Skip the Resolutions and Try This Instead

A woman walks up stairs outside holding a rainbow umbrella.

It’s that time of year again. We’re feeling fresh and ready to make a change. Enter: New Year’s resolutions.

For many people, the next few weeks follow a familiar pattern. First, we make lofty promises to ourselves. Then, the promises we made fall by the wayside as we attend to real life. We feel disappointed — like we’ve let ourselves down.

To be clear, setting goals isn’t a bad thing. When it’s done right and coupled with action, it can benefit our mental health. There’s a sense of satisfaction that comes with making progress. Plus, research shows that goal-setting can continue to inspire positive lifestyle changes as we age.

So what’s the problem? Well, the old-school way of making resolutions is built to fail. That’s because it’s often based on taking big swings without putting a plan in place first. “Even if you know your end goal, there’s value in thinking through how you’ll accomplish it,” says AbleTo Coach Advisor Carolyn Oldham. “Putting in that time and brain power lays the foundation for lasting success.”

If you’re not sure where to start, keep reading. We’ll look a bit more closely at the reasons most resolutions fall apart. Then we’ll dig into the concept of SMART goals. That stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Think of each letter as a building block. One by one, they help ensure you know exactly what you need to do to take your goal from idea to action.

Let’s begin.

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Why most resolutions fall apart

They’re resolute
Resolute literally means unwavering. There’s no flexibility. And without flexibility, there’s little room for real life. No matter how badly we want to get up at 6 am every day, there will always be nights we need (or want) to stay up for. And that’s okay! “It helps to think about these goals as little ways we want to reshape our lives,” says Oldham. Rather than thinking of a stiff resolution, she likes to ask, “How do you want your day to look or feel different?

They’re full of “shoulds”
Think about your old resolutions. Were you passionate about them? Or did they make you feel like you were just ticking boxes? Was it a goal that stemmed from your own deep-seated desire? Or because society told you it was something you should do or want?

They’re impersonal
Your goal needs to have meaning for you. The emphasis there is on you — not someone else. For example, a sense of envy might lead us to set a goal that we’ve seen a friend or colleague accomplish. But playing the comparison game often makes us chase things that aren’t actually meant for us.

“If you measure a fish’s success on its ability to climb a tree, it’s going to look horrible,” says Oldham. “The same is true if you ask a monkey to swim in the ocean. That’s not likely to end well.” In the human world, it might be harder to complete the goals we lay out. And even if we do, we may not feel a sense of satisfaction.

They’re ideas, not plans
Run a 5K. Read more. Both great in theory! But neither one is likely to happen without a plan. Big goals need planning. They require achieving many tiny goals over and over. That’s a good thing. Small goals might seem less impressive, but they’re the nails and mortar of that big goal.

So what’s the better strategy?

Writing down a goal and tracking your progress toward it can help keep you focused on supporting your well-being. It’s tempting to set goals like “feel happier” or “have more fun.” But those types of goals don’t usually lead to lasting change.

To create useful and effective goals, use the SMART acronym. Here’s what that stands for:

  • Specific. Describe the action you’ll take using a useful level of detail. Oldham likens figuring out the right level of precision to looking at the rungs of a ladder: “Let’s say you want to reach the roof of your house. The rungs of your ladder need the right amount of space between them. If they’re 4 feet apart, it might take fewer steps to get there in theory, but the distance is too great to get from one step to the next. On the other hand, if there’s only an inch between each step, you can’t get your foot in there. And you’re likely to skip a bunch of steps to get where you want to go.”
  • Measurable. Include how often or how long you’re going to do something. This lets you know you’re making progress.
  • Achievable. Your goal ought to be realistic. That means it’s doable for you. You are your own best benchmark!
  • Relevant. Root your goal in something that makes life meaningful to you. Just because your partner loves cutting the grass in perfectly straight lines doesn’t mean you should bust out your yardstick along with the lawn mower.
  • Time-bound. You’ll want to weave in a time frame for when the goal will take place. It could be how often an action will happen, or it can be a set deadline.

How to think SMART

So what does this look like in practice? Let’s go through a couple of examples. We’ll compare what an old resolution might sound like and how we can make it SMART.

What you want to change: I want to be more social. But I don’t make plans because I get anxious in group settings.
Old goal: Make “friend dates” more often.
SMART goal: I will start going to book club again. It meets monthly and the next meeting is in two weeks.

What you want to change: I’m stressed out all the time. I want to meditate so I can be more mindful and calm.
Old goal: Start meditating.
SMART goal: I’ll listen to a 5-minute meditation when I wake up on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings.

Oldham points out that it may be helpful to break goals down even further. Or it might be worth putting more support in place. Let’s stay with the second example. Take a step back. What might keep you from reaching this goal? How can you work to build it into your routine?

When you enroll in an AbleTo program, you get access to Habit Tracking. This tool can be a way to log and celebrate your progress. There’s also a guided journal to walk you through the SMART goals process.

Focus on progress, not perfection

We know it can be tempting to set lofty goals. But taking the time to work through the SMART framework will be worth it in the long run.

Like any hefty project, it helps to break down a big goal into smaller pieces. Laying out the specifics will give you a visual sense of what needs doing. And ticking off each step builds momentum and confidence. SMART goals help us do that by giving us checks and balances.

Need help putting these tips into practice?

You may be eligible for virtual therapy, coaching, or on-demand self care from AbleTo. Each program is designed by clinicians and grounded in science. Sign up today and get the support you deserve.

By Kelton Wright

Kelton Wright is an author, editor, and athlete passionate about helping people live happier lives. She’s taught mindfulness to NFL coaches, led hundreds of women through cycling clinics, written an Amazon bestseller on dating, and worked with brands like Runner’s World, Rapha, Headspace, Teen Vogue, Bicycling magazine, Thrive Market, Skratch Labs, Peloton Magazine, and more all with the mission of empowering others.

Clinically reviewed by Sarah Dolling, LPC, Clinical Content Producer at AbleTo.

Photo by Anna Zakurakina/iStock. Individuals in photographs do not represent AbleTo participants.

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