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How to Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions by Using S.M.A.R.T. Goals

Making and breaking New Year’s resolutions is so common it’s become a cliche.

But the trouble with your resolution isn’t you. It’s the resolution itself. Many are vague or too general. They don’t give you a plan to ensure you get what you want out of it.

If you want to stick to your resolutions this year, shift your thinking. Instead of making general resolutions to eat healthier, spend more time with family, or quit smoking, set a SMART goal.

A SMART goal is designed to be attainable. It’s much more than a resolution — it’s a road map to help you get what you want from life.

How to Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions Using SMART Goals

A 2020 YouGov poll found that just 7% of people stuck to all their resolutions in 2019 and just 19% stuck to some of them.

There are a few reasons resolutions fail. A big one is that the resolution is something you feel you must do, not something you actually want to do. Psychology Today contributor and psychotherapist Amy Morin notes that many people don’t keep resolutions they felt pressured to make.

Another reason for failure is setting resolutions that are too vague. Psychotherapist Jonathan Alpert tells Business Insider that resolutions that lack specificity make it impossible to measure progress and lack the ability to motivate people.

One way to turn ill-defined resolutions into goals you can reach is to use the SMART goal framework. SMART is an acronym that stands for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable (or achievable)
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

Think of a SMART goal as a map that can help you get what you want, whether you’re looking to improve your health, finances, professional life, or personal life.

What Makes a Goal SMART?

A SMART goal is one that has a clear beginning and end. It’s something you can actually do and something that can help you get what you want from life. Let’s break down the acronym to see what being SMART actually means.

  • Specific. A specific goal is clear and concrete. It identifies what you want to accomplish and who and what you need to achieve the goal. “Lose weight” is not a specific goal. “Lose 10 pounds over eight weeks by making dietary changes and exercising at least three times per week” is a specific goal. To make your goal even more specific, you can include a why when creating it. For example, perhaps you want to lose 10 pounds to feel healthier or fit into your favorite jeans again. Keep the W words in mind when making ambitious goals: who, what, when, where, and why.
  • Measurable. You need a way to track your goals. You can use numbers if you’re trying to reach a weight-loss, fitness, or financial goal, such as getting up to 100 pushups per day by the end of March or saving $2,000 by the end of June. But you can use other methods of tracking for different goals. For example, if you want to keep your kitchen clean, you can snap a photo of it each night at a specific time.
  • Attainable. Your goal should be something you can realistically accomplish. For example, saving $1 million by the end of the year on a $50,000 salary isn’t an achievable goal. But saving an extra $100 per month could be. It’s tempting to reach for the moon when making resolutions, but you’re more likely to stick to your goals if you make them something easier to achieve. Once you’ve attained your initial goal, you can always make adjustments to stretch yourself and keep going. For example, if saving $100 per month proves to be relatively easy, bump it up to $125 or $150 per month.
  • Relevant. A goal should be something you care about and want to do. It should relate to your life in some way. If you’re happy with your career, there’s no reason to resolve to find a new job. If you don’t want or need to learn a new language, don’t make it a resolution. Instead, focus on what you want to get from your life and the areas where you’d like to improve.
  • Time-Bound. Your goal should have a due date or deadline so you can stay on track and measure your progress toward achieving it. For some, it’s helpful to break goals into smaller subgoals, such as losing 2 pounds per week, applying to one job per week, attending one networking event each month, or saving $25 per week. These subgoals can help you feel a greater sense of accomplishment as you go.

Pros of SMART Goals

The concept of SMART goals was first introduced in the early 1980s in a paper titled “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives.” Since then, managers and educators worldwide have latched onto the concept of creating SMART goals or encouraging their employees or students to do so. The framework of SMART goals offers a couple of benefits.

SMART Goals Are Achievable

The best thing about SMART goals is that they’re things you can attain provided you stick to the plan and don’t give up. Even if you get sidetracked, you can adjust your goal to get back on track.

For example, let’s say your savings goal involves putting an extra $50 per week in a high-yield savings account at an online bank like CIT Bank. But after about a month, you find that $50 is more than you can comfortably spare every week. By the third month, you realize you’ve stopped saving altogether as a result.

