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Goal-setting and overcoming barriers

Making our health a priority and improving our mental wellbeing in 2024 is a great idea. Setting a goal is the first step in making a change, but often our New Year’s Resolutions go unfulfilled.

This is known as the ‘intention-behaviour gap’, where we don’t end up doing what we had planned to. Sometimes we all need a little help to convert our intentions into action. Here are some strategies to help set and achieve these goals.

Tips on goal-setting

Choose our approach

‘Approach goals’ are a great way to move toward your desired outcome. By setting a positive frame of mind, we are more likely to achieve our desired outcome.

Simply shifting the way we think away from avoidance, into one where we are looking towards our desired outcome, an ‘approach goal’, helps us to boost our chances at getting there.

Rephrasing a goal of “I don’t want to feel as stressed or anxious each day” could be thought of as “I will take 5 minutes each day to stop what I am doing and practise mindfulness exercises”.

Set mastery goals as well as performance goals

Performance goals, like learning the piano in six months, may work for short-term objectives and are completely measurable. At the end of six months, you either committed to learning the piano or did not.

On the other hand, a mastery goal (also called learning goal) is a smaller, milestone achievement, and encourages continuous improvement. Using the same example, a mastery goal may be to begin learning each of the major chords.

If you do set a performance goal, you might also include stepping stones along the way. This way it can be easier to stay motived to continue progressing towards your larger goal.

Setting an ambitious goal without these milestones may lead us to feel a sense of failure, so it’s important to look at the steps in between where you are now and where you want to get to. The sense of achievement from these smaller milestones can give you the motivation to kickstart progress towards the next.

Mastery goals can help you persist when you’re feeling challenged or discouraged because they inspire problem solving and active engagement. When you miss a specific mastery goal, it’s not a failure – it’s a lesson learnt – and an opportunity to explore a different approach.

Setting well-defined goals

A relatively well-known set of rules for setting goals is the SMART criteria. This acronym stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timed and it is used often in organisations.

An example of a SMART goal is, “I will engage in 30 minutes of jogging, 5 days a week, for the next 4 weeks.”

Well-defined goals help you focus intentions and have a defined way to be measured. A SMART goal should be motivating, mastery based, and appropriately challenging.

Having an action plan

Action plans specify where, when, and how a goal will be implemented. The idea is to plan the specific actions you will take to achieve your overarching goal

Action plans work best when the plan is something you’ve decided to do, you’ve shared your plan with others, and it has a short duration.

Additionally, you should be confident in your ability to carry out the action plan, so be sure to develop one that feels realistic to you.
Like mastery goals, action plans with a short duration and frequent re-evaluation allow you to regularly assess if the plan is right or if it needs to be revised.

Dealing with setbacks

Closely related to action planning is coping planning, which is the process of anticipating barriers and challenges that may interfere with action plans and overcoming them.

Coping plans are designed to ‘shield’ action plans from distraction and derailment. If your action plan is to walk around the block for 10 minutes after dinner each evening, that can easily be disrupted by bad weather. However, if you had a coping plan to substitute some other exercise in the case of bad weather (such as a fitness routine with an exercise video) you could stick to your overall goal of being more physically active.

Sometimes, despite our plans and goals, unexpected and difficult things happen in life. In these situations, be kind to yourself and come back to you plan when you are ready.

If you are going through a difficult time it is important you talk to family, friends and/or a professional.

Goal-setting in action: Sarah from Manning Park Trail Runners

Act Belong Commit worked with Sarah Iles from Community Partner Manning Park Trail Runners to create an uplifting video around goal-setting. Sarah completed the Ironman 70.3 in December 2023, and shares her journey, tips and advice for achieving a goal and overcoming challenges.