We tend to hit the ground running with all our goals, only to stagger—how can we actually stick to them?
This year, my roommate and I decided to get a headstart on goal-setting. In November, we pulled out the whiteboard and boldly filled it with countless goals, all with the intention of “getting our life together.” In retrospect, many (if not all) were pretty unachievable. My personal favourite: our promise to climb Mount Royal five times per week. Yeah, right.
I think we’re all familiar with this cycle. The new year is synonymous with a fresh start, a fact that’s almost too cliché to write about: gym memberships, new diets and promises to break bad habits transform into February failures. The shooting stars turn out to be meteors and burn up quicker than they appeared. This phenomenon isn’t just true with the new year; it also applies to new beginnings at school (hello, winter semester). So where does all our initial enthusiasm go, and can we reclaim this energy to actually accomplish our goals?
First off, it’s important to understand why we lose momentum. When it comes to resolutions, the most obvious reason is that we simply expect too much of ourselves. This can be explained by a phenomenon called the “empathy gap.” The Decision Lab explains that this is the “tendency to underestimate the influence of varying mental states on our own behavior and make decisions that only satisfy our current emotion, feeling, or state of being.” So when we made our Mount Royal resolution, we were crazed by enthusiastic energy and forgot how it actually feels to be tired.
To carry through on your promises, you need to be realistic with yourself. It’s always tempting to imagine ourselves as super disciplined, high-achieving people, but that’s often a bit of a stretch. As busy students with countless external stress factors, we have to be honest with ourselves and realize that time and motivation are difficult to come by. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t set goals, rather that we should consider how our goals actually fit into real life. Start small and make an attainable plan. Keep yourself accountable by setting small milestones and keeping track of achievements. Gradually (and with great patience), these will build and snowball.
When it comes to the new semester, the same principle applies. I start every semester with the idea that I’ll be an absolute academic weapon, doing all my required readings and completing every project in advance. Instead of setting such vague, unrealistic goals, I’ll aim to stretch this enthusiasm out and actually make a plan for myself. Maybe I’ll aim to complete “most” of my readings, schedule my time day by day, and see where I can go from there.
In case you were wondering: since November, we have climbed Mount Royal a grand total of zero times. Maybe we could choose a hill instead, or reduce our goal down to one time per week. Or maybe choose a new goal entirely. Here’s the funny thing, though—with all this time I’ve spent thinking about how I haven’t climbed the mountain, I could have just gone and climbed it by now.