You have a few options. You can lower your savings target to $20 or $25 per week. Or you can adjust the schedule you use. Instead of saving $50 per week, maybe you set that amount aside with each paycheck, whether you get paid monthly or bimonthly.

SMART Goals Help You Realize What’s Important

When you set SMART goals, you gain a better understanding of what matters to you and what you want to get from life. Once you start thinking about relevant and attainable goals, you can weed out the resolutions that sound good on paper but aren’t going to get you where you want to be.

Cons of SMART Goals

SMART goals aren’t always a perfect solution. Knowing the potential disadvantages can help you make a plan for success.

SMART Goals Can Be Limiting

In some cases, setting a SMART goal can keep you from really challenging yourself in the new year.

Some people focus too much on the attainable or time-bound aspects and end up with a resolution that doesn’t take them as far as they really wanted to go.

Saving $10 per week on a $300,000 per year salary is an attainable goal. But at the end of the year, the $120 you’ll have in savings isn’t any more than you could typically pull out of your checking account at a moment’s notice. You’ve reached your goal. But the goal you set didn’t result in any advantage or ultimate benefit.

One way to minimize this disadvantage is to always structure your goals to challenge you — at least a little. The goal should still be relevant and realistic, but you’ll ideally have to push yourself a bit to achieve it.

SMART Goals Can Put Pressure on You

This disadvantage is the opposite of the first one. If you’re too ambitious, a SMART goal can add more stress to your life. If you set a lot of goals or set too lofty a goal, you can begin to feel like you’re on a hamster wheel with no way off. If that happens, you may lose sight of the purpose of goal-setting or fail to see the value. You may even give up.

You don’t always have to be working on something or finding some way to improve yourself. If you set a goal, whether it’s related to your career, health, finances, or personal development, take time to bask in achieving it. You don’t need another goal lined up immediately.

If you’re concerned about going overboard, give yourself a limit. Work on one goal at a time and reward yourself when you achieve it. Then move on to the next goal when you’re ready, keeping up the good work on the first one if it’s an ongoing objective.

You also don’t need an impressive-sounding goal. These goals are for you, not everyone else. If you just need to quit biting your nails or only have the bandwidth to commit to drinking enough water each day, then those are the best goals for you.

Examples of SMART New Year’s Resolutions

New Years Resolution Exercise Eat Better Be Happy Save Money

Before you set your own SMART new year’s goal, it’s crucial to take a closer look at some popular New Year’s resolutions to see what happens when you turn them into realistic goals.

SMART Wellness Resolutions

Some of the most popular New Year’s resolutions focus on improving your physical health and overall well-being. Rather than sticking with the vague, such as “get out of debt” or “quit smoking,” set goals with a clear purpose and defined beginning and end. These examples can get you started.

Lose Weight

“I will lose 20 pounds in six months because my doctor said it could help prevent health problems I’m worried about. I will do this by working with a personal trainer for one hour two mornings per week and walking briskly for 30 minutes per day at least five days per week. I’ll also book an appointment by Jan. 31 to see a registered dietitian to help me develop an eating plan for weight loss.”

  • Specific: This goal specifies exactly how much you want to lose and by when, why you want to lose it, and what you’re going to do to achieve the weight loss. It further specifies who you need help from (a personal trainer and a dietitian).
  • Measurable: You can keep track of your weight loss using a scale to record your progress as you go. You can also keep track of your caloric intake and how much you exercise using a fitness and nutrition journal.
  • Attainable: Losing 1 to 2 pounds per week is the amount generally recommended by health care professionals, such as the Mayo Clinic staff. In this case, six months is almost 26 weeks, plenty of time to lose 20 pounds at just 1 pound per week, allowing for weeks you lose more and weeks you lose less. You can lose that amount by making sustainable changes to your habits rather than making drastic changes that are hard to maintain (such as going on a very restrictive diet or trying to work out for hours each day). Instead, you can engage in steady aerobic exercise, such as walking or easy at-home workouts, for at least 30 minutes most days of the week and make healthier eating choices.
  • Relevant: While your doctor suggested it, this isn’t something you’re doing in response to criticism from well-meaning friends or family members. You’re worried about a health problem. It would also be relevant if you wanted to look better in your clothes or preferred being a lower weight. So long as the weight loss is for you, it’s relevant. It’s hard to keep a resolution like this if you’re perfectly happy with your current weight.
  • Time-Bound: You’ve set an attainable time frame and now have something to work toward. You can make the goal even more time-focused by outlining a week-by-week plan to act as subgoals. But it’s easier to do that once you’ve consulted with your trainer and dietitian.

