We’re in the final stretch of January, the first month of the year and a time for a new start. Did you make any resolutions? And if so – have you broken any already? Making changes is hard – but a scientific approach might make keeping to those resolutions a bit more realistic.

I read this great article discussing the science of setting goals. Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist at Stanford University, explained a few methods to help with setting goals. Here’s a brief overview:

1. Choose a goal that matters

Our brains are wired to love rewards and treats – so we are drawn to easy wins that can be ticked off our ‘to do list’ at pace. But meaningful goal setting requires a bit deeper thinking. McGonigal’s recommendation for any goal is to question ‘why’ three times, to get to the root of what you’re hoping to achieve. She gives the example of quitting smoking. Why #1? For better health. Why #2? So you can live to see your grandchildren. Why #3? Because that’s what really matters to you – and this should be the motivation you need to stick to your goals long term.

2. Focus on the process, not the outcome

Remember that changes – especially big ones – don’t happen overnight. Sometimes achieving your goals requires you to take small steps over a long period of time. And that’s fine – because they are all steps in the right direction.

3. Frame your goal positively

Focussing on what you are wanting to bring to your life – rather than what you are wanting to avoid – will make us more likely to achieve our goals. Our brain likes treats, not punishments!

4. Prepare for failure (in a good way)

You are going to slip up, and that’s ok! Maybe Dry January was going well until you got led astray by after work drinks. In that moment, our first instinct is to push the goal away. So instead plan for failure, rather than just hope to avoid it. In this example you could just carry Dry January into February, to make up for the days you didn’t quite manage. The final goal of 30 alcohol free days would still be achieved!