Depending on your outlook and personality, the thought of New Year’s resolutions may fill you with either dread or excitement. People who approach resolutions with dread likely recall the disappointment of unmet goals as the source of their frustration; those who approach resolutions with excitement, however, have usually figured out how to set goals that are attainable and satisfying for the long haul.
If you have lofty ambitions for the coming year but are worried about setting yourself up for disappointment, take some time to figure out how to create resolutions that will work for you. You’ll find that reasonable goal-setting can propel you toward the future you desire.
Resolutions Vs. Goals
Americans often approach their New Year’s resolutions as lofty ideals, rather than goals to set and meet. The problem with lofty ideals is that they’re not very effective behavior modifiers. Behavior modification, more than anything, is what will help you harness your ambition and actually reach your desired destination in life.
For instance, anyone can say, “I want to be a better person in the new year,” or “I want to lose weight so I can feel better about myself.” However, these classic resolutions have very few application points for the everyday behaviors that make a difference in the long run.
With that said, it’s better to approach New Year’s resolutions as attainable goals rather than as vision statements for your future. It’s completely acceptable to resolve to be a better person, but that resolution without accompanying goals is unlikely to move you from your couch and into action. If you set reasonable and strongly worded goals, however, you’re far more likely to modify the behaviors that will help you fulfill your vision for the future.
The difference, then, between a resolution and a goal can be seen in the following classic New Year’s example:
- New Year’s Resolution: “I’m going to lose weight in the new year.”
- New Year’s Goal: “I will lose 15 pounds by spring break, and I will do so by working out three days a week while also reducing my food intake to 1,500 calories per day.”
The goal is different than the resolution because it is specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-limited (S.M.A.R.T.). Statistically speaking, you’re far more likely to lose 15 pounds with the goal than you are to lose any weight with the resolution. You can still call them New Year’s resolutions, but if you want resolutions with staying power, you’re going to have to set them as S.M.A.R.T. goals.
Characteristics of a S.M.A.R.T. Goal
Essentially, a good goal is one that firmly spells out who is responsible for a desired outcome, and how they are responsible for meeting that outcome. As you set goals for your New Year, you’re naming yourself as the party that is responsible for the end result, and you’re clearly indicating what success must look like.
A firm goal has the following S.M.A.R.T. characteristics:
- Specific. A good goal is a specific goal. It indicates the who, what, when, where, and why of your lofty vision for the future. It tells you not only what you eventually hope to accomplish, but also the steps you must take to get there.
- Measurable. Effective goals also specify what success looks like, and they do so by including measurement. In the example above, the goal-writer indicates that success means losing 15 pounds. This specificity is much more effective than the hope for a vaguely worded outcome.
- Attainable. You can set ambitious goals, but make sure that you break down the goals into attainable steps. You can do this by breaking your goals into measurements that you can reach within a couple of months. If you need to lose 100 pounds but haven’t had success with losing more than 20, then make yourself an attainable goal of losing 15 pounds. You can lose additional weight by setting a new goal once you reach your initial “success measurement” of 15 pounds. Giving yourself the ability to meet your lofty goals in a piecemeal manner helps you avoid discouragement along the way.
- Realistic. Goals can’t just be attainable – they must also be realistic. Realistic goals aren’t just those goals that you’re able to attain; rather, they’re the goals that you’re willing to attain. For example, if you’re absolutely fed up with stepping on and off the bathroom scale, but you don’t want to do the work to actually lose weight, then don’t set the goal. It will only lead to discouragement. You can pick up the goal when you’re ready to pursue it and have the ability to do so. Another alternative is to word the goal in a way that you feel excited about. For instance, instead of setting a goal of losing 15 pounds, set a goal of going for a walk four times a week. It’s your goal, and you can do whatever you want with it.
- Timely. Finally, a good goal is one that is time-limited. Rather than simply stating that you want to lose 15 pounds, make sure that you put a date on the goal. It can be a special event, such as spring break or a wedding, or it can just be a date that is about three months away. You’ll find that giving yourself a time frame will boost your motivation. Just don’t make the time frame too short, because you want to give yourself time to complete the goal while also making the behaviors into a habit.
Examples of S.M.A.R.T. Goals
Certainly, many Americans have New Year’s resolutions about weight loss. But Americans also use the New Year to address other shortcomings, such as financial problems, disorganization, and even alcohol use.
Here are three examples of how to turn typical New Year’s resolutions into S.M.A.R.T. goals with staying power:
- Reducing Debt. On January 1st, many Americans will likely resolve to get out of debt. The problem is that debt comes in many forms, and debt problems are often so complex and overwhelming that people can lose hope quickly after setting the resolution. However, the resolution can be less overwhelming when it’s turned into a S.M.A.R.T. goal. Instead of simply resolving to “get out of debt,” a savvy goal-setter specifies the type and amount of debt, as well as the wise behaviors that can lead to goal attainment. A S.M.A.R.T. goal, then, could say, “I will reduce my credit card debt by $2,500 by March 15th, and I will do so by applying all of my commission bonuses to the balance, rather than making minimum payments each month.”
- Decluttering. Similar to debt, many Americans are overrun by household clutter that is both stressful and unsightly. Rather than setting a resolution of “decluttering the house,” a S.M.A.R.T. goal-setter could say, “I will reduce the clutter in my house by emptying my home office of everything I haven’t used in the last three months, and I will complete this task by mid-February.” Once this goal is met, the goal-setter can create an additional goal to include other rooms in the home.
- Improving Drinking Habits. Rather than saying, “I’m going to quit drinking this year,” a S.M.A.R.T. goal-setter needs to put some serious thought toward how to create a realistic and attainable goal. If there is any kind of addiction to alcohol, the goal-setter needs to account for necessary support and medical services that will either make or break the goal. A better goal, then, would read, “I will see my doctor within one week for information about rehab, and I will visit local Alcoholics Anonymous meetings weekly. By completing these tasks, I will remain sober for 30 days, and I will reassess my progress on January 30th.”
It’s easy to become an idealist when the New Year rolls around, but it’s important to remember that New Year’s resolutions are ultimately a tool to help you grow into the person you want to be. Take some time this New Year’s Eve to really consider who you want to be in the future, and then employ S.M.A.R.T. goals to help you fulfill your vision. Making a resolution to live your life with purpose and passion is a beautiful and exciting occasion, and should not be dreaded.
What helped – or harmed – your attainment of goals?