. Remember that even if you don’t reach your chosen goal, you are still the same person who has the same values and beliefs. Reflect on whether or not you are prepared (emotionally, mentally, physically, or financially) for the reality of not reaching your goal(s). For it to be realistic, you must be prepared to handle the consequences of not reaching it. Try to avoid letting fear of failure prevent you from taking that first step toward your true goals. You can bolster yourself up emotionally, mentally, physically, or financially before you begin down a potentially risky new path. With calculated risks may come great rewards.

This year provides you with an opportunity to let go of problematic ways of being and embrace change and growth. You can begin to gradually shift your way of being in the world through mindfully adopting new ways of thinking and behaving… the emotional changes will follow naturally. Remember to stay present and centered in each passing moment. Every single moment is rich with opportunities for you to emulate your true inner qualities and embrace the fear and beauty that comes along with genuine change.

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Beuke, C. (2011, December 9). [Web log message]. Retrieved from

Featured image: 2012 Calendar by danielmoyle / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

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