With less than three days until we turn over a new year, even the heartiest of resolution resistors has to feel a slight sense of expectation. New Year’s resolutions get a lot of bad press, if not at this time of year, then certainly in February or March when columnists love to ask, “Have You Already Ditched Your Resolutions?” Then they’ll go on for 600 or 800 words and tell you why making resolutions was a waste of time in the first place and what you should have done instead. But I’m here to tell you that resolutions are not a waste of time, that if done properly, they can be a powerful tool for positive change.
If you hate the word “resolution,” then we can at least agree on the term “goal,” can we not? I know there are popular pundits who campaign vigorously against even the setting of goals – some very popular personalities, like Leo Babauta and Seth Godin, just to name two. But isn’t it a little paradoxical (hypocritical, maybe?) for these wildly successful people to rail against goals, when they have to admit that, yes, they do plan ahead and their actions today are directed toward future outcomes?
Personally, I don’t know where I’d be today if I hadn’t set some very specific goals and worked very hard to achieve them over the past few years. Certainly I would not be getting my first book published. I would probably not be enjoying my eighth year as a self-employed small business owner either. I’d probably be punching someone else’s time clock, daydreaming about the life I really want instead. But by setting goals, and specifically by making New Year’s resolutions, I have carefully crafted the career and the life I always wanted.
There is something about the beginning of a new year, the out-with-the-old and in-with-the-new mentality that lends an extra bit of excitement and energy to my efforts. The very thought that millions of others are planning to make positive changes at the same time is inspiring to me. The collaborator in me finds it exciting to be part of such a big group, but my competitive side comes into play as well. Those statistics that the press will print in February and March, about all those abandoned resolutions, are true for the most part. Sadly, many people fail to stick with their goals, but knowing that just makes me all the more determined to be among the successful few. Over the years, I’ve worked out a couple of strategies that have helped me do that, and today, I’ll share the first one with you – setting good goals.
Before you roll your eyes and return to your Twitter feed, hear me out: SMART goals actually work. But simply knowing an acronym and using it to set goals isn’t enough. You need to also be smart when you make your resolutions in order to succeed.
For those of you who don’t know, or don’t remember, SMART is an acronym used almost universally in goal setting. It stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. If your goal meets all of these criteria, so the theory goes, then you’ll have a good chance of success. But I’ve found that not every element of the acronym deserves equal weight. By focusing more heavily on one or two of those characteristics, and by employing one more important criteria, you can really send your chances for success through the roof.
The most important characteristic for any goal is relevance. Every goal you set needs to be critically important to you. You need to know exactly why you’re setting the goal, and exactly what will happen in your life if you don’t meet that goal. You can’t do something for others, or even because you “know you should.” You have to want to do it, for reasons that are vitally important to you, because every single goal you set will involve some sacrifice or compromise, so the end result has to be worth it.
This leads me to the goal trait that is not part of the acronym – your goals need to be limited in number. No matter how well-crafted your goals are – how well they all meet the SMART criteria – if you set too many of them, at least some of them will be dropped soon into your effort. We simply don’t have the time or energy to try to effect change in more than one or two areas of our lives at any one time. For this reason, it’s important for you to rank-order the importance of your goals and only work on the top one or two at any given time. Don’t forget about those goals further down on your list, just save them for later, after you’ve reached your most important goals. Check in with yourself four or six months later and see if you’re ready to take on one of those new goals, or if they are even still relevant.
Actions, Not Outcomes
The last thing you need to pay great attention to is the specificity of the goal. There is an easy way to determine whether your goal meets this criteria: goals must be related to actions and not to outcomes. The motivation for your goal can be (and probably will be) related to a desired outcome, but it’s impossible to set a goal to that. Say, for example that you want to be in better shape at the end of 2015 than at the beginning of it – that’s a very desirable outcome, but it’s not specific or measurable at all. There are half a dozen (or more) specific goals you could set that might all be a part of getting in better shape. Your job, then, is to decide which of those specific goals is most important to you, or which will give you the biggest return for your efforts. If losing weight is more important to you than improving your aerobic fitness, then you’ll want to focus on diet and nutrition a lot. If you want to increase muscle mass, then following an effective strength training program should be top on your list. You should not try to do it all, though, or you’ll likely end up doing none of it. Get as specific as possible and stay laser-focused on those one or two things you’ve put at the top of your list.
Let me give you an example of how you can take a very nebulous outcome and create a very specific goal to achieve it. One of my desired outcomes for 2015 is to have better posture all the time. This is an impossible thing to measure however, so I have to break that outcome down into the action or actions that will make it possible. I’ve noticed that my posture is horrible either when I’m tired or very absorbed in some activity, but that if I can simply think about or notice my posture, I immediately correct it. So I’ve set one goal associated with my desired outcome which, if achieved, should result in substantially better posture all the time. My goal is to consciously be aware of my posture and make a correction to it at least 20 times each day. So, for the next 365 days (or until I feel my posture has sufficiently improved, if sooner) I’ll log a tick on my phone each time I notice my posture and sit or stand up straighter.
I may find, a week into it, that 20 times a day isn’t enough, and I’ll adjust the number accordingly. I may also find that I’m having a very hard time remembering to notice my posture in order to hit 20 times per day, so that’s when I’ll employ the other tactics I’ve found so helpful in reaching goals – what I call follow-through tactics. After all, setting good goals is the easy part, isn’t it? It’s the follow-through that normally gives us such a hard time. But I’ve found a few simple tricks that have helped me stay on course and fine tune my goals in order to achieve the desired outcomes. I’ll share these tips with you tomorrow, in Part Two. For now, why don’t you start thinking about which one or two goals will make the top of your list for 2015.