Creating successful new years resolutions with S.M.A.R.T. goals

I’m familiar with new years resolutions.  Believe me, I am.  I make them almost every year, though their format has changed through the years, and correspondingly, so has their success rate.  There was the year I vowed to read 25 books in one year (check); another year I vowed to lighten up (failed), meditate (failed), and simplify (moderate failure, but failure nonetheless).  Oh yes, and that year I was going to be less hard on myself as part of the lightening up pact (failed again).

As a nation we are obsessed with new years resolutions.  Come January first we swear off the excesses of the holiday season and vow for a year of austerity, reform, and penance.  Despite admirable intentions our national track record shows that our resolutions are not very successful as agents of change.  In fact, they stink.

Ah, but they don’t have to stink.  Take exercise.  Gyms know that weight loss consistently tops our resolutions list, and they capitalize on our enthusiasm by rolling out incentives and package deals every January.  So why is it that some take full advantage of their membership for the entire year while others can’t seem to set foot inside a gym after the first week of January?

Or tell me, what is the difference between these two scenarios:

Person one: I’m going to lose weight this year!  I’m getting a treadmill and starting back on Weight Watchers!
Person two: My wife and I will walk 500 miles this year.  There’s a track near our home and we like to walk on our lunch break.

Neither one of these is a bad goal, but the second one is framed to encourage success.  It defines a clear end point, a path to success and benchmarks along the way.  The tight focus on one aspect of exercise creates consistency and priority.  The biggest mistake most people make is to try to change everything at once.  They go about their efforts haphazardly for several days, feel overwhelmed and confused, then give up and stray back to old habits.

When thinking about tackling goals and making changes, an excellent framework to think about this is S.M.A.R.T. goals.  S.M.A.R.T. is a handy acronym and stands for:

Specific: Be very specific about what you hope to achieve.  “Exercise more” is much more difficult to pin down than “I will walk a mile every day,” and when things are difficult to pin down they are easy to avoid.

Measurable: a specific numeric target provides very tangible proof of success or the effort left to achieve the goal.  “Exercise more” becomes “one 30 minute walk daily.”  The best part of measurable goals is that it is clear when you can celebrate a success!

Attainable: these should be goals that are achievable for the version of you that exists today, not some fuzzy image of yourself at a distance point in the future.  The best use for that vague vision of Future You is to guide what types of goals to set today, and not as an excuse to put off goal-setting because you aren’t ready yet.  If the thought of carving out half an hour every day for exercise sounds too daunting, “exercise more” might initially translate into “one 10 minute walk daily” until that feels natural, and then gradually lengthen to 15, 20 then 30 minutes.

Realistic: appropriate goals shouldn’t require a drastic lifestyle change or heavy investment in expensive new equipment.  If these changes are to be sustainable they need to work for your lifestyle.  Night owls would not want to define “exercise more” as “wake up early to hit the gym.”  Be realistic about what will and will not work for you.

Timely: applying a timeframe to goals creates accountability and tangible guidelines for intensity of effort.  “Exercise more” becomes “increase strength training to three times per week” or “swim 100 laps every month.”

The advantage of the S.M.A.R.T. framework is that it provides very tangible benchmarks by which to measure success.  These goals can be daily or weekly goals, which is frequent enough to maintain focus, yet flexible enough that these goals are not derailed by unexpected events in daily life.

Furthermore, tall towers have solid foundations.  Most people who achieve their goals find success doesn’t come overnight, rather, it takes a series of steps to reach their ultimate destination.  Just as we must learn to walk before we can run, with goal setting it is important to start out small and built on our successes.  The S.M.A.R.T. framework is very amenable to this as well.  As the initial goals are built into daily life they can be expanded and modified to build towards greater challenges.  S.M.A.R.T. goals can be both short-term and long-term goals, just extend the timeframe to 6 months or a year and use short-term goals to keep on track.  They are an excellent way to frame new years resolutions, because when we make resolutions we are trying to build new habits or behaviors.

Looking back at the new years resolutions I mentioned in the beginning, you can see now why the first one succeeded and the second failed.  “Read 25 books” is S.M.A.R.T.  25 books/year is about 2 books/month, or one every two weeks, which is realistic for me and really easy to tell if I’ve fallen behind.  “Meditate, simplify, lighten up,” on the other hand, are so broad and vague that it’s no wonder I failed at these!  This year I’m going S.M.A.R.T.  And you?  What do you hope to achieve this year?

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