As one year ends and another begins, nearly half of us resolve to improve ourselves in some way. Yet, barely one-third of those who make New Year’s resolutions actually achieve their goals, and about one-quarter of those promises have already been forgotten within the first week. Turning the page of a calendar simply doesn’t provide enough motivation to sustain any genuine progress. As the days and weeks go by, that momentary feeling of renewal that we experienced at the dawn of a new year wanes, and we forget our resolutions and the reasons for them.
Impulsive wishes are simply not enough to bring about long-term change. Effective goal-oriented behavior requires real commitment. Commitment turns impulsive desires into long-term goals. Those who achieve their resolutions have most likely already developed that commitment and find that the new year is a convenient time to begin their personal transformation.
The quest for continual improvement is part of being human. There are things that each of us would like to change. We must first realize that whatever shortcomings we perceive ourselves to have, they don’t define us or make us inferior. Being overweight, having too much debt, not being involved in a relationship with a significant other — these are momentary circumstances, not permanent character traits. Each one of us is as perfect as we can be — right now — even though there are things that we would like to change about our current life situation. Changing our current situation, however, requires that we take personal responsibility for our lives and for the actions that are necessary for change to occur.
Having realized that our quest for improvement is not to make us a better person, but to improve our life situation, we can then commit to purposeful, goal-oriented behavior. We start by defining our goals, and the best goals are SMART:
(S)pecific: Goals such as “I want to be healthier” or “I want to be more financially secure” are too vague. It’s hard to wrap our arms around vague nebulous goals. How would we even know if we’ve achieved our objective? “I want to lose weight” or “I want to save more money” are specific, concrete goals that enable us to develop a plan of action.
(M)easurable: Effective goals can be compared to some objective standard. “I want to lose 20 pounds” or “I want to save another $10,000” are meaningful goals because we can measure whether we’ve actually lost 20 pounds or saved $10,000.
(A)ttainable: Goals that are unrealistic, such as losing 20 pounds by next week, or saving $10,000 by next month are not SMART goals. Goals should be realistic and attainable — but with a little effort. Goals that are too difficult or impossible to achieve guarantee disappointment that will dampen any desire to progress in the future. Goals that are too easy don’t motivate us properly; we tend to delay working toward achieving those goals until it is too late. Losing 5 pounds in a month is attainable and smart. Losing 1 pound in a month is certainly attainable, but not very smart because it is too easy. Losing 5 pounds may actually have a higher probability of success because we will have to continually work to achieve it, whereas we may put off working on losing 1 pound for so long that we fail to achieve it.
(R)elevant: Our goals must matter to us personally. Setting a goal for our favorite football team to win the Super Bowl is not really relevant to us personally — unless we happen to be a member of that football team.
(T)ime-bound: To properly motivate ourselves, our goal must have a target date. “I will lose 10 pounds by Memorial Day” or “I will save another $10,000 before I retire in five years” are time-bound smart goals because we can objectively measure our progress. Time-bound goals can also be broken into smaller milestones, or “mini” goals that help to encourage us along the way to accomplishing the “big” goal.
Once we’ve defined our SMART goals, we can then determine the actions that will best enable us to achieve those goals. A resolution to “be healthier” becomes a goal to “lose 10 pounds by Memorial Day.” The actions we need to take to accomplish that goal may include eating healthier foods and exercising more. It may entail skipping the dessert that we’re used to having every evening. It may prompt us to walk up the stairs rather than use the elevator at work.
Once we’ve defined our SMART goals, we can periodically measure our progress. Then our SMART goals become SMARTER goals:
(E)valuate: We periodically monitor our action plan and measure our progress to assess whether we are on track to achieve our goals.
(R)eevaluate: If we have not progressed as far as we’ve expected, we need to make the necessary adjustments to alter our course. We examine our goals to make sure that they are SMART. We determine why our actual progress does not meet with our expectations. Is our goal still relevant? Is our timeline too ambitious? Do we need a different action plan to accomplish the specific results in a specific time?
Monitoring our progress and making necessary adjustments is a continuous part of the goal-achievement cycle. When we monitor our progress, we hold ourselves accountable for results. Good results do not make us a better person; bad results do not make us a failure. They are simply the outcomes of the actions that we’ve taken to improve our life situation. In either case, we can dwell on our new life situation for a few moments — then get over it, and move on toward the next goal.
On and on we go, engaged in what the Japanese call kaizen, or continuous improvement. It is human nature, so why not do it in a SMARTER way?