If at First You Don’t Succeed…

by Faye D. Fischer

January; the month named after the Roman god of beginnings and transitions. This moniker makes it sound like it should be magical opportunity to rejuvenate and set goals. Yet, in our corner of the world it is also the darkest, coldest, and bleakest month of the year—which feels more like a call for sweat pants, and comfort foods, than for self-evaluation. We are stuck between the expectation to make resolutions and an environment that encourages another month or so of hibernation. Complicated by the fact that our professional lives do require a certain amount of forward momentum.

Although the universe doesn’t demand we set goals only in January, according to an article by Rakshitha Arni Ravishankar and Kelsey Alpaio in Ascend, the weekly newsletter for the Harvard Business Review, goal setting might be just the thing we need to beat the winter doldrums. “Setting goals is a meaningful exercise. Research shows that it motivates us, gives us a sense of purpose, and helps us feel accomplished.”

The article goes on to give some helpful tips for setting mindful and manageable goals.

  1. Connect every goal to a “why.” It is important to understand the purpose of our goals.
  2. Break your goals down. Smaller more attainable goals make a big achievement doable.
  3. Schedule “buffer time” for you goal. Be realistic about how long it takes to meet a goal.
  4. Focus on continuation, not improvement. Remove anxiety and self-judgement from the process.
  5. Don’t dwell on past failures. Past failures do not predict your success in the future.

These simple tips make a lot of sense but number five felt like it got right at the crux of the issue many of us have with goal setting. Why make resolutions if you discard them by the first week of February? Empty gym parking lots on January 2nd, “I made a goal not to procrastinate, I’ll start next year.” It’s become a pop culture trope, but the fear of failure is real. In fact, failure itself is real, but we shouldn’t let it frighten us.

“The dark side of setting goals is that we’re likely to fail. While this may be a harsh reality, know that it’s normal and everyone goes through a cycle of ups and down,” say Rachisankar and Alpaio. The key word here is normal. Some years will be better than others; some goals will naturally atrophy while others come together. This shouldn’t stop us from setting goals in the first place, especially when even the act of making resolutions can boost our spirits. Normalizing failure could look like changing your approach, reigning in your expectations, or getting input and feedback from involved parties. It could mean setting new, more effective goals instead of taking up the same tired bunch from year to year.

In another article in Ascend titled “Why we set Unattainable Goalsthe focus seems to be on seeing the process as a voyage rather than a destination. “Reflect on your journey to achieving your goal. Think about what worked and what didn’t. What were your roadblocks? Then lay out the specific actions you can take to make improvements. This can help bolster your drive and confidence. Importantly, reflecting can also help you identify activities that were truly enjoyable and facilitated working toward the goal.”

It’s important to remember that goals can guide us, and motivate us regardless of whether we achieve grandiose outcomes. Failure isn’t the end, it’s a new beginning. Setting meaningful goals can help us feel more purposeful and adapting as we fail helps us get the most out of the goal setting process. So as the first month of the year draws to a close, shake of those January blues, get out a notebook and jot down some New Year’s resolutions, but make sure you leave some blank pages to document your journey!

Ravishankar, R. A., & Alpaio, K. (2022, August 30). 5 ways to set more achievable goals. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2022/08/5-ways-to-set-more-achievable-goals

Yang, H., Stamatogiannakis, A., & Chakravarti, D. (2021, October 11). Why we set unattainable goals. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2021/01/why-we-set-unattainable-goals