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Setting realistic goals for the year ahead

Blank diary with the text 'This year I will'

The new year is typically a time when many of us get started on our new year’s resolutions and make plans for the year ahead. Whether it’s getting fit, losing weight, planning our next holiday, organising a birthday party or attending a festival, re-energising our goals comes into focus and we look ahead to the forthcoming year.

Unfortunately, given we’re still in the grips of the global COVID-19 pandemic, with tight national restrictions and social distancing laws, this year is looking very different and we may well still be feeling a sense of uncertainty.

With all the ambiguity surrounding us, it’s understandable that standard plans may either have gone out of the window or need a shake-up and recalibration to fit with our ‘new normal’.

Psychologists tell us that looking positively towards the future is a human need to keep us from depression, so it stands to reason that making plans and goals, particularly in this year of uncertainty, is a good way to keep ourselves in good mental health.

Here are a few tips for making plans that really stick

Make plans and set goals on a micro-scale

Keep to smaller goals you can complete on a daily or weekly basis. Making micro plans for each day and week can help create a structure that takes away some of the vagueness that the pandemic brings.

Some of the best goals to set right now will be those that have a positive impact on your physical and psychological health.

Ensure you keep all goals realistic to the current situation (yes, that means lockdown-friendly for many of us) and think of ones that will lift your spirits. This might be running up and down the stairs, walking 10,000 steps per day or opening the post daily and throwing away anything that’s not needed to avoid clutter.

Recalibrate your plans to make them SMART!

You may have heard of SMART goals in a work context – those which are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. They’re also an important factor in motivating ourselves to succeed in any context.

For example, set a specific, measurable goal such as:

I want to be able to run 5k without stopping by Easter:

I want to clear the spare bedroom so that it can be used for that purpose by Easter:

  • Download the Couch to 5k app this weekend
  • Start my action plan on Monday
  • Work through the programme, week by week
  • I’ll achieve my goal by Easter 2021
  • Start my action plan on Monday
  • Spend 15 minutes everyday clearing into:
    • To keep and tidy away
    • To sell
    • To recycle
    • To tip
  • I’ll achieve my goal by Easter 2021


Make a to-do list that you can work through

May be it’s calling a friend each week, creating a weekly book club via zoom, cooking a nice meal every Friday, creating play hour with the kids each day, or having family meals to bring everyone together, creating a to-do list dampens anxiety about the chaos of life; they give us a structure, a plan that we can stick to; and they are proof of what we have achieved that day, week or month.

Get a helping hand with an accountability partner(s)

Being held accountable to another person (or group of friends) has been shown to increase motivation. We might sometimes fail to meet our own internal expectations, but we hate to let our friends and family down. Use psychology to your advantage by asking an accountability partner to support you with your plans either in person or virtually.

Better still, ask a partner or friend to join you with your goals or plan so it becomes a shared plan. Hearing how they’re doing, getting competitive, providing support when it gets tough, and being able to do it together will give you a far greater chance of succeeding. Creating a WhatsApp group is a great way of enabling you and your partner to check in and review progress.

Use reminders

Experiment with post-it notes, to do lists, daily phone alarms, and any other tool you can use to create external reminders. Remember that the process of creating a new behavior may involve stopping an old behaviour.

If you’re supporting someone else with their plans, use reminders to ensure you check in with them too!

Consider the longer-term

Longer-term goals and plans can give us some much-needed focus, especially during these cold and darker winter months. Examples include learning a language or life skill, planning to better budget in 2021, or clearing debt.

Remember to focus on what you can control and make sure they’re realistic to ensure longer term success.

If you really do want to make long-lasting changes, research shows that rather than making random resolutions at the start of the year, the key to success is creating positive, long-lasting habits that are rewarding enough to keep.

Remember, habit formation is not a straight line and there may be days where you slip up but don't stress. One small hiccup won’t erase the good work you've already done. Developing new habits takes time, but with a smart, strategic approach, your new habits will last a lifetime.