Setting goals is important regardless of your age and career status. While you can set and change goals at any time, it’s common to use the end of the year as a milestone. Whether you’re setting “resolutions” or goals, this guide will help you understand the importance of setting them, learn what kinds of goals are common for older adults, and find tips and tools to help you stay on track. 

Why setting goals is important for older adults

It’s common for retirees to feel a bit lost when they face a sudden increase in free time. In fact, it’s not uncommon for retirees to look for new hobbies or even return to work to fill their time. Whether you’re currently working or not, goals can help you find purpose in each day outside of work. And it turns out that having a sense of purpose in life can help reduce your chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other cognitive impairments. 

Without a goal or something else to focus on, some people feel no reason to maintain a routine. The presence of a goal (or multiple goals) gives us something to work toward each day. Goals also often help us improve our overall happiness and/or health. 

Where do most seniors focus their goals?

Common goals and New Year’s resolutions center around relationships, health, money, learning, and traveling. In general, your goals should help you focus on achieving something that will make you healthier and/or happier. Many goals can address both happiness and health. For example, you may have a goal to spend more time with friends and family. This will not only make you happier because you’ll spend more time with people you love, but it could also help to improve your mental health, especially if you’re experiencing loneliness. 

Health goals

Health goals tied to weight loss, diet, exercise, and staying sharp can help you live a longer, healthier life. These goals can also have a positive impact on your happiness and finances. When setting health goals, think about how you’ll define success. For example, “losing weight,” is a good area of focus, but tying a measurement (in inches or pounds) can help you understand when you’ve officially achieved your goal. This can also help you set milestones, which we’ll dive into later.

Relationship goals

Humans are social beings, and we crave human connection. If you’ve felt lonely or a lack of support, then setting goals to nurture existing relationships and/or build new ones may be a good idea. These relationships could be romantic, platonic, or with family. Think about the type of support you’re looking for to determine which relationships you want to work on.

Financial goals

Our finances can affect more than just our wallets. Debt and financial concerns can weigh on us mentally, and many seniors are concerned about being able to afford even basic needs in retirement. Financial goals can go beyond just “cutting back,” to include finding an additional source of income, improving your health to reduce healthcare costs, and finding ways to share some services and costs with others. 

Continued learning goals

Continuing to grow by picking up new hobbies or learning new skills can engage the mind. As a result, learning new things can help you feel accomplished while also improving your cognitive or physical health. Websites like Masterclass, Udemy, and edX provide a variety of online learning options and many libraries, community colleges, and community centers offer in-person classes. 

Travel goals

While not all fears of COVID-19 have passed, travel is picking back up. In our recent survey, 43% of seniors indicated that they’ve set goals focused on traveling in 2023. If you’re not up to traveling far distances, you can consider day trips to nearby places or visiting landmarks and parks in your hometown that you just haven’t made it to yet. Both international and domestic travel can have tremendous benefits—just make sure to consider some of the hidden costs of traveling to protect your budget.

How to set goals that you’ll stick with

Setting goals takes practice, but getting started (or jumping back in) with tips for success can help you learn what works a little faster. When setting and tracking your goals, keep these four tips in mind to give yourself a better chance at achieving your goals.

Be realistic

Goals should be challenging, but they should also be realistic—and finding the right balance is one of the most difficult aspects of setting goals that will stick. Be kind to yourself and remember that change doesn’t happen overnight. So, if you want to lose weight, don’t set a goal to lose 15 pounds in 2 weeks. It’s simply not possible to do this in a way that’s healthy. 

With your goal in mind (whether it’s losing weight or learning a new language), think about what steps you’ll be taking to get there. Based on those steps, you can set a realistic timeline. While it’s okay to set stretch goals (goals that are extra ambitious), you should keep the aggressiveness of the goal in mind when you reflect on your progress. Oftentimes, hitting 80-90% of a stretch goal is something to be incredibly proud of.

Create a plan with milestones

Creating a plan of action and breaking up your goals into smaller pieces can help make even the largest goals feel more manageable.

For example, if you want to learn a new language, you’ll need to determine how you’re going to learn. Will you use an app, like Duolingo or Rosetta Stone, or do you plan to attend classes at a community center or college? Once you’ve decided how you’ll learn, you should decide on a practice schedule. Your schedule should keep your timeline in mind. If you want to learn basic Spanish for a trip you’re going on in 6 months, then you should consider how long you’ll need to practice each day (or week) to learn within those 6 months. 

From here, set milestones that will help you track success. For some goals, you may need to create quiz-like settings to track progress. Milestones for learning a new language could include being able to explain directions from your house to the grocery store or ordering a meal. There are guides out there for pretty much everything, so if you’re not sure what steps you should take or how you should track progress for your specific goal, search online to find helpful resources. 

Check in regularly

Setting a time to check in on your progress will help you realize sooner if you’re falling behind or need to adjust your goal. Regular check-ins will look different depending on your preferences and goals. For example, if your goal takes time (like losing weight), then checking in daily may be more discouraging than encouraging. However, if part of your goal is to exercise 3-5 times each week, then checking in daily or weekly can help you get back on track if you begin to fall off. When you set your goal, think about how often it makes sense to check in, and make that a part of your goal.

Don’t call it quits if you miss a milestone

Setting goals that are manageable yet challenging is difficult, so it’s common to miss goals. If you fall off track or try your best but don’t quite hit your goals, don’t call it quits! Instead, take some time to reflect on what went wrong, then reset and keep working at it.

Resources that can help you stay on track

Setting goals is common, and there is no shortage of resources to help you stay on track. When thinking about how you’ll stay on track, consider what works best for you. Some people like to actively think about their goal every single day. If this is you, consider a habit-tracking app or daily journal. Others need external support to hold themselves accountable. If this is you, think about a friend or family member who you can check in with regularly. Keep in mind that you don’t necessarily need to have the same goals to hold each other accountable! 

Below is a list of resources you can consider to help yourself stay on track. If one doesn’t work for you, don’t worry! Learning how to set and stick to goals takes practice, and each person needs something different. 

  • Use a daily journal to track your progress and reflect on any challenges you’re facing in the steps to achieve your goals.

  • Habit-tracking apps offer a quick way to check in on daily activities.

  • Connect with a friend or family member to help each other stay accountable. Make sure you’re both prepared to cheer each other on and help each other get back on track if you start to waiver. 

  • Budgeting apps can help you set and stick to your financial goals, and there are plenty available! 

If you’ve had trouble sticking with goals or resolutions in the past, you’re not alone. The majority of Americans do not achieve their New Year’s resolutions—but that shouldn’t discourage you from setting them! Setting the right goals and finding ways to motivate yourself take practice. If you do fail, rather than giving up, take time to reflect on what went wrong, then reset and try again. 

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