September is the new January: Here's how to set and tackle big goals this fall

Want to lose weight, save money or learn a new skill? Put that old back to school feeling to good use with these smart strategies.
Image: List of Goals
Creating 'new year' resolutions for the fall can also help us deal with the holiday stress ahead.ryasick / Getty Images
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By Nicole Spector

The kids are heading back to school, the days are getting shorter, and soon the trees will shed their leaves, bringing a bite to our boot-clad step. It’s not the end of the year, but it is the end of another summer, and the beginning of autumn, the season that of all four, feels the most robustly symbolic of change.

Fall is also a favorite time of year to implement and/or reinvigorate goals. A new report from Pinterest revealed that goal-related searches are on the rise, with more people seeking inspiration around goal planning (up 128 percent), goal lists (up 101 percent), big family goals (up 86 percent) and life goals (up 81 percent).

Pinterest’s data comes as no surprise to Jenna Palumbo, a therapist at Evergreen Therapy in Illinois, who says she notices clients shifting their attention toward goal setting this time of year.

“In my experience with clients, I notice that there's a bigger draw to making positive changes at this time of year than there is after the new year,” says Palumbo, who praises September as “a more realistic time to make changes and set up new routines than January, [which] is a really difficult time to make changes because we’re run down from all the holiday activities, our routines have shifted, we probably ate more sweets and less vegetables and, for most of us, the cold weather doesn’t have us functioning optimally.”

Creating ‘new year’ resolutions for the fall can also help us deal with the holiday stress ahead.

“It's important to reflect before the busyness of the holidays set in and the temptation to ‘push it off to a new year resolution’ is too strong to make the changes that would help you live your life in a better and more authentic way,” says Christie Tcharkhoutian, a marriage and family therapist.

We spoke to a number of mental health experts and life coaches to learn how we can best set and meet our goals this fall.

Reflect on what matters to you and use the ‘SMART’ approach

“The enjoyment of the summer might serve as the perfect opportunity to reflect on what is meaningful to us,” says Heather Z. Lyons, a licensed psychologist and owner of Baltimore Therapy Group. “What felt fulfilling? What would we like to hold on to or change? Use this reflection to make a list of what you'd like to accomplish by the end of the year. Then review those goals to see if they are ‘SMART’ goals.”

SMART goals, Lyons explains, are “specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely.”

“For example, if you say ‘I want to lose weight’, that's not very specific, so work to perhaps say something like ‘I would like to lose five pounds by the end of the year.’ That's a goal that's specific, measurable, bound by a specific point in time and depending on your current weight and what you care about, might also be attainable and relevant.”

Swap the goals based on ‘shoulds’ for those based on wants/needs

When it comes to goal setting, it’s important to identify our intentions behind it. Are we making a change because we want/need it, or because we feel obligated to do it? Rather than setting goals based on what you think you should be doing, set goals based on what you actually want. To get to this point, Regan Walsh, an executive coach, recommends “shedding your shoulds.”

“Stop doing what you think you should do and start doing what you want. So many people wind up overcommitted, overstressed and miserable because they [say] yes to things for a host of well-intentioned reasons,” says Walsh. “What are you doing solely because you think you should? Shed those shoulds, and recapture your joy.”

The enjoyment of the summer might serve as the perfect opportunity to reflect on what is meaningful to us.

Heather Z. Lyons, psychologist

Start small and build out from there

No matter the goal — whether it’s losing weight or saving money — you will benefit from starting small, and focusing on just one thing.

“Often, people don't reach goals for two reasons: First, they have too many goals, so they are unfocused. Second, their goals seem so big they aren't sure where to start,” says Walsh. “I recommend prioritizing a singular goal and then always taking the next best step toward it. What would be your biggest win? Make it your one and only goal right now. Then ask yourself this: ‘What's the next best step I can take today to get there?’ It's a simple and efficient process that will get you to bigger goals faster, and ultimately allow you to keep dreaming and doing more.”

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What would be your biggest win? Make it your one and only goal right now.

Regan Walsh, executive coach

Commit to positive self-talk — though your brain may resist

Ever notice that it’s very easy to feel defeated when setting about making a big change, much easier than it is to feel encouraged?

This, as Diane Strachowski, a licensed cognitive behavioral psychologist explains, is because our brains are trained to protect us by scanning our environment for negativity and point out wrong versus right.

Fight this feeling of defeat by playing devil’s advocate with your inner critic and insisting on positive self-talk.

“Say for example, you think, ‘I can't change; it's too late in the year’; instead, you want to ask yourself, ‘what is the evidence it's too late? Did you know that it takes 90 days to create a new habit? [I] still have plenty of time left.’”

If you struggle with low self-esteem or find yourself in constant self-criticism mode, imagine that you’re talking to a beloved friend instead.

“You would never say to [a friend] ‘Yeah, give up you will never make it,” says Strachowski. “Ask yourself, ‘What would I tell a friend if he or she were in the same position?’”

Be flexible with your goal — it may need adjusting

“One thing to keep in mind is that what works for one person doesn't work for the next,” says Palumbo. “I have clients who thrive off of getting up early and having a long morning routine, and other clients need the extra sleep and function better in the afternoon.”

The goal of a goal, meta as it sounds, is to make life better. If you’re struggling to get up extra early to implement a morning meditation practice, and finding yourself more stressed by the end of the day, maybe you’re better off focusing on a calming night routine instead. Changing how you reach your goal shouldn’t alter the outcome.

Abide by ‘Grandma’s Law’

Strachowski points to “Grandma's Law”, also known as the Premack Principle in psychology.

“Grandma says, ‘If you want to ride your bike, you have to eat your spinach first,’” says Strachowski. “If you want to stay motivated, do the hard thing first followed by a reward. Such as, ‘If I go to the gym first then I get to watch my favorite show afterwards.’”

Enlist an accountability partner

Strachowski also highlights the importance of holding yourself accountable so that you can stay on track and not flake out on your goals. For this, you should enlist a friend, family member or even a mental health peer who you can count on to help you stick to your word.

“Being accountable means committing to at least one other person what you are going to do for the week and then follow up,” says Strachowski. “If that is a commitment to getting back to the gym four times this week, who will you commit to and how will you be accountable?”

Setbacks will happen. Embrace them as part of growth.

“The process of change and personal growth is very rarely a linear path or a singular event,” says Michelle Fraley, a life and relationship coach. “Instead, learn to look at setbacks as a natural part of the process of change. It is the sum of all the parts that will create lasting change and carry you through fall and into the new year ahead.”

Kayce Hodos, a mental health counselor in North Carolina, seconds this sentiment, stressing to be patient with yourself whenever you start making changes in your life.

“We all get stuck in our routines and slip up when trying something new,” says Hodos. “Forgive yourself and try again.”

Celebrate every achievement

Walsh reminds goal setters to celebrate each and every milestone along the way, no matter how small.

“If you can find joy in the journey, you've already won,” Walsh says.

No big goals? Tackle small annoyances

If you don’t have any major goals to conquer this fall, consider simply eliminating the little problems that may be holding you back ever so slightly.

“Take a few minutes to think about some little things that regularly irritate you but aren't big enough to get on your radar to fix,” says Cheryl Fulton, associate professor in the professional counseling program at Texas State University. “This can be things like a squeaky door, a pile of papers that need filing or a person that you need to say no to — anything that regularly gets a sigh or eye roll from you but doesn't seem important to address right now. Pick one of these things to tackle once a month. Tackling these small annoyances can add up to less stress and greater peace of mind.”

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