Increase Fitness

“I’ll take a walk five days per week to get more active so I can better keep up with the kids. I’ll walk the path around the park in the morning, after breakfast but before I go to work, with a goal of getting up to 1.5 miles by May 1.”

  • Specific: The goal is specific, as it clearly defines the number of miles you plan to achieve by the deadline. To avoid injuring yourself, you can work up to the goal by starting with a shorter walk, such as an eighth- or quarter-mile.
  • Measurable: You can use a mapping program to measure your route’s distance or wear a fitness tracker like a Fitbit to keep track of how far you walk and how long the walk takes.
  • Attainable: Depending on your current fitness and health levels, walking 1.5 miles per day is likely achievable. If you’re not quite there yet, start with a shorter walk and work your way up methodically, such as adding an eighth-mile after each week or two. It’s advisable to consult with a physician before starting to make sure you’re physically able to add walking to your daily routine.
  • Relevant: If you’ve got kids, you know all too well how hard they can be to keep up with. But according to the Mayo Clinic, regular exercise helps your cardiovascular system work more efficiently, giving you more energy to get things done. So getting fit really can help you spend more quality time with your family.
  • Time-Bound: Your goal is to take a walk almost daily. And you’ve set a deadline of May 1 to be up to your ultimate goal of 1.5 miles.

Quit Smoking

“I will quit smoking by June 15 to save money and get healthier. I’ll use nicotine gum to help wean myself off cigarettes and taper down the amount I smoke. I’ll schedule an appointment with my primary care doctor by Jan. 31 to discuss how to reduce the amount I smoke and learn more about smoking cessation support programs.”

  • Specific: Your specific goal to quit smoking outlines the process and tools you’ll use, such as nicotine gum to help reduce cravings and working with your family physician. Asking yourself why you want to quit, such as to live longer for your loved ones or pay lower health insurance costs, also helps make your goal more concrete.
  • Measurable: You have many options for measuring your goal progress. If you’re weaning yourself off cigarettes, you can set a smoke-free date and make a plan for reducing the number of cigarettes you smoke each day until you reach the target date. A quit-smoking app can help you stick to your goal. You can also calculate your average cigarette spending over the last six months before quitting, then track your new spending each month.
  • Attainable: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly two-thirds of all people who had ever smoked had quit by 2018, meaning most people have done it and you can too.
  • Relevant: Everyone knows smoking is bad for your health — it’s on the Surgeon General’s warning on every pack. But according to smoking cessation site Tobacco Free Life, a pack-a-day smoker in Virginia, where you can buy the cheapest cigarettes in the U.S., still spends almost $2,000 per year on their habit. Depending on where you live, the savings from quitting smoking could be even more significant.
  • Time-Bound: Your quit-smoking goal is time-bound when you set a smoke-free date — in this case, June 15. You can also pick dates along the way to help you track your progress. For example, if you smoke a pack per day, aim to get down to half a pack by mid-April.

SMART Financial Resolutions

Maybe you could use some financial life improvement in the new year. Setting attainable goals can help you improve your financial well-being.

Reduce Debt

“To improve my credit score, I’ll pay off my credit card debt of $2,500 using the snowball method by the end of this year. I’ll stop using my credit cards while I’m paying off the debt.”

