You survived the holidays and made it to a new year! Whether or not you are a New Year’s Resolution type of person, we all have goals for self-improvement. You hear it from coworkers, family, friends, and partners every year: “New year, new me!”Yet our resolutions for the new year often fall flat by March. We may lose interest or motivation to continue, or may find that we don’t know how to accomplish the goals that we’ve set for ourselves. Whatever the reason, our new year’s resolutions often go unfulfilled, leaving us feeling discouraged, hopeless, frustrated, or “stuck in a rut.” Fortunately, researchers have come up with process for setting and achieving our goals that can help us break this cycle.
Before reading further, give some thought to what you want to change in your life. Consider how you might finish the sentence: “In 2017, I want to…” As your read the tips below, reflect on how this may change the way you construct your goals for the coming year. The trick is a simple one: make goals that are SMART GOALS.
Smart goals are specific
“In 2017, I want to be happier.”
This is a good example of a goal that many will espouse when January 1st rolls around, and for good reason—who wouldn’t want to be happier? The problem is that this goal is simply too vague. Specificity in our goals not only helps us define exactly what our goal is, but it helps to equip us with the tools to accomplish them.
So in 2017, I want to be happier. But how will I be happier? What will make me happier? In getting specific, we begin to think critically about the ways in which this goal can be accomplished. Maybe spending more time with our family or friends makes us happier? Maybe spending more time alone? Maybe there are hobbies for which we could allot more time, or bad habits we want to break? Often, this can be taken two or three steps further: “I want to be happier, but how? Well, I think working less would help, so maybe finding a better work/life balance is my goal. Now how do I do that?”
SMart goals are measurable
“In 2017, I want to exercise more.”
Goals related to fitness or weight loss are some of the most common New Years resolutions, and may often look like this. This one isn’t bad–it’s fairly specific and certainly feasible. The issue with this goal, however, is that in its present form, it’s not a measurable one. Fortunately, this is an easy fix if you get in the habit of asking the necessary questions: How often? How much? To what degree? As we begin to ask these key questions, the goal becomes more accessible and realistic. So maybe I want to start running for an hour on the weekends, or maybe I want to try weightlifting twice a week. I might want to try yoga after work every day, or I could connect with a personal trainer for a session every week.
A key question to ask with measurability is “how will I know when I’ve accomplished this goal?” Consider a checklist of criteria or a to-do list that you might need to complete in order to have accomplished this goal. As with specificity, measurability is another way of honing in on the details of what exactly we hope to accomplish while also outlining the ways in which this goal can be attained. This is important, because…
SmArt goals are attainable
“In 2017, I want to get a promotion.”
There is no quicker way to become discouraged in our progress toward our goals than to set out to attain the unattainable. We can quickly become burned out, frustrated, disappointed, and begin to feel like we have failed. This doesn’t do us any favors when it comes to making positive changes in our lives; we need goals that we can accomplish.
This sounds simple enough, but many of us make a habit of telling ourselves “if I just work enough/try hard enough/want it badly enough, I can make this happen,” when in realty, there is much we cannot control. This resolution is a good example of this. Even if you work your hardest, there is usually no guarantee that securing a promotion is within your control. A more attainable goal might involve hitting certain milestones at work and then discussing the possibility of promotion with your supervisor or manager. This is a “smarter” because of everything we have discussed so far: it’s specific (I’m going to meet these specific criteria and hit these specific milestones, then open a specific discussion with my supervisor), it’s measurable (assuming the criteria to meet at work are clearly defined), and it’s attainable because of the way that these things all fall within your control.
SmaRt goals are realistic
“In 2017, I want to lose 10 pounds every month.”
Specific? Sure. Measurable? Definitely. Attainable? Maybe—but it isn’t realistic. If we want to set goals that we can accomplish, we have to set goals that are realistic. This means setting goals that are not only attainable, but that we presently have the resources to achieve. Setting unrealistic goals not only increases the likelihood of failing to complete them, but can actually make failure an acceptable outcome. Despite this, some may still set goals that are unrealistically difficult because they may hold the mentality that shooting for the moon and missing still lands you amongst the stars; while this is can be true, encouraging the acceptance of failure can quickly become a slippery slope when it comes to effecting important and meaningful change.
SmarT goals are time-sensitive
“In 2017, I want write a novel.”
Time-sensitive, or time-bound goals are ones that come with deadlines. Without a deadline, we can easily procrastinate and delay our progress toward effecting change by justifying it with ideas such as “Well, I’ve still got time.” For a New Year’s resolution, the deadline might be the full year: “By the end of 2017, I want to have accomplished this.” A year is a long time to accomplish the goal at hand, however, and by October or November, we’ve likely forgotten all about our goal for the year. So try this: get specific with time-sensitive sub-goals. You want to write a novel by the end of 2017? How about we set a goal to outline the plot structure by March 1st, and have the first chapter written by the end of April? How about we set a goal to set aside 90 minutes each Saturday to exclusively focus on writing? These sub-goals are not only time-sensitive, but they also easily meet the rest of our “SMART” criteria. By setting these time-sensitive sub-goals, we not only help facilitate progress toward our larger goal, but can help build momentum by helping us achieve smaller successes en route to achieving our overall goal.
The #1 most common New Years resolution from 2016 was to “live life to its fullest.” This is a great goal, but one that is too vague to ever be achieved. By setting goals that are S.M.A.R.T.—specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-sensitive—we set ourselves up for success by not only giving ourselves an endpoint to move toward, but by outlining that path to success. By making demonstrable and beneficial changes that continue to help us evolve into the person we want to be, and that is one way to live our lives to their fullest.
Daniel White, MS, LPC
About the Author: Daniel graduated from Roosevelt with his masters in clinical psychology in 2016 and has practiced as a therapist under supervision for over a year. He has been writing for Bergen Counseling Center since 2016, and his areas of special interest include intimate and familial relationships, trauma, shame, grief and loss, and issues related to individuation and identity development.