Choosing better New Year's resolutions

Is there a smarter way to set goals?
04 February 2022


2022 athletics track


In high-performance sports, and in the corporate world, the SMART framework is well known as a useful tool for goal setting. But what does it mean, and why should we want to be SMART-er about our own goals? Sport psychologist Helen Davis puts the framework into the context of traditional new year's resolutions, to explain how we can maximise our chances of achieving the goals we choose.

Losing weight, getting fit, stopping smoking - all well known new year’s resolutions. But how good are these goals? ‘Getting fit’ is rather vague - what does that mean, how do we know that we’ve achieved that goal?  Stopping smoking is very black and white - there’s only one outcome that would count as success, and even good progress towards that goal, without fully quitting, would technically be breaking that resolution. Using the example of ‘getting fit’, Helen explains each component of the SMART framework, a tool for setting specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound goals:

First up is specific: “What do you mean by getting fit? How can you provide some kind of clarity on what that really means?” Does it mean how you look, how quick you are in a specific sport, or how you perform on a fitness test? Is it about finding day to day physical tasks easier, or being able to take the stairs up to your sixth floor office?

Is the goal measurable? What are the “specific criteria that measure your progress towards the accomplishment of that goal”? Is getting fit measured by how far you can run, how much you can squat, how quickly you can cycle to work? Is it measured by your heart rate, your aerobic capacity, your body fat percentage?

Is the goal achievable? Challenging goals aren’t necessarily bad, and neither are comfortable goals. But if the goal isn’t achievable, it can be demoralising. “If we're constantly striving for something that we don't achieve, we can easily lose motivation.”

Is deciding to run 50km a week, or to exercise every day realistic? “Life will get in the way. Stuff can happen that can mean that it doesn't happen every day. So I think having some flexibility within what you decide to do is really important.”

When do we want to achieve our goal? In a week, in a month, in a year? “Think about a start date, think about a target date, so that you can then assess and review as you go along.”

So what would ‘getting fit’ look like as a SMART goal? Helen likes the example of setting a target time for running a 5km. Setting a date for when that target should be achieved, and measuring progress by running a 5km every week, and tracking the time progress. “I like the sound of the progress[ion] of doing one each week, seeing how I'm going, reviewing it. It may be that that goal could be altered. And it may be that in the course of your timeframe that you think actually, I'm doing really well with this. And it may be that you want to change that time.”

Flexibility, being able to adjust for life circumstances, and adjust the end goal either to make it slightly more challenging, or slightly more achievable is important too. “[Your goals] don't have to be set in stone. You don't want them to be burdens around your neck.”

Helen thinks enjoying the process makes a big difference. “The process along the way is actually where you can gain a lot of the big wins, in a whole manner of different aspects of the journey that you're on to try and achieve the goal. Yes, of course, the outcome is going to be exciting, but you don't know if you're going to achieve it. So enjoying it along the way means that I think probably you're more likely to achieve it because you're enjoying the process and hopefully having fun too.”

At the end of the day, does having a SMART goal make you more likely to achieve it? Well, maybe not by the goal choice itself, though it makes sense that a realistic goal is more likely to be achievable than an unrealistic one! Instead, perhaps you’re more likely to achieve it because you’ve spent more time thinking about the specifics of your goal and your motivations. Perhaps it’s the time that you invest that is what will make the difference, whether that be by thinking about how to make your goals smarter, or just by thinking in more detail about the support you need to give you the best possible chance of success.


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