  • Specific: You’ve decided to pay off a particular debt, your credit card, and have named the amount you need to pay off in addition to the method for paying it off. That will allow you to establish a more specific plan to reach your goal.
  • Measurable: You have options when it comes to tracking your debt repayment. Since you’re using the snowball method, you can create a spreadsheet to track how much you’re paying each month. Or you can create a chart or graph and color it in as you make payments until you’ve paid the debt in full.
  • Attainable: Paying off $2,500 in one year can be attainable, depending on your income, expenses, and budget. Figure out how much you need to pay each month to pay off $2,500 by the end of the year, then crunch the numbers to see how that works with your current finances. You might need to cut back on spending or find a way to increase income, such as a side gig.
  • Relevant: Paying off credit card debt won’t improve everyone’s credit score, as numerous factors affect it. But if you’re sure it will improve yours, it’s certainly relevant, especially if you’re saving for a significant purchase and need a good credit score to get the best deal, such as saving for a down payment on a house.
  • Time-Bound: A budgeting app like Quicken can help you set a debt repayment schedule and give you an idea when you will have your debt paid off.

Build an Emergency Fund

“For peace of mind, I will build an initial emergency fund of $1,000 in 10 months by saving $100 per month. I’ll make more meals at home and stick to a budget to have the extra $100 to set aside.”

  • Specific: The usual recommendation is to have at least three months of expenses in the fund. If your expenses are $2,000 per month, create an emergency fund with at least $6,000 in it. But if you’re starting from scratch, saving $6,000 can seem like a significant hurdle. Starting small lets you build a cushion you can add to over time. You may even get so accustomed to tucking away $100 each month that you continue on that path until you’ve reached your final goal.
  • Measurable: You’ll save $1,000 by the end of October if you set aside $100 per month. You can open a separate savings account with CIT Bank to keep track of your emergency fund and goal progress.
  • Attainable: Depending on your income and circumstances, saving $100 per month can be achievable. If it’s not, take a look at your budget to see if there are places where you can make changes, such as by cutting your spending on nonessentials. If that’s not possible, it may be prudent to decrease the monthly amount and increase the length of time it takes to reach $1,000.
  • Relevant: If you frequently worry about what would happen if you had unexpected expenses or financial setbacks, having an emergency fund can provide peace of mind. Once you have the first $1,000 saved, you can set your next goal, eventually getting up to having three to six full months of expenses saved.
  • Time-Bound: You’re saving over 10 months and have set up monthly goal targets.

SMART New Year’s Resolutions for Your Personal Life

Popular resolutions for improving your personal life include spending time with family, reducing screen time, and getting your home organized. But how do you make them SMART?

Reduce Social Media Use

“To improve my mental health, I’ll limit my personal social media use to 15 minutes daily. I’ll use app blockers and focus tools to keep me off Facebook or Instagram. When I’m scrolling through social media, I’ll set a timer to keep myself from going over.”

  • Specific: You’ve made a plan to cut back on social media to just 15 minutes per day. You’ve outlined the tools you’ll use to help limit your use.
  • Measurable: If you tend to use social media in longer sessions, you can set a simple kitchen timer and log out when the timer goes off. For those who log in several times per day for a few minutes at a time, an app like FocusMe blocks the sites you want to avoid after you’ve reached your time limit.
  • Attainable: Unless you have to use social media for your job, limiting yourself to a few minutes per day or once per week is likely achievable. Any work-related time you spend on social media shouldn’t count toward your goal.
  • Relevant: In 2020, the term “doomscrolling” entered the popular lexicon. It’s the act of consuming vast quantities of negative news, and it’s a practice that’s sometimes unavoidable on social media. According to a 2016 study published in the journal Depression and Anxiety, social media use is associated with depression. If you find yourself increasingly distressed after long sessions on social media, limiting your time there will force you to think carefully about which content you engage with and may improve your mental health as a result.
  • Time-Bound: Setting a daily limit helps to keep your social media goal time-bound. While this goal has no specific end, you can revisit it as your mental health improves.

Spend More Time as a Family

“Our family will participate in one quality-time activity each week, such as going to a museum together or spending the day at the park. We’ll alternate who gets to pick the activity each week.”

