You know the drill. Every year, around this time, you set big goals for yourself -- to lose a few pounds, be more productive, make more money, nix bad habits -- and every year, after just a few weeks in, you fall off the wagon. If you're like me, you spend the rest of the year beating yourself up for flaking out, lacking discipline, and not having enough willpower. You ball up your goals -- along with your good intentions -- and toss them in the trash because, after all, New Year's resolutions are stupid, right?

Not so fast. Contrary to popular belief, setting goals isn't the problem -- nor is making them at the start of a new year. Goal setting is vital to achievement. In business, goals are key to performance and growth. The problem comes when we make ambiguous goals with no clear timelines, structures or plans on how to achieve them. "More" money, a "better" job, a "few" pounds, are not specific goals. It's like saying you want to visit a new city and leaving it that. Without a clear idea of where, when or how you'll get to this new destination, chances are you'll stay at home.

But even if your goals are specific and you do have a plan to reach them, there's always the nagging issue of motivation. How do you motivate yourself to follow-through on your plans? Or, more importantly, how do you motivate yourself to get back on track if you falter?

The answer to staying the course on your personal or professional goals, researchers say, is self-compassion.

Don't be a harsh critic.

If you're like most folks, you may motivate yourself by using harsh self-criticism; you berate yourself if you slip and miss the mark. You might engage in a boot-camp style of motivation, screaming yourself to the finish line.  According to author and University of Texas at Austin professor Kristen Neff, Ph.D, that's the worse form of motivation. In fact, Neff says, research shows that harsh criticism and self-judgment are the enemies of performance.

According to the science, self-critics are much more likely to be anxious and depressed -- not exactly get-up-and-go mindsets that are needed to follow-through on goals. Self-critics also have lower self-confidence in their abilities, which undermines their potential for success.

"(When we beat ourselves up) we start developing performance anxiety and we don't do as well, so we fail more," Neff says. "Then we lose confidence and we tend to give up."

Be a better motivator.

That's why many people might stop exercising after missing just a few days at the gym, or quit a goal altogether if it's not done just "right."

The secret to sustaining motivation is self-compassion. Why? Because it's a far more effective motivator to get yourself to follow-through than lambasting yourself when you miss the mark.

"People who are more self compassionate, when they do fail, they pick themselves up and try again. It's not the end of the world," Neff says. "They maintain their self confidence because they don't slam themselves with self criticism."

As a result, people who practice self-compassion are less likely to give up and more likely to keep trying until they reach their goals. 

Develop self compassion.

In scientific terms, self compassion is defined as the ability to treat yourself with the same kindness, care and support as you would a loved one or close friend who's struggling.

According to Neff, anyone can learn to be more self-compassionate.

For starters, give yourself permission to treat yourself with the same care as you would a loved or friend. A simple acknowledgement that you are worthy of support and compassion goes a long way to breaking the bad habit of criticism and negative self talk. Just because you ate the cookie, turned in the assignment late or hit the snooze button doesn't mean you're a loser or destined for failure.

Then, be mindful of what you say to yourself. When you slip up or let someone down, do you immediately berate yourself? Or can you acknowledge the error and come up with ways to do better? Can you recognize that you're human and that all humans, regardless of their discipline and willpower, make mistakes?

Lastly, what's the tone you use when talking to yourself? Is it mean or disparaging? Would you say to someone else the things you say to yourself? Would you say it in public? If not, then you may want to rethink your words and adopt a lighter tone.

Adopting a self-compassionate attitude toward yourself is a much more productive and sustainable strategy in achieving your goals.

As with all skills you wish to master, self compassion requires practice. The more you do it, the more motivated you will feel to reach your goals.

Published on: Dec 29, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.