How to Make SMART Resolutions

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If you’re planning to make resolutions for the new year, you’re not alone. In a recent Huffington Post online poll, 73% of readers set new year’s resolutions, and only a quarter of respondents say that setting goals is “Too much pressure!”

The new year is an optimal time to set new goals. Here are a few tips that, if followed,will  increase the likelihood that you’ll stick to them throughout the year.

“Begin With the End in Mind”

As you set your goals, you should first be clear about your priorities. Steven Covey, the author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People says that we should “begin with the end in mind.” In other words, in whatever tasks you pursue, by thinking about what you want to accomplish or the outcome you desire, you’ll become more focused and motivated than if you have no clear vision of “the end.” However, rather than beginning with a long list of unrealistic targets (“I’ll lose 50 pounds”), take some time to envision who you’ll be one year from now as 2014 comes to a close.

Envision Your Future

Rather than defining specific goals at this point (that’ll come later), use this transition period to describe your life in narrative form. In other words, describe who you’ll be, not who you want to be. Use definitive “I am” statements that encode an image of your future that describe your priorities and keep you motivated. Several years ago, I took the time to describe the “new me” in a written statement that I revise, but to to which I often return to be inspired.

To help organize your thoughts, consider structuring your “new you” vision statement by reflecting on the “big rocks” that Stephen Covey calls the four essential needs of being a human being—“To Live, To Love, To Learn, and To Leave a Legacy.”  You can put the following in any order depending on what’s most important to you.

To Live addresses your physical needs and managing your finances. Create a narrative picture of your physical and fiscal health that is both realistic and motivating. “I am in such physical shape that I no longer make social or career decisions because of how I look or feel.” “I am in a financial place where I can give to my favorite charities without it hurting.”

To Love speaks to the importance of your relationships. Start with your parents then siblings. “At the end of the year, I don’t ever feel guilty about not sending time with my parents, siblings, or children. Rather, I’m fulfilled in my closest relationships.” For me, I make it a priority to call my 87 year old mother every three days.

To Learn speaks to your intellectual development. Here, you may describe having learned something or making a decision you may have put off. For instance, to learn a subject so well that you can teach others — a language, or a skill. “I am a sought-after company expert in giving PowerPoint presentations.” “I am certain about what I want to major in.”

 To Leave a Legacy is your spiritual need.  “My relationship with God is the strongest it’s ever been.”

Take the time to write this vision paragraph or two describing your new you, then share it with a friend to get their feedback. (Later, I describe how important it is for goals to be shared.)

Next, after you’ve completed the visioning exercise describing the “new you” using these four essential “big rocks” as touchstones, it’s time to set specific goals that describe how you’ll get there. There should be a direct link between these goals and the vision statement you just completed.

 Goals Should be S.M.A.R.T.

How do you set a goal, and what type of goals should be set? I like the acronym “SMART” that I’ve borrowed from several thought leaders, including Paul Meyer in his book, “Attitude is Everything.”[1] He describes goals that are effective and measurable. You don’t want to set this goal:  “I want to become a better student.” How do you measure “better”? Study better? Get better grades? Make better use of your time? No, goals should be SMART, that is they should be:

  • Specific: They should not be general goals as in the above example, but they should clearly state what you want to accomplish. For instance, I’ll finish the year with a grade point average above 3.4 for the semester, or I’ll work out (treadmill, gym, swim, or walk) three times per week.
  • Measurable: There must be concrete criteria against which the goal could be evaluated as to whether it was achieved or not. A 3.4 GPA is a measurable goal, “becoming a better person” is not.
  • Attainable: Setting a goal to safely and successfully ski down the hardest trail for the first time on skis is not “”attainable” unless you ride down on someone’s back. Likewise, your goals should be realistic and yet reachable. They must stretch your abilities and not be too easy and therefore meaningless. Setting a goal to lose 50 pounds when you’ve never successfully lost half of that is unrealistic. Earning a 3.4 grade point average when you’re GPA is a 3.1 is. Your goals should stretch and inspire you, but fall within the realm of possibility.
  • Relevant: As a student, your goals should pertain to your academic and career-oriented experiences. Setting a GPA goal or improving your typing speed are relevant goals toward your college success.
  • Time-bound: Your goals should have a timeline, deadline or a target date for completion. Doing so will ensure a focus. Have you ever noticed how the intensity peaks at the end of a game when time is about to run out? That’s what time-bound goals do. They raise a level of intensity prompting you to double down on your efforts as the deadline approaches.

Goals Should Be Few But Impactful

You shouldn’t have too many goals that you’ll forget them. Rather, you should focus on the 3-5 areas that will lead to what  Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit calls “small wins.” He says that we all have “keystone habits” that, if addressed, will have a spillover effect in other areas of our lives. For example, people who exercise regularly tend to eat healthier, smoke less, and spend less money. Focus on your keystone areas when setting your few goals for the year.

Goals Should Be Shared

I’ve added another letter to SMART goals, and that’s an “S.” Good goals have SMARTS. The last S is for Sharing. Once you have your goals set, make sure someone you trust knows about them so they can hold you accountable for achieving them.

Goals Should Be Revisited

What good is it to establish goals and never review how you’re doing or did to achieve them? That’s like training for a marathon but never recording your training time. I review my annual goals each month. If you’re a college student, you should review your goals at least at the beginning and end of each semester.

Goals Should Be Revised

It is possible that your goals were too ambitious, not ambitious enough, or just right but you achieved them. At the beginning of each semester if you’re a student, or monthly for others, I recommend that you review and revise your goals. Set new goals if you’ve achieved the ones  you’ve established. If you can read 25 pages of a book in an hour, then set a 30 page per hour goal. The purpose again is to keep you focused and motivated, and to stretch your capabilities. By revising your goals, you are experiencing the fruit of the growth mindset.


[1] Meyer, Paul J. (2003). “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail? Creating S.M.A.R.T. Goals” Attitude Is Everything If You Want to Succeed Above and Beyond.  The Meyer Resource Group, Incorporated.

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