What happens if I ask you not to think about the color red?
Roses! Cherries! Rudolph’s nose! However it manifests, red probably zings to the front of your consciousness, sort of like a reflex. This is likely not because you’re a bad listener or are actively refusing to participate in my little challenge. It’s because we’re wired that way, plain and simple. What we focus on grows, even when we don’t want it to.
This is top of mind because these are the days when many of us are reflecting on 2023 and setting goals for 2024. It’s no surprise that many of these goals and resolutions fizzle with the passage of time. This isn’t year-specific . . . it’s just part of being human. It’s also part of being human to do this sort of reflection in the first place. A new year feels like a clean slate. A fresh chapter. We’re curious beings, after all, and a lot of us are thinking about what we want that chapter to be.
I love this about us . . . which is precisely why I want to offer a couple tips that might make our goals a bit stickier.
Try a To-Do, Not a To-Don’t
Not spending as much money. Resisting the urge to over-extend yourself at work. Not drinking as much. Staying away from unhealthy food. Not letting that one extra-challenging co-worker, client, or project steal as much of your joy and attention.
These pursuits are positive in nature yet are framed just like the “don’t think about red” example. Science tells us that this frame is problematic; a study by the National Library of Medicine found that approach-oriented goals are more successful than those based on avoidance.
This means if you have a resolution that you’d really like to stick with, give your brain something to-do instead of something to-don’t. Change “not spending as much money” to “saving X amount in January” or “resisting the urge to overextend yourself at work” to “being protective of my time and energy.”
A small phrasing change can make a big difference.
Practice the Celebration Exercise
One exercise we do as a team is ask each person a core question: What do you want to celebrate, at the end of the year or even month by month? This goes for both personal goals and professional goals. There’s something about asking the question in this way that does a couple of things: first, we know our questions are fateful. The questions we ask change how we think, and how we think changes how we act. Second, we know that images inspire action. When our brains can imagine something, it’s more likely we’ll be able to move toward whatever that thing is. Have you ever noticed how an Olympic skier prepares for a run, standing at the top and swaying as they prepare for and visualize the upcoming curves? That doesn’t just look really cool. There’s a scientific reason for that visualization: again, just like with the color red, what we focus on grows.
Try asking the celebration question as a team, as a company, and/or as an individual. It feels a lot more action-oriented and less punitive than the traditional phrasing—and I’m all for both of those things in 2024.
I invite you to give it a try. And if you have other goal-setting tips, share them with us! One thing we’re focusing on this year—one thing we can’t wait to celebrate with you later—is the deepening of our authentic connection with this community, so let’s talk.
Sarah Noll Wilson is on a mission to help leaders build and rebuild teams. She aims to empower leaders to understand and honor the beautiful complexity of the humans they serve. Through her work as an Executive Coach, an in-demand Keynote Speaker, Researcher, Contributor to Harvard Business Review, and Bestselling Author of “Don’t Feed the Elephants”, Sarah helps leaders close the gap between what they intend to do and the actual impact they make. She hosts the podcast “Conversations on Conversations”, is certified in Co-Active Coaching and Conversational Intelligence, and is a frequent guest lecturer at universities. In addition to her work with organizations, Sarah is a passionate advocate for mental health.