It’s that time of year when we look back at what we have accomplished (or not) and set our resolutions for the coming year. In spite of our best intentions, a recent study found that by June, fewer than half of us have managed to stick with our New Year’s resolutions. While the reasons for abandoning resolutions can be personal, much of our ability to stick with a goal comes down to one thing: the quality of the goal itself. This year, up the ante and improve your chances of making real changes by implementing SMART goals.

SMART is an acronym that was developed in 1981. From the beginning, SMART was a mnemonic device that people could use to set goals that were:

  • S: Specific
  • M: Measurable
  • A: Assignable
  • R: Realistic
  • T: Time-based

Over the years, few changes have been made to this simple formula. Most recently, other options for the acronym have included:

  • S: Specific, significant, sensible
  • M: Measurable, meaningful, motivational
  • A: Achievable, attainable, action-oriented
  • R: Realistic, relevant, rewarding
  • T: Time-based, time-bound, trackable

Whichever word you choose, SMART goals can help you to create goals that will stick and produce results. Here how to use each letter.

S = Specific

How many times have you set a goal of losing weight? This goal is one of the most common, especially around the new year, but it is also one of the most doomed to fail or to be only moderately successful. Why? Because it is not specific enough.

Think of it this way: if you set the goal to lose weight, and you lose one pound over the course of 365 days, technically you have met that goal. But this would not be a satisfying result. If you don’t lose even one pound, you might end up kicking yourself for not being able to lose even the smallest amount of weight.

So how can the goal be modified? Let’s start with this goal: I am going to lose ___ pounds. You can fill in the blank with a weight loss goal of your choice here, and we will continue to add to it below.

M = Measurable

Although the goal to lose weight is measurable, again, the lack of specificity means that even just an ounce of weight loss means that it’s a Pyrrhic victory. Other goals, like “exercise more,” fail the measurability test. In this case, what does “more” mean? Is it one sit-up per day when you have previously done none? Is it 100? Either way, you have technically exercised more, but you have not made a plan for measuring your progress.

Looking at alternate acronyms, the goal to “exercise more” isn’t particularly meaningful or motivational. Looking back to our weight loss example, a better way to add to this goal would be as follows:

I am going to lose 15 pounds, weighing myself once a week.

This delineates the specific goal and outlines how you will measure your progress.

A = Attainable

This one is key. If you set the goal to be the starting quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals, but you are 37 and have never played a down of football, this is not an attainable goal. While that example is extreme, some goal setters set similarly extreme goals. SMART goals make sure that you actually think about whether or not the goals can be reached.

For example, there are safe, healthy ways to lose weight. Any crash diets, fasts, and over-the-counter weight-loss drugs may result in unhealthy weight loss. Attempting to lose more than ten pounds per month is not only unhealthy, but it is unsustainable.

It’s just basic biology. To lose one pound of fat means you have to cut 3,500 calories. To lose two pounds means cutting out 1,000 calories a day. This doesn’t mean going from a 1,500 calories a day to 500; this could result in your body going into starvation mode and actually slowing weight loss. Healthy weight loss involves portion control, better food choices, and more activity. This is a safe way to lose the weight.

So using the formula of dropping 1,000 calories per pound of body fat, an attainable weight loss goal is eight to ten pounds per month. There is a potential for more weight loss depending on starting weight and gender (men tend to lose weight faster than women), but in the main, an attainable, healthy weight loss goal would be eight to ten pounds per month.

R = Realistic

SMART goals are realistic. It means that they are something that you are physically, mentally, and emotionally capable of achieving. Because this is similar to the “achievable” part of the SMART acronym, it’s also helpful to look at the other words for “R.” Is the goal rewarding and relevant? How will achieving it make your life better?

T = Time-based

Finally, SMART goals have a deadline. If your goal is to lose weight, a SMART goal would read something like this:

I will lose 15 pounds in three months.

Without a deadline, the goal may never be reached. And why would it be? You haven’t set any timeframe for completion. It’s like the task that never ends.

Setting SMART goals is often easier said than done, which is why it is helpful to utilize a few guidelines when developing and setting goals. Think about what kind of support you might need to achieve your goal. If you are losing 15 pounds in three months, do you need to talk to a doctor or nutritionist to make safe dietary changes?

Other ways to stick with your goals over time is to think about the benefits of achieving the goal. If your family has a history of Type 2 diabetes, will losing weight help prevent that? Maybe the extra weight is causing more pain, or maybe you are unable to do things you love. Write down the benefits of your goals and post them where you will see them every day.

Make sticking to your SMART goals automatic by setting up cues that trigger a positive response. For example, look for natural ways to cue healthy eating behavior. Set an alarm on your phone that goes off every hour to remind you to drink a full glass of water. Put a sticky note on your refrigerator, asking if you have had five servings of fruits and vegetables. These cues help you to make conscious choices to stick with your goal.

These cues should then be tied to a meaningful reward for milestones reached along the way. If your goal is to lose 15 pounds in three months, treat yourself to a massage or a movie when you lose the first five. Make the reward meaningful and decide what it will be before you begin, and that will help even more. In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes about the importance of cues and rewards being incorporated into new patterns of habit, saying:

“This gets to how habits work. The reason why these cues and rewards are so important is because over time, people begin craving the reward whenever they see the cue, and that craving makes a habit occur automatically.”

SMART goals won’t automatically guarantee success, but they can help give you the tools you need to stick with them. What are your SMART goals for this year?

Photo by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr

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