My SMART formula to achieve your new year goals

It’s the time for New Year Resolutions, but Mike Murphy, from the Department of Applied Psychology at UCC, explains why so many fail - and how you can become a winner
My SMART formula to achieve your new year goals

Many resolutions people make are based on what they feel they should do, not what they want to do.

ANOTHER year draws to a close, and a new one looms.

For many of us, this is a time to reflect and take stock; for many more of us, it is a time to look forward, plan ahead - in other words a time for New Year’s Resolutions.

The road to hell, we are told, is paved with good intentions. It’s hard to give a decent estimate, but an awful lot of those paving stones must be discarded New Year’s Resolutions!

A YouGov study in the UK found that 12% of British people made such resolutions, of whom only 26% kept all of them - with 23% reporting failing entirely. And that’s without even mentioning the 15% who had intended to make resolutions, but hadn’t even gotten that far!

To inject some sobriety here, the path to ill health is also often paved with broken resolutions. Kaitlin Woolley, from Cornell University and Ayelet Fishbach Of University of Chicago, found that more than half of resolutions were health-related, the majority to do with taking more exercise.

We all know how important lifestyle is to our health, and many of us go so far as to make firm intentions to change our lives.

But most of us don’t succeed fully, and many get nowhere. Why?

Fortunately, the discipline of psychology, and in particular Coaching Psychology (and - full disclosure - I am a Coaching Psychologist) can provide us with insights. There are many factors at play, and this article addresses only some.

Many resolutions people make are based on what they feel they should do, not what they want to do.

We all hold ideas of what we would ideally be like (which might be all our own or might come from what we have internalised from others), what we ‘ought’ to be like (often based on how we think others feel we should be), and what we are actually like.

Abundant research tells us that it is uncomfortable for there to be a big gap between the actual, ideal and ought - so it is likely that this is often a motivation for resolutions.

But the evidence also shows that we are far more likely to succeed when our goals are based on what we really want or enjoy.

Indeed, in general we’re a lot more likely to succeed in tasks that accord with our values or interests than in those we feel (or others tell us) we should be pursuing.

When it comes to making changes, theory and research show us that we go through a series of stages.

From the perspective of making progress, the big one to me is contemplation - we know something is problematic, we’re considering whether to move on it, but we haven’t committed either way.

This stage can feature conflict - we are trying to work out whether we will gain more or lose more from the change.

The costs can be obvious; you might want to get fit but you might also enjoy lazy evenings in January - going to the gym drags you away from the beloved couch, cupboard and fridge, plus it costs money.

To overcome this, the benefits need to be stronger - and knowing it is something you really want and/or will enjoy can make a big difference.

A second common issue can be the goals people set themselves. So often, people are completely unrealistic and decide they want to change their entire lives - and the world! - In January alone. This is really setting oneself up for failure.

As my pal Joe once said to me: “The only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time”.

It’s important to break your goals into digestible chunks - if you want to run a 5K for example, break it down.

In Coaching Psychology, we speak of SMART goals - specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time-bound.

So rather than focusing on the huge ultimate goal, we break things into ‘performance goals’ - say beginning by running 1 kilometer.

This is Specific, and Measurable.

Ask yourself honestly - is this doable, and can you see yourself doing it? If so it is Attainable and Realistic.

And finally set yourself a realistic Time-frame - a start date and an end date. SMART - This works!

Finally, build in some rewards.

Our approach often tends to be all stick and no carrot. This is very severe, and often just doesn’t get carried through.

Instead, try promising yourself treats if you stick to your plan – “if I run 20 minutes on five evenings this week, at the weekend I will (insert treat here)“ is perhaps more likely to be successful. Rewards instead of punishments!

New Year’s Resolutions can be great things but often don’t come to fruition.

There are no guarantees, but the ideas above can definitely help improve your chances.

Pick something you really want for yourself, break it into smaller pieces, and reward yourself along the way.

Good luck!

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