  • Specific: You’ve decided to spend more time with your family by engaging in a quality-time activity weekly. You can make the goal more specific by picking a regular day, such as Saturdays or Wednesday afternoons, though that may be impractical for families with varied weekly responsibilities.
  • Measurable: Put your activity on the family calendar so you remember to do it. If it’s an activity you need to buy tickets or make reservations for, choose a day, such as the first Monday of the month, to make preparations for the upcoming month’s activities. And don’t forget to take plenty of pictures so you can look back on all the fun you had at the end of the year.
  • Attainable: A weekly activity is achievable for most families. If your family is very busy, you may need to go for once per month or biweekly.
  • Relevant: By taking turns picking the activities, you keep the goal relevant to the whole family. If one sibling loves the natural history museum and the other doesn’t, they’ll get their turn to choose an activity the next week.
  • Time-Bound: Establishing a regular timeline and adding it to your family schedule makes you more likely to stick to it.

SMART New Year’s Resolutions for Your Professional Life

Do you want to make headway toward a new career or give your professional life a boost in the new year? Make your professional resolutions SMART ones.

Learn a New Skill

“Improve my Spanish language skills so I can better communicate with Spanish-speaking clients. Use an app to practice Spanish for at least 10 minutes per day. Sign up for a weekly Spanish conversation course. Take a Diplomas de Espanol Como Lengua Extranjera (Diplomas of Spanish as a Foreign Language, or DELE) proficiency exam in six months to test my abilities.”

  • Specific: You have established a clear method for learning a language. You can use an app like Duolingo for practice and find a language class at a local university or language school.
  • Measurable: Duolingo sends you daily reminders to practice. Your class will also most likely offer tests and quizzes to help you gauge your progress. The DELE lets you see how much of the language you’ve mastered.
  • Attainable: Assuming you already speak Spanish somewhat, you probably just need practice through Duolingo and formal courses to solidify your understanding. Just make sure you have the time each week for the class and any homework involved, or choose one that works with your schedule.
  • Relevant: If your company has branches in a Spanish-speaking country or you want to engage with more Spanish-speaking clients, learning Spanish can make you a valuable asset.
  • Time-Bound: You’ve set a goal of six months by which to take the DELE.

Network More

“I’ll attend one career-related networking event each month to help myself change careers. At each event, I’ll give out five business cards and collect at least five cards. I’ll follow up on the connections I make within 48 hours of the event.”

  • Specific: You want to change careers and hope to meet people in your new field. Attending networking events allows you to do so. But simply attending isn’t enough. You have to engage with others in that field, and setting a goal of exchanging five cards helps you do that.
  • Measurable: You can measure your progress on this goal by keeping track of how many events you attend and how many cards you collect. You can also make a spreadsheet to track follow-ups and what happens after reaching out to your new contacts.
  • Attainable: Going to one event per month should be achievable if your schedule allows. If you find yourself too busy to attend events, try cutting back to one every other month or leveraging virtual events that fit more easily into your schedule. If you find it difficult to get five business cards, try to make just one meaningful connection at each program.
  • Relevant: You want to change careers, so meeting people in your new field is a must. Going to events might be relatively low-stakes and can help you test the waters and see what you need to do to make your career change happen.
  • Time-Bound: Your goal is time-bound in two ways. You’ve decided to go to one event per month, and you’ve given yourself a 48-hour follow-up deadline. You can make the goal more time-bound by deciding how long you’ll go to events before making the next step toward a new career if time is of the essence.

Final Word

After ringing in the new year, you’re ready to hunker down and make your New Year’s resolutions. Just remember not to get too broad or set too many goals.

Make a list of what you’d like to do over the next 12 months, then choose one or two resolutions from that list to turn into SMART goals. If you achieve your goals before the end of the year, you can set new ones. When you reach a goal, remember to take the time to celebrate before you start on the next one.

Amy Freeman is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia, PA. Her interest in personal finance and budgeting began when she was earning an MFA in theater, living in one of the most expensive cities in the country (Brooklyn, NY) on a student's budget. You can read more of her work on her website, Amy E. Freeman.