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Making New Year's Resolutions: SMART and Reward Systems

Linda Crampton enjoys writing about ways to keep resolutions and maintain a positive attitude. She share tips that she has found helpful.

The new year is a traditional time for new beginnings and new resolutions.

The new year is a traditional time for new beginnings and new resolutions.

Time for a New Beginning

For many of us, the new year seems like a wonderful opportunity for a fresh start. It's an encouraging time to end destructive behaviors and start helpful ones, even if we've failed to do this in the past. 88% of New Year's resolutions fail, however, according to a survey conducted by psychologist Richard Wiseman. With odds like these, it may seem like there's no point to trying to change our habits on January 1st. Fortunately, psychologists and other behavior experts offer some useful suggestions for improving our chance of success, making keeping a resolution a viable prospect.

Good goals require thought and research. Waking up on January 1st and immediately making new resolutions for the year ahead isn't the best way to change our behavior. The SMART system is one method for formulating goals. It requires a little time to set up, but it's often very worthwhile.

Eating black-eyed peas on New Year's Day is thought to bring good luck in some parts of the world, such as the southern United States.

Eating black-eyed peas on New Year's Day is thought to bring good luck in some parts of the world, such as the southern United States.

Make SMART Resolutions

The SMART system of creating resolutions is based on the work of psychologists Edwin Locke and Gary Latham. They performed research concerning goal setting and motivation in a business environment. Their research has also been applied to personal goals, such as New Year's resolutions.

The word SMART is an acronym used to help people remember the guidelines for creating practical goals. According to these guidelines, resolutions should be:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Realistic
  • TIme-bound

A SMART resolution is not a basic statement or wish; it is a clearly drawn pathway to success.

— Obesity Action Coalition (OAC)

Make Specific Resolutions

A resolution should be specific instead of general in order to have the best chance of success. For example, "I will lose five pounds by January 31st" is a better goal than "I will lose weight next year". Similarly, "I will spend a total of two hours volunteering at the Food Bank in January" is a better goal than "I will help others".

To create a specific goal, a person should break a general objective down into smaller and more manageable chunks. Having a more specific resolution makes it easier to design an action plan. A general or vague resolution can be overwhelming.

Some people aim to lose weight in the new year.

Some people aim to lose weight in the new year.

Create Measurable Goals

Losing a specific amount of weight or working for a specific amount of time are good goals because they are measurable. Measuring an achievement objectively is a great way to assess progress in reaching a goal.

Measuring requires recording numerical data, such as the quantity of a substance, the number of times something is done, or the length of time an action is performed.

If the result of a resolution can't be measured and is assessed subjectively, it's harder to determine if the resolution has been successful. For example, if a goal is vague such as "to get in shape", how do we determine if we are "in shape"? What criteria should we use to decide whether the goal has been met?

"I will climb the hill by my home in fifteen minutes" could be a good assessment of being in better shape (assuming it currently takes you longer to climb the hill) because it's measurable. An even shorter time goal could be set after the first one is reached, as long as the new goal is practical.

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Improving resting blood pressure is a measurable goal.

Improving resting blood pressure is a measurable goal.

It is important to remember that the New Year isn’t meant to serve as a catalyst for sweeping character changes.

— American Psychological Association (APA)

Create Attainable and Realistic Goals

For many people, losing five pounds in a month is an attainable and realistic goal. However, this isn't true for everyone. If a person has a metabolic disorder or illness that causes them to maintain or gain weight, has to take a medication which produces weight gain as a side effect, or has a mobility problem, it may be hard to lose weight.

Lowering the weight loss goal may be appropriate for some people. Weight loss could also be replaced by a different fitness goal, such as reducing blood pressure by a specific amount. People who are very out of shape or have medical problems should set fitness goals in conjunction with a doctor.

An attainable goal for many people is to help a volunteer organization for two hours a month, especially as this works out to only half an hour a week. For some people, however, life is too busy for this effort, or they may lack affordable transport or time to get to the organization. Someone who wants to help others needs to think of something that they can commit to, such as donating money or goods locally and regularly or making useful items for charities at home, such as knitted squares or blankets.

What's So Special About New Year's Resolutions?

Realistic and Measurable Resolutions: Some Examples

GoalPossible ProblemsModified Goal

I will run a marathon in March.

If you've never run before, three months isn't long enough to train for a marathon.

I will participate in a five-kilometer event in March and run the whole distance.

I will do well in school.

What does "do well" mean? How will you know that you've done well?

I will get at least 85% on all math tests that I write in January.

I will exercise.

Exercise needs to be regular and of sufficient duration to have a significant health effect.

I will walk for thirty minutes per session and three times per week in January.

I will lose weight.

Losing one pound in a year is technically "losing weight"!

I will lose five pounds in January.

Attainable Goals That Are Challenging

While goals for a new year should be attainable, research has shown that they work best when they are difficult rather than easy. For example, health experts often say that losing one to two pounds a week is the best method for sustainable and healthy weight loss. For a young and otherwise healthy adult, losing this amount of weight may not be challenging enough. A goal that is too easy isn't motivating and may not stimulate commitment. On the other hand, a goal that is too hard may set us up for failure.

The idea of challenge in a goal is interesting. While attainable and realistic objectives are probably the best type for a new year's resolution, they may not be the most effective kind when using the SMART system in other situations. Some people feel that restricting ourselves to goals that seem attainable and realistic imposes limitations on what we can achieve.

The nice thing about goals for a new year is that they can be modified over time and made more challenging. If someone aiming to lose five pounds in January finds that they actually lose eight pounds without excessive food restriction or exercise, the loss of another eight pounds could become their February goal.

Swimming is a great way to increase fitness in both humans and dogs.

Swimming is a great way to increase fitness in both humans and dogs.

Set a Time Limit for Resolutions

A year is a very long time to work towards a goal. It's probably better to set a goal for one month at a time, or even for a shorter period. Over a long period, interest in the potential achievement and determination to succeed may fade. A shorter period for reaching an objective can provide gratification and encouragement for further success when the goal is achieved. In addition, if the goal isn't achieved within the short time period allotted, the person may feel that not much time has been lost and that it's worthwhile trying again or modifying their plan.

It's important that we aren't discouraged if we experience a setback in our progress towards a goal. Setbacks are common, so how we deal with them is important. Returning to our plan for reaching a goal can lead to success even though our progress was temporarily derailed.

Spread Resolutions Throughout the Year

Changing our behavior is a hard job for most of us. Some researchers say that since changing one aspect of our behavior is so difficult, it makes no sense to create multiple New Year's resolutions. Instead, we should make one resolution at a time. Only when we've achieved one goal should we make another one.

While January 1st or New Year's Day is a traditional day for making resolutions in many cultures, they can be made at any time of year. However, making a resolution on a festival day or a significant day in our lives may give the resolution a special meaning that encourages us to take it more seriously.

New Year's Resolutions for Dogs and Humans

Modify Goals if Necessary or Get Help

No one should be afraid to modify a goal if it's too hard or too easy. It's important to be honest with yourself before you change a goal, though. Did you fail to meet your objective because it was unrealistic or because your willpower was weak? Did you try hard but failed because you needed help? Should you seek the help that you need to reach the goal instead of altering it?

A partial success in an endeavour that you find difficult can be motivating and fuel your determination to work harder in the next time period. On the other hand, it may be demoralizing because the goal wasn't attained. Failing to achieve an objective is a reason for reflection.

The chances of success are greater when people channel their energy into changing just one aspect of their behaviour.

— Richard Wiseman