SMART Goals: Getting Resolutions to Stick

Written by Hannah Sommer Garza, Ph.D. and Tyson Reuter, Ph.D.

It’s that time of year when the holidays are over, and the new year has begun. New Year’s resolutions have started, and may still be on the top of the brain. If you’re like most people, you may have started past year’s resolutions with determination…until sticking with them slipped off the radar. We know that behavior change is hard, but can be done successfully when keeping certain things in mind. In particular, you want to plan SMART goals.

SMART is an acronym standing for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. These characteristics have been found to help guide goal-setting, and to ensure that your goals are clear and able to be obtained. SMART goals were first introduced by George Doran, Arthur Miller, and James Cunningham in a 1981 business journal, offering suggestions for how to improve project management in business settings. The acronym stuck and the principles have been found to be successful with achieving all kinds of goals, including New Year’s resolutions. Below is an explanation of how to create SMART goals and tips for how to be successful sticking with those New Year’s resolutions.

It is very important to be specific about what your goal actually is in order to know whether or not you’ve achieved it. Consider what you want to accomplish and why. Perhaps you want to improve your health, or to get more organized. What does that really mean to you? How would you know that your health has improved or that you’ve gotten more organized? Specify exactly what you want to accomplish. Instead of having your goal be too general (e.g. to get healthy), make it more fined-tuned by saying you want to lose a certain number of inches, or reduce your blood pressure to levels advised by your physician. The more specific you can be, the better! This will help you to stay on track with your goal AND to know how you’re doing with it. If your goal is too general, it is all too easy for excuses to sneak in and get you off track.

Select a goal that has identifiable, measurable outcomes. Measurable goals help you know how your progress is going throughout the year. Also importantly, being able to measure your goal lets you know once you’ve accomplished it! (which is the whole point, right?!). Below is a list of common New Year’s resolutions and some ideas for how to measure progress with them:

“I want to exercise more”
Attendance at a certain number of exercise classes
Number of minutes exercising
Number of steps per day
Completion of an established exercise program (e.g. P90X)
“This year, I’m going to lose weight”
Pounds as weighed on a scale
“I’m finally going to start to eat more healthily”
Number of calories eaten per day
Number of meals consumed with specified foods (i.e. food items you’d like to eliminate and/or food items you’d like to increase)
Adherence to a certain meal plan (e.g. Whole30 or Paleo)
“I’m going to focus more on my health”
Number of minutes exercising
Attendance at doctors appointments
Number of times engaging in health-related behaviors (e.g. flossing, taking vitamins)
“I want to learn a new skill or hobby”
Number of classes attended for new skill or hobby
Benchmark of proficiency appropriate for new skill or hobby (e.g. passing scores for new language quizzes)
“I’m going to focus more on my personal wellbeing”
Amount of time spent on personal wellbeing activities
“I want to spend more time with family and friends”
Amount of time spent with family or friends
“I’m going to give up drinking alcohol”
Number of standard drinks consumed
Number of days when alcohol was consumed
“I’m giving up cigarettes”
Number of cigarettes smoked
Number of days when cigarettes were smoked

This is not an exhaustive list, but can hopefully get your ideas flowing about how to measure your progress toward your selected goals.

Now that your goal is specific and measurable, you want to also make sure it’s achievable. Thinking through the logistics to see how to achieve your goal is very important. Consider what it would specifically take to accomplish this goal. What are the requirements or possible constraints? Being as detailed as possible and thinking through the logical steps will help you to be better set up for success. For instance, if your goal is to cook more meals at home, what would it take to achieve that goal? You may need to plan when you’d go to the grocery store, time to meal plan, time to cook, etc. Think about what it would take to make those aspects of the goal (or sub-goals) happen. Also consider potential speed bumps to meeting your goal, like if you’re out of town or out of your typical routine. Knowing how to handle whatever gets thrown at you will help you stay true on your path to your goal.

After ensuring the goal is specific, measurable, and achievable, the next step is to be sure it’s relevant. Is this a worthwhile goal? Even if the goal is worthwhile, is this the right time? Sometimes we have difficulty achieving our goals when the timing is off. Think about whether or not you realistically have the time and are willing to make the changes in your life necessary to achieve your goal at this time. Is this goal in line with your long term objectives? If your goal is not in line with your bigger picture objectives, then it may be important to temper your expectations. You are more likely to find success with sticking with goals that are in line with your overarching values.

With specific, measurable, achievable, and relevant goals, there is one last step. Finally, plan to keep your goal time-bound. Think about how long it will take you to accomplish your goal and give yourself a “due date.” Having a mental finish line for when you plan to achieve your goal will help to keep you on track. Also consider setting time boundaries on when the goal will reset–every day, every week, or even every month. This technique can help you if you have a down period where you weren’t successful with your goal. Instead of metaphorically throwing the baby out with the bathwater, the next week (or whatever time duration you’ve selected) is a fresh new week.

Getting Resolutions to Stick
Now that you know all the pieces of SMART goals, it’s time to tie them all together. As you plan your path of success with your New Year’s resolutions (or any other goal), consider how to make the goals Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. Also, learn from your past experiences of struggling to achieve goals AND when you’ve met them. What were the features of the goal and your attention to them that helped you be successful? What are the features that need to be tightened up this time to be more successful than before? Remember that times of struggle can be learning experiences, and are often necessary aspects of future success. Now, put all the pieces together and make your goals happen!

Putting It All Together

Let’s say your goal is to exercise more. Using what we’ve now learned, let’s make the goal SMART!!

“Exercise more” is too general. What does “more” mean, specifically? Running? Biking? Getting involved in exercise classes?

And, it must be measurable. How many runs? How many miles? Minutes? Steps?

Of course, the goal must also be achievable, which goes hand in hand with relevant. Are we talking about running a mile, or a marathon? It’s great to aim high, but what is truly and honestly realistic? After all, we’re after outcomes. Will you exercise in the morning or at night? Do you have all the gear you need to be ready to do the intended exercises? If not, what do you need to do to be ready?

Finally, let’s put a time frame on this goal. How long will it take to reach our clearly defined, measurable, and achievable goal? When will we assess our progress towards it concretely?

So, instead of saying “This year I will exercise more,” a better goal may be something like “This year, I will run in the evenings after work 3 days a week for 20 minutes in my neighborhood.”

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