A Kinder Take on New Year’s Resolutions Using Positive Psychology

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We all engage in goal setting.

Historically, we do more of this as we approach the New Year. I like to look at resolutions as wolf-like goals, but in sheep’s clothing. They are every bit as challenging to accomplish (perhaps, more so); but often vague & unstructured. As we’ve discussed previously, goals can help or hurt us — depending on their inherent ability to energize us. As a workplace strategist, I’ve often advised clients to refine or even lose goals that no longer serve them. Why? Goals can actually let us down and fail to direct our behavior in a meaningful way.

Resolutions often fall prey to this same malaise. So, I’m wondering — can we craft resolutions that are better for us?

One promising strategy, is to apply what we already know about positive psychology to the process. With roots in humanistic psychology, positive psychology theorizes that we have the power to re-frame our life experiences to help us become more positive and productive.

Goals & resolutions could stand some re-framing right now. So, let’s pursue this thread.

Consider the following passage:

“Positive psychology is…a call for psychological science and practice to be as concerned with strength as with weakness; as interested in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst; and as concerned with making the lives of normal people fulfilling as with healing pathology,” – Christopher Peterson

We could re-cast resolutions (and goals in general) with a nod toward what has gone right and not wrong. As we look toward the future, we might recognize what has worked over the past year — taking the time to remind ourselves of what we have accomplished. To acknowledge all of the positive steps we have forged, even if the end-state has not been reached. This might provide the fuel that we need to protect energy and build resilience.

So — ask yourself: What has brought you some measure of accomplishment recently? Have you overlooked some of the good? Have you cast a shadow over the small successes?

We should take a second look and consider that sustaining energy requires that we actively acknowledge all of our effort. That we acknowledge how small steps have power and can prove instrumental. That we make progress in ways that are often subtle, yet foundational.

Step 1.

Carefully consider a goal or resolution — and take a second look at what you have done to achieve it. Offer yourself credit, for your efforts. (If this a new resolution for 2021, you can jump to Step 2).

  • Draft a list of all of the steps already taken.
  • Do not apply a value judgement as grounds for inclusion.
  • Be sure your list is complete. All steps are progress. No step too small.
  • Now, what was obviously successful?
  • What steps may not have been entirely successful, yet had real value, after a second look? Why?
  • What have you learned from detours, failures or disappointments?
  • How have you managed to actively recover and continue to move forward? (This is also a success.)
  • How did the acquired knowledge in general, inform your journey?

Step 2

Craft behaviorally-anchored steps for the future which build upon progress noted in Step 1. Be sure to integrate what you have learned from previous highs and lows. If this is a new goal or resolution, try to improve upon any broad sweeping statements such as “be healthier” or “becoming an influencer”. Be specific. Think of yourself actively engaging in goal-directed behavior.

  • What are you actually doing?
  • What are the specific steps you will take?
  • Describe these steps. Verbs should figure prominently in your plan: reading, seeking, calling, contacting, developing, etc.
  • Add specificity to every action.

For example, if your broader resolution is “becoming an influencer” — you should note all discrete steps that may contribute to success, applying the specificity rule. For example: ” I will submit 2 pitches a week, to these 4 media outlets for potential articles/posts.”

Consider the following as positive steps, which are often overlooked.

  • Communication Channels. Establishing information networks to support your journey (joining a group, seeking guidance from a professional, engaging with social media).
  • Strategy preparation. Engaging with books, podcasts & articles to explore strategies.
  • The Deep Work. Taking steps to shift your outlook or mindset to support your journey.
  • The Everyday Work. Aligning your goal/resolution with specific habits or daily rituals.

Remember that progress is often synonymous with a collection of small steps — which occur with little fanfare. (I’ve lived this. In 2010, I made a resolution to establish myself as a work life write writer. It was pain-staking, but I tried to revel in the small successes.)

It may be high time — to offer those steps the glory they deserve.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist and a charter member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program. Her coaching practice — helps people & organizations build a stronger work life foundation. Her thoughts on work life have appeared in the Harvard Business Review, Forbes, BBC Work Life, Quartz and The Huffington Post.

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