It’s January 1st. You bought your notebook, numbered the page, and you’re ready: it is time to make some New Year’s resolutions. If you’re someone that regularly makes resolutions, you’re not alone. The start of a new year brings a natural push to start new routines or try to break bad habits. However, many people struggle to keep resolutions. The good news is, behavioral science and the theory of motivation tell us there are evidence-based strategies that can help.
To start: Goal setting is an effective way to focus attention on behavior change. But don’t just make any goals – make “SMART” goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely.
Specific. Be specific, or exact, about what changes you hope to make. Instead of “get in shape” or “write more,” try something like “Exercise 4 times per week” or “write 400 words every weekend.” This also naturally incorporates the plan into the goal and helps the goal-setter think practically about what the change in behavior will look like.
Pro-tip: Approach goals (goals that are phrased as doing something) can work better than avoidance goals (goals directed towards what not to do, like “stop watching TV before bed”).
Measurable. How will you know that you’ve reached your goal? It’s best to make this quantitative. Meaning, there is some sort of number assigned to your progress. In the earlier writing example, we’re measuring the number of words we write per weekend. This makes progress tangible and easier to evaluate.
Pro-tip: Track your progress. Keep a log and record what you’ve done, changes you’ve made, etc. Some people like tracking with pen and paper, others use mobile applications.
Achievable/attainable. Goals should be ambitious but not impossible. Set yourself up for success! Selecting unattainable goals, like running a 6 minute mile, is difficult to do if you’ve never been a runner. When you’re brainstorming goals, work to find a balance between challenging and achievable.
Ask yourself: Performance or Mastery? Performance goals (I will lose X pounds) can be specific and measurable, but may not be as achievable as “mastery” goals (learn to cook nutritious meals). Some psychologists suggest struggling to reach performance goals leads to folks thinking they have an inherent inability to reach it, decreasing motivation. Challenges posed by mastery goals may be easier to bounce back from because it is perceived as “part of the process.”
Realistic/Relevant. The goal should make sense and be right for you. If you want to learn a new language but aren’t even sure where to start, make a realistic plan (like practicing 30 minutes a day). Maybe pick a language that has some meaning to you (perhaps you want to visit France one day, so French makes the most sense). If it isn’t meaningful to you or something you find possible, it may be abandoned by February.
- Another example: You may resolute to travel this year (COVID–19 allowing, of course). That’s awesome! (And can I come?) This may be difficult to achieve unless you have an open schedule and good finances. If this is achievable, try breaking this large goal down into smaller steps and map out the process required to achieve it.
Timely. What is your timeline like? Is it to run a marathon in 2022? If so, it might be good to set some timely steps between now and then. Something like “set training plan in January” and “Run outside 3 times a week for 2 months.” This helps know when to re-evaluate and make more steps.
The biggest tip of all: these SMART characteristics don’t just apply to the ultimate goal (save X amount of money in 2022). They also apply to the steps you’ll take along the way (e.g., making a budget by the end of January, check in with a budget once per week for 2 months, for example).
Some additional tips:
- Action planning with flexibility. Once you feel good about the goals you have: What steps do you need to take? Thinking through the specifics will help with follow through and allow for some flexibility for these things (as we’ve learned, many unexpected things can happen throughout the year).
- Ask yourself why. Maintaining motivation is difficult, and recognizing the intrinsic motivation can make it easier to follow through.
- Learn from the process (and be kind to yourself). If you try something and it doesn’t work out, try to stay in a growth-mindset versus a fixed one. Use the measurement and time aspect to check in with how things are going and adjust accordingly.
- Seek social support and accountability. Having support to either hold us accountable or encourage us goes a long way. Plus, it’s fun to celebrate with others when we reach a goal!
Happy New Year, Good luck, and cheers to 2022!