Nine tips to help you keep promises to yourself

It seems that ‘Life’s a Beach!’ hit a nerve last week when we took what was (apparently) an uncomfortably close look at New Year’s resolutions (remember them?). Most of the responses I received can be pretty much summed up like this: ‘OK, Mister Smartypants! Instead of sitting there and telling us why our resolutions are going to fail, why not be a little more positive? What can we really do to make them work?’ So, properly chastised (and better for it), I am happy to rise to the challenge.

Success in any endeavor, be it as simple as a New Year’s resolution, or as important as an emotional or financial commitment, boils down to one, vital element: Setting goals.

We all know it makes sense to set goals, but procrastination can be the biggest enemy of following through. Our goals gather dust in the psychological attic, out of sight, and out of mind.

Think about all the talents wasted because of procrastination! The books never written; the businesses never started; the music never composed. Even on a smaller scale, imagine how much more you could have done to keep your house in good shape, your lawn looking nice, or your car in good working order.

Learning to turn your ideas into reality is a critical part of maintaining good psychological health. The better you formulate your goals, the more likely it is that you will achieve them. As this becomes a habit, you will feel better about yourself and about life in general, becoming a more effective spouse, parent, employee, boss, girlfriend, boyfriend, whatever.

In more extreme cases, consistently failing to follow through on goals can lead to depression. The depressed person feels powerless over his ability to get anything done. He becomes mentally and emotionally paralyzed.

How can you avoid this paralysis? The key lies in setting goals that you can keep. Here are some tips for going just that:

Be Realistic

Be prepared to follow through. Just as you shouldn’t make promises to others that you’re not prepared to keep, you shouldn’t make a false promise to yourself either. You’re the only person you can’t fool, and you will probably be the most unforgiving. This can spark psychological problems.

Examine Past Attempts

Try to identify what didn’t work in the past, and why. Take a scientific and fact-based approach. Don’t merely go on “gut feelings.” Gut feelings can be good at helping to get things started, but you have to examine the facts to help make sure you don’t make a mistake—or repeat past mistakes.

Give Yourself Credit

If you’ve had partial successes in the past, give yourself credit for them! If you once quit smoking for 8 weeks, but started smoking again, at least give yourself credit for what you did. What sustained you for those first 2 months? How can you keep it going this time?

Take Baby Steps

With difficult goals that seem overwhelming, take small steps. Build momentum by setting ‘mini-goals.’ The energy may build slowly, but it will definitely build. Over time, achieving your goals, no matter how small they are, can become a habit.

Beware of External Influences

Friends, family, even the news (or what passes for news) can be instrumental in helping or hindering your efforts. For example, someone trying to stop drinking will usually avoid bars. Someone trying to start a business will do well not to talk about his ideas with negative (or jealous) people who automatically say things like, “It will never work.” And do you think that the media pundits and ‘experts’ who predict all sorts of economic goings-on would still be trudging to work every day if they REALLY had the low-down on stocks, interest rates and the rest? They’d be lounging in their villas in Maui. Note that they are not.

Visualize Yourself

Create a picture in your mind about how you will look, how you will feel and what you will be thinking and doing once your goal is accomplished. This sends a message to your subconscious that achievement is possible, even likely, and could lead to a positive, self-fulfilling prophecy.

Monitor your Progress

Be objective about yourself . Don’t obsess, but stay in contact with the reality of what you’re doing or not doing. For example, people trying to lose weight find it useful to weigh themselves every so often and/or keep track of how their clothes fit.

Talk Nicely to Yourself

Don’t punish yourself with words like “stupid” or ‘idiot.’ Stick with the facts: ‘How am I doing?” or “What’s working or not working here?” or “What’s the next step?” Be objective, fair, and judiciously hard on yourself, but guiltlessly enjoy positive feedback when deserved.

Select Help Carefully

It’s OK to talk to somebody whom you trust and respect. Sometimes a spouse, a close friend, or even an objective third party such as a therapist, personal coach, or mentor can help you see through honest errors or psychological problems. It’s easy to fall into evasions, rationalizations, and so forth, which can often be obvious to an outside observer.

Well, you asked for it. Nine tips for setting—and keeping—your goals. Give them a try, and let me know how they worked out.