• Setting unrealistic resolutions and giving up a few weeks in – sound familiar?

  • Therapist Kathryn Marlow explores how to embrace a more sustainable, and successful, goal-setting attitude

Do you make resolutions at the start of each new year? Do you find that you tend to start with the best of intentions, lose your way within the first two weeks and then feel bad for not being able to stick to them? If that sounds familiar, then you are not alone!  

And perhaps that's because the things that we try to change aren’t things we really need or want to change right now, but because everyone else is making resolutions we feel we should too!

If you want to use the change of calendar to drive you to make changes that are wanted and necessary then that's brilliant – here’s how you can ensure the best chance of success using the PANTS approach to goal setting.

1. Ensure that goals are framed in a POSITIVE way that have PURPOSE

Our brains tend to respond better to positively framed statements because they tend to focus on the action within a statement, often ignoring negative commands that precede them. For example, when we are told “don’t run”, what our brain registers most strongly is “run”, ignoring the “don’t” and we can end up doing the opposite of what was intended! 

So, if you want to make changes, find ways to articulate that change in a positive way – instead of saying “I’m going to give up smoking”, try “I’m going to live cigarette-free or “I’m going to stop drinking coffee”, try “I’m going to start drinking more water” and instead of setting goals that focus on things like losing weight, focus on improving diet or living in a healthier way.

2. Make your goals ACHIEVABLE

The most common error in making goals achievable is making them too big and expecting too big a sacrifice in the process. As human beings, we need to feel that we are achieving something and we also need to feel pleasure – making changes that require us to sacrifice things that we enjoy for long periods of time without replacing them with an alternative can therefore feel too challenging for us to stick at. It’s always good to have a long-term vision of what we’d like to achieve – what we need to do is then break this down into small steps that are relatively easy to achieve whilst still presenting a certain level of challenge. This ensures that we get a regular sense of achievement both from completing tasks and from having pushed ourselves to do something a little outside of our comfort zone. 

It’s also worth thinking about ways to reward yourself in a healthy way when you achieve significant milestones. For example, the vision might be to achieve a healthy weight. You might break this down into more specific tasks of eating a certain number of portions of fruit and vegetables a day, engaging in 10 minutes of activity every day and drinking a litre of water a day. These are easy to track, and all will contribute towards the overall vision in an action-orientated way. It can also be helpful to agree reward points where you allow yourself something positive and healthy and enjoyable to help encourage you to keep going and stay motivated.

3. Consider what NEED your goal meets

We are more likely to achieve goals when they meet an emotional or physical need in a healthy and balanced way, so before setting your goals, think carefully about what need they meet for you – will they improve your physical health or help you sleep better? Will it help you to feel more secure, give you a greater sense of control, improve you sense of community or connection to others? Will it provide you with a sense of purpose? Make sure you then do it in a way that makes it something that you want too, because that’s a great way to improve your chances of success.

4. Think about TIME scales

Open ended goals make it more difficult to stay motivated, challenge our need for stability and security and can leave us with ‘change fatigue’ – we work best when we have clear boundaries regarding the time frame of associated tasks so think carefully about how long you can reasonably commit to making changes and plan, at a point in time for that change to go into a state of maintenance and to become the new normal, at least for a period of time before you embark on the next round of changes


In order to achieve the goals you set, you need to know when you get there! We need to know what it will both look AND feel like when we achieve the change we have been working on and it can be very helpful to spend some time using our imagination to build a clear idea of what this might be like. 

It’s worth remembering that we can’t always know exactly what an outcome will look like because we can’t control situations and circumstances. We can however know how we want to feel when we achieve our goal and so focusing attention on what this might be like is a valuable way of creating a sense of what it will be like to get there! 

Additionally, making our goals public can create a greater sense of accountability for us and can help us to stick to our targets. We don’t have to publish it in the local news, but we might want to share our plans with a close friend who can help us and encourage us to stay on track. Even better, if we can find others who have similar goals to us, we can work together to provide encouragement and support along the way. 

If you really need to make those changes and feel that you need more help to do it then consider finding a coach or a therapist who can help you see a different perspective, develop necessary skills and strategies and make your changes a reality.

 And if you find the pressure of making resolutions a bit much, that's OK too. Change is best undertaken when we can imagine ourselves being successful and when we can fully commit to it so wait until you're ready! Either way remember that even if there are things you want or need to change, the current version of you has got you this far and that's to be celebrated. You may not be perfect (and let's face it, who is) but you're resourceful and determined, and you're not standing still. 

Kathryn Marlow is a verified welldoing.org therapist in Leicestershire and online

Further reading

Seasonal self-care to start the new year

How to change your mindset

The secret to long-lasting change

How to change the way you think about exercise

Is your drinking out of control?