Start SMART this New Year

Jan 2, 2023

Staci Jacobs

The New Year is accompanied by a fairly familiar tradition: Setting New Year’s resolutions and then great difficulty actually reaching those resolutions. It is something that, at one point or another, most of us are guilty of experiencing. We pinpoint behaviors to increase or decrease, make our best effort to change, and then struggle to make that change happen (at least consistently). Not only do we “fail” to achieve but also, we may feel guilt, shame and/or defeat for not getting there.

The problem isn’t so much that we are incapable of change (as a therapist, let me please say this is certainly not the case, otherwise I’d be out of a job). Instead, it has much more to do with how we set our New Year’s resolutions (and oftentimes our larger goals in general).

One way to cut down on this self-defeating tradition is by trying to use SMART goals, an acronym guide to creating achievable aspirations. 

SMART stands for:

Specific: Be clear and nuanced about what your goal is. Using vague language is only going to make it hard to see what you’re trying to achieve and difficult to assess the progress you make towards your goal.

Measurable: Give yourself a way to measure what you’re doing, so you have a defined way of understanding whether you’re reaching your goal or making progress towards it.

Attainable: Be realistic. Give yourself a goal you know you can actually reach. This doesn’t mean it has to be too easy or simple, just that your goal is something you feel you can really achieve.

Relevant: Is this goal applicable to your life? Setting benchmarks that don’t have much to do with how you currently live or want to live won’t help you to be motivated to work on what you set for yourself.

Time-sensitive: Give yourself a deadline. Allowing projects to go on ad infinitum will make it easy for you to make excuses when you have days you don’t want to put in the work (and you will have days like that, as we all do).

To put this into perspective, I’ll offer a common goal that many of us set for ourselves in the New Year: To exercise more. It’s one such goal that, I’ll admit, I have aspired for before and will be trying to achieve again in 2023. The issue with setting a goal of “working out more” is that I will have no real way of knowing whether or not I am doing this. Technically, if I go from never working out to working out once a week, then I have achieved this goal! Yet does that mean I’ll feel pride in this achievement? Not necessarily.

Instead, following the SMART guideline, I can set my goal like this:

Specific: Instead of just saying “exercise more,” I can say that I want to go to the gym, following a workout routine in which I do cardio as well as weight training for certain muscle groups. I can get even more specific (Which muscle groups? Do I follow a certain routine? etc), yet for the sake of this article I’ll start there.

Measurable: I will go to the gym three times a week for 45-minutes. I can even set the measurable goals of 10-minutes of cardio each workout if I want to. Knowing the weekly benchmark helps me know if I’m really hitting my goal and also gives me a guideline for my weekly schedule to consider when to fit in these workouts.

Attainable: Currently, I go to the gym around once a week. Increasing to three times, while a challenge, seems achievable to me. Knowing my schedule, I can fit in two more days of workouts, while also not setting the bar so high that I will exhaust myself.

Relevant: I’m fortunate that I have a gym room in my apartment building, so going to the gym is certainly relevant to my current life and I am definitely conscious of my health. Also, for folks who know DBT, I always want to maintain my PLEASE skills, as a good amount of exercise helps us to feel better and reduce our emotional vulnerabilities. 

Time-sensitive: By the end of January, I want to be going to the gym three times a week. This way, I give myself a deadline to work up to this goal, building necessary tolerance and motivation, and also giving myself an opportunity to reevaluate my aspiration if I’m not meeting it.

By following this acronym, we can give ourselves a roadmap to creating achievable resolutions for ourselves. Being SMART means taking the time to consider how we want to set goals and allowing ourselves the opportunity to effect positive change in our lives.