Set a thinking goal

At the end of January, New Year’s resolutions tend to be as deflated as last month’s party balloons. In fact, only 8 percent of us make good on goals made at the beginning of the year. The rest of us fail. Some of us fail so consistently, we give up on resolutions entirely! Despite those rather dismal statistics, those who do make resolutions are TEN times more likely to achieve their goals than those who do not make them official. (1)

The brain, a fickle friend

The reason New Year’s goals are so hard to achieve is because reaching a goal means changing behavior, which is notoriously difficult. Repetition forms habits (like brushing teeth every night before bed or driving home without actively thinking about it) that become hardwired into the brain. But when the pleasure centers of our brains are involved, those habits become even harder to break. (2)

Let’s say a friend watches Netflix in bed, which causes her to go to bed too late nightly and ignore the brain-engaging literary classics, which are gathering dust on her nightstand. Watching a show activates pleasure centers in the brain (easy entertainment!), so that when she decides that reading would be a better use of her time, breaking the bedtime Netflix habit is harder than she thought. When we try to change a habit, our own brains actually work against us, steering us back to the neuron pathways already formed. Even if we manage to change behavior and break a bad habit, those pathways are still there and can be fired right back up again in a moment of weakness.(3)

The good news is, the brain is an amazing organ with many more regions available to help us change behavior.

You can do it!

Of course you can — just remember that changing behavior, a.k.a reaching a goal, is a process.  Researchers of the transtheoretical model of goal setting suggest once a person decides something needs to change (“my finances are a disaster, I need to do something”), six months or more may pass before actual commitment to a specific goal occurs. (4)

Once we are ready to commit to a goal, it must be specific. Not “I will save more this year,” but “I will automatically transfer $50 per month to a savings account, and give up eating out with friends twice a month to pay for it.” Do you see how beautifully specific that is? There is no weaseling out of that goal, it will hold you accountable.

You’ve heard of SMART goals, an acronym that has changed as needed by various authors since its introduction in 1981 in a business management periodical. (5) For our purposes, a SMART goal is:

S – Specific (Money transfer on the first day of each month)

M – Measurable ($50 once per month)

A – Attainable (saving $1000 per month might not be achievable right off the bat)

R – Relevant (how is this savings relevant to your long-term financial goals?)

T – Time-based (have I allotted sufficient time in my schedule to make this goal happen?)

One final note on reaching a goal/changing behavior: It can take some serious persistence. Falling off the horse doesn’t mean we’ve failed — we just get back on again and keep trying. Goal persistence, that quality of sticking to it even after setbacks and failure, has been shown to result in goal attainment (6). Smokers who wish to quit smoking make three to four attempts on average before getting to a place where their goal is met. (4)

Thinking goals

Team Better strives to encourage balanced wellness. Just about everyone makes physical fitness goals and eating goals when January 1st rolls around. This year, make a “thinking” goal as well. This goal can be anything that keeps your brain more active, or it can address specific challenges in your life that require significant thought to resolve, such as finances. For example:

  • Take a class (or teach a class) (7)
  • Pick up a new hobby (7)
  • Make a financial goal (be specific but flexible — financial peace is a process!) (8)
  • Read a book (reading works many regions of our brains simultaneously) (9)
  • Study a foreign language (10)
  • Learn to play a musical instrument (11)

Need a little more inspiration? Here are the Team Better writing staff’s thinking goals for the year:

Cynthia (TB Fitness Writer): My biggest goal this year is to publish my book “How to climb Mt. Whitney in one day – from permit, to summit, to successful finish.”

Dana (TB Social/Mental/Emotional Wellness Writer): Join a book club and read at least six new books this year.

Jen (TB Nutrition Writer): Complete at least one page of Math Olympiad problems with my boys each week.

Kara (TB Social/Mental/Emotional Wellness Writer): I have spoken caveman Italian for 15 to 20 years. My son is interested in learning Italian now, so we are going to do an online Italian course together this year. We have said we will study together at least once a week.


Six tips for financial goals

Behavior change is a process: the spiral model



  1. New Year’s resolution statistics. Statisticsbrain website. Accessed Dec 1, 2016.
  2. Breaking bad habits: Why it’s so hard to change. News in Health, National Institutes of Health website. January 2012. Accessed Dec 2, 2016.
  3. Trafton A. How the brain controls our habits. MIT News website. Oct 29, 2012. Accessed Dec 2, 2016.
  4. Prochaska JO, et al. In Search of How People Change. American Psychologist. 1992;27(9):1102-14.
  5. Haughey D. A brief history of smart goals. Project Smart website. Dec 13, 2014. Accessed Dec 2, 2016.
  6. Shilts MK, Horowitz M, Townsend MS. Goal setting as a strategy for dietary and physical activity behavior change: A review of the literature. American Journal of Health Promotion. 2014;19(2):81-93.
  7. Maintaining cognitive health. UC Davis Medical Center. Accessed Dec 2, 2016.
  8. Richards C. Six tips for setting your financial goals. The New York Times website. Oct 29, 2012. Accessed Nov 30, 2016.
  9. Dye L. How reading a novel can improve the brain. ABC News website. Jan 12, 2014. Accessed Nov 30, 2016.
  10. Maquire EA. Woollett K, Spiers HJ. London taxi drivers and bus  drivers: A structrural MRI and neuropsychological analysis. Hippocampus. 2006;16:1091-1101.
  11. Munte TF, Altenmuller E, Jancke L. 2002. The musician’s brain as a model of neuroplasticity. Nat Rev Neurosci 3:473–478


Dana Vaughan

About Dana Vaughan

Dana completed a Master of Public Health (MPH) and a Master of Social Work (MSW) at San Diego State University, and has worked in family planning education, prenatal counseling, and child development. She loves her mountain bike, her husband, her kids, and her faith—although possibly not in that order.