2020 was a difficult year on many levels. The pandemic, police violence, and a contentious election all cast a shadow over this past year and with so many things that seem wrong with the world, it would be easy to fall into despair.
But the new year is a time for hope and a time for a change.
With the start of 2021, the perennial practice of crafting new year’s resolutions takes on a special poignance. Not only has such a stressful year inevitably led to the accumulation of plentiful personal bad habits, but the events of the past year have highlighted innumerable areas where our communities could be changed for the better. With so much taking place, this may seem daunting, but with the application of a sustainable cognitive framework, even the largest problems can be broken down into manageable chunks. This means not just setting the right goals but setting SMART goals.
This is a technique that I use in my personal life and often employ with patients seeking to make a change. Whether you want to lose weight, improve your mood, or dismantle systems of oppression—the acronym SMART can help you achieve it.
SMART stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely. This means that when setting a new goal you should make sure that the thing you are reaching for is actually within your reach, that you’ll be able to achieve results in a (reasonably) short amount of time, and that you have a clear idea of when your goal has actually been met.
To take a common example, the goal of “lose weight this year” is a great thing to aspire to, but not actually a very helpful way to frame the goal. For starters, it doesn’t convey much information. Does it mean that if you lose 1 pound by January 2nd you have achieved this goal, or does it mean that if you have only lost 30 pounds by the end of 2021 you have failed?
The first step to setting SMART goals is to create a meaningful endpoint and then work backward. To continue with our weight loss example, a realistic weight loss goal might be to lose 20 pounds in 