How Do You Stick to Your Goals? with Dr. Jennifer Cruz

A clinical psychologist offers advice and shares her perspective on how to approach goals with a focus on our motivation to create a positive change in our lives.

Have you kept up with your new year’s resolutions? Dr. Jennifer Cruz, a clinical psychologist at NewYork-Presbyterian and Columbia discusses how to manage and maintain realistic goals. Dr. Cruz shares her perspective on setting goals, how to make them more achievable, and why you deserve credit — even when you feel like you’ve fallen short.

Episode Transcript

Welcome to Health Matters, your weekly dose of the latest in health and wellness from NewYork-Presbyterian. I’m Courtney Allison.

We’re a month into the new year, and whether you’ve stuck to the resolutions you made — or you’ve slipped — you deserve a pat on the back for setting new goals.

This week, we’re joined by Dr. Jennifer Cruz, a clinical psychologist at NewYork-Presbyterian and Columbia, to talk about how we can approach our goals and focus on our desire for positive change.

Dr. Cruz shares her perspective on setting goals, how to make them more achievable, and why you deserve credit — even when you feel like you’ve fallen short. 

Here’s Dr. Cruz.

Dr. Jennifer Cruz: It absolutely depends on who you are and what your goal is. But there’s certainly a lot of ways we can think about improving the likelihood for success.

The first thing is to really think about why is this important to you — not other people, not why you think it should be important to you, but rather, why is this actually important to you?

Imagine what it would be like if this were the thing that you were able to do. What would it feel like to have made that change? What do you think would be different in your body, in your life, in your relationships? And why do you care about that? And really spend some time on that.

Finding those ways to really anchor your motivation is a really important one, and really thinking about you, not other people.

The second piece is really being realistic about the changes. If you don’t work out at all, working out three days a week is not going to happen today, right? It might happen six months from now. And that’s a great goal for six months from now. But the goal today needs to be smaller.

Most people end up putting way too big of goals on themselves for no good reason, right? Nobody’s giving you a report card on this. You’re your own grader. Start small. You can always exceed it. You can always change your goals. But you might as well start small so that you can really test it out.

And that gives you the chance to see what barriers there were that you weren’t expecting.

Starting small lets you have the opportunity to test those things out and really get a sense for whether this will work for you.

Courtney Allison: Next, Dr. Cruz shares a helpful acronym to keep in the back of your mind when preparing for a new goal: S.M.A.R.T. or “smart,” which stands for: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.” Dr. Cruz explains.

Dr. Jennifer Cruz: One of the things we always say is that goals should be “S.M.A.R.T.” And that’s the acronym is…

Specific: Like what specifically do you wanna change?

They should be measurable. You should know whether you accomplished it or not.

They should be achievable. You should be able to do them.

And they should be relevant to you. That’s that motivation piece.

And they should be timely. We’re just kind of short-term creatures. And so you need a reward soon, right? You need to know that you did a good job.

Somebody needs to say you did it! Or you need to be able to notice, or you need to be able to have something set up so that you know you changed and you got reinforced for it pretty quickly.

You know, you say, “You and I, we’re gonna do this thing, we’re gonna do it together,” and then there’s social reinforcement. And there’s community around it.

And that’s a great way to really make sure you’re building in that kind of short-term reinforcement for yourself because the long-term reinforcement of, “I’m going to work out more and have more energy,” that’s great. But today you might be tired and sore.

How are you going to make sure that there’s short-term reinforcements in addition to those longer-term ones that are those lofty goals we have for our lives in general?

Courtney Allison: Dr. Cruz points out that there may be challenges and distractions, particularly when making a fresh start. And within this process, being kind to ourselves is key.

Dr. Jennifer Cruz: Sometimes it just takes a little bit to push us to being ready to actually change. If you ask anybody on any given day, they probably have a lot of things they wish they did differently, better, areas for growth, you know, sometimes big things, sometimes small things.

But why don’t we just go around making plans all the time? And it’s because we’re preoccupied.

We have other things we’re dealing with. There’s a reason certain behaviors have developed and stayed where they are, and they’re functioning for us in whatever way they are. Otherwise, we wouldn’t continue them.

If we think about a fresh start, it’s that idea of, “I want to do things differently now and there’s something I’m noticing isn’t working out for me.”

Maybe I want a fresh apartment because I’m looking to make a change in my life. I noticed I needed a fresh start. I’m shifting from thinking about change to actually doing it.

And you know what? It’s gonna shift back and forth, your motivation level is not going to stay consistent across. You’re going to have days where you hit your goals and you’re going to have days where you don’t.

And so even if you said, “Well, I started this whole new fresh start and now I’ve ruined it, right?” You haven’t ruined it. You learned. You learned about what works for you and what doesn’t. And now you can take a start with that information again.

One is giving yourself permission and building it into your change that you can have days where you miss. Because if you don’t build that in, then you are dooming yourself, right? Because there’s gonna be days you missed, you might as well build it in and have a plan for it.

“If I miss, what am I going to do differently the next day?”

But the second piece is if you really do want to get yourself out the door, is really to anchor it in what motivates you, what is the reason?

If you are somebody who likes to have it written down, if you want a physical reminder of something near you, if it’s a partner who you can say, when I really don’t want to get up, can you remind me that I actually am going to be happy like in an hour if I do.

You know, spend that extra minute to say, I didn’t want to do it today, and I did it anyway. I get extra points. And really, like, celebrate that as a win.

Courtney Allison: Lastly, Dr. Cruz highlights the value of failure when it comes to our goals.

Rather than feeling discouraged by a failed goal, it’s important to remember that there are countless other opportunities to make a change.

Dr. Jennifer Cruz: When it comes to changing things in our life and thinking about how to prepare. That’s such a wonderful thing to want to do.

So even if you don’t accomplish it, it’s OK because you had that desire to do something different and do, do something better, and that characteristic is one that you’ll have tomorrow too.

And so just to, you know, really think about every day as a new opportunity to be and choose those things that you want to do differently.

There’s never a bad time to think about changing some of the behaviors that we want to in our lives. And it’s never too late to try again.

And there’s a lot of comfort in that. I think that we have just an infinite number of opportunities.

And so if this one didn’t work out, it’s OK. We got a thousand moments coming up.

Our many thanks to Dr. Jennifer Cruz.

Health Matters is a production of NewYork-Presbyterian.

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The views shared on this podcast solely reflect the expertise and experience of our guests.

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