How to Be SMART About New Year’s Resolutions

'Tis the season of resolutions. Do you want to know how to set a goal that you can actually stick with?

Dr. Monica Johnson
5-minute read
Episode #375
The Quick And Dirty

Vague goals and resolutions won't help you achieve anything. Instead, set specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound goals for yourself this season.

If you listened to my panel episode last week, then you’re aware of my general thoughts on New Year’s Resolutions. Often, they end up being a source of shame for us because they are poorly constructed, vague, too lofty, or rooted in our insecurities. All of these elements mean that we aren’t set up for success. On top of that, depending on how we set up the goal, it can confirm our unhealthy beliefs about ourselves!

When constructing a New Year's Resolution, or just an everyday goal, your first step is to think about the source of this resolution. I’ll use the common New Year’s Resolution for weight loss as an example. You want to ask yourself, "why do I want to lose weight?" Do you think you'll be more likable if you do so? Are there size 6 jeans you’ve been dying to fit into? If so, what does fitting into those jeans mean for you? In this case, it might not be the size of your hips that's the problem, but deeper self-esteem issues, and you should re-assess your goals accordingly. Does that mean you can't set a goal around your health? Absolutely not! The steps I'm going to outline will work for any goal that you have. Follow me on Instagram and I'll show you how it's done, and you can share your progress with me as well!

Today, we are going to talk about SMART goals. And yes, it’s another acronym. New Year, same ole me!

S is for Specific

When setting a goal, you want to be specific about what you’re trying to achieve. Statements like "I want to lose weight" or "make more money" are too vague. Instead of saying you want to make more money, you might say that you would like to earn a 5% raise this year or find a job that pays $5K more. Those are specific goals with actionable next steps.

When it comes to body goals, I like to focus on functions and aspects of health. So, I’m in favor of replacing “lose 10 pounds” with goals like consuming 3 servings of vegetables daily or 45 minutes of cardiovascular exercise 4 times per week. These are actions that will help you feel healthy and are a necessary function of health—whether that results in weight loss or not. It can also help to reduce the sensitive and sometimes traumatic topic of weight for some people. It can be frustrating to do all the healthy actions and not lose weight, but that doesn’t mean you should stop doing the healthy actions. If your weight is truly causing some level of medical distress, you should be consulting with a variety of professionals on the topic. The goal in these cases is not to be “skinny,” but again to be “healthy,” and define what healthy means for you and your body.

That covers the what, but you also want to be specific about the who, why, and how. Are there other people that need to be involved in order for you to accomplish these goals? List out all those people and the roles that they play. For example, you may work with a personal trainer, a financial advisor, or have a friend be an accountability partner to help you achieve a goal. I’ve already touched on the why and digging deeper, but you want to know what value this goal relates to in your life. Knowing the why will help you when you run into barriers and things get hard.

The how is also important. A mistake that we make when setting resolutions is that we are too optimistic. There is that wishful thinking part of our brain that believes we will magically go from being an impulsive spender to following a super rigid budget. Even if you are able to do that initially, it's easy to burn out fast. In the pre-COVID times, when we all went to the gym without fear, my friend/workout partner at the time would loathe the gym in January because it was super packed, but we always knew by March it would be back to normal crowds.

Take your goal seriously. Think about what's tripped you up in the past and come up with contingency plans to help you overcome them. For instance, one of my health goals is to reduce sugar intake. I always tell my patients that the first step in goal setting is to stop lying to yourself and the second step is to figure out how to trick yourself. I have a sweet tooth like no other. One of the things I do—or rather, don't do is keep large quantities of sweets in my home, and I look for healthier alternatives when I can (e.g. fruit, sorbet). Be specific with your goal and be honest with yourself!

M is for Measurable

If you can’t measure a goal, how do you know when you’ve achieved it? Define the metrics by which you are going to determine how you met the goal. Is it holding a plank for 2 minutes, increasing work productivity by 10 percent, or spending 1 extra hour per week on gratitude journaling? Whatever it is, define how it will be measured.

A is for Achievable

Whenever you are setting a goal, you want it to be challenging but not impossible. You might be thinking, “shouldn’t we shoot for the stars?” I’m here to tell you that when all you have is a slingshot, aiming from the stars isn’t going to get you anywhere. Aim for the thing that is just outside of your fingertips and when you get there, do the same thing over and over again. Before you know it, you’ll be skating on the rings of Saturn.

It’s unrealistic to lose 50 pounds in 2 months—at least if you want to do it in a healthy way. You’re probably not going to be able to retire at 35 if you’re 34 and sitting on $100,000 in student loans—unless you're lucky enough to get a financial windfall or engage in some illegal activity, which I don’t recommend.

Work backward. If your timeline is 2 months, then it’s more realistic to set a goal of losing 10 pounds. If you know you can set aside $600 per month, perhaps you set a goal to pay off $7,000 in student loans over the year.

R is for Relevant

Life is meaningful when we live within our values. You want to make sure your new goals are relevant to the things that matter most to you and that they mesh well with the goals that you’ve already set for yourself. This is one of the reasons why you want to know why you’re going after this accomplishment. If your reasoning is not clear, you might not have what you need to motivate you through until the end. If you’re doing things for the wrong reasons, you might achieve the goal and find yourself at the top of the summit, feeling more lost than you did before you started.

T is for Time-bound

Every goal worth achieving is worth putting a time limit on. Imagine asking your boss for a raise and they tell you that you'll get a raise one day. Your next question would naturally be, "when exactly is 'one day'?" If you don't have a time frame for your goals, you'll be unlikely to achieve them. Give yourself a due date and if you’re not on track with your timeline, sit down with yourself and troubleshoot any issues that have arisen that you may not have accounted for in the beginning.

I’m really curious about what SMART goals you’re going to implement into your life this year! Let me know via my email at psychologist@quickanddirtytips.com, or leave a voicemail at (929) 256-2191‬.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Dr. Monica Johnson

Dr. Monica Johnson is a clinical psychologist and owner of Kind Mind Psychology, a private practice in NYC that specializes in evidenced based approaches to treating a wide range of mental health issues (e.g. depression, anxiety, trauma, and personality disorders). Additionally, she has a focus on working with marginalized groups of people including BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and alternative lifestyles to manage minority stress. She is also dedicated to contributing to her field professionally through speaking, training, supervision, and writing. She routinely speaks at conferences, provides training and workshops at organizations, supervises mental health trainees, and co-authored a book for professionals on addressing race-based stress in therapy.

Dr. Johnson earned her bachelor's degree from the University of South Carolina, completed her Psy.D. at the Arizona School of Professional Psychology, and completed her postdoctoral training year at Cherokee Health Systems in Knoxville, TN. She currently lives in Manhattan where she indulges in horror movies, sarcasm, and intentional introversion. You can find her on Instagram and online at kindmindpsych.com

Got a question that you'd like Dr. Johnson to answer on Savvy Psychologist? You can send her an email at psychologist@quickanddirtytips.com or leave a voicemail for the Savvy Psychologist listener line by calling (929) 256-2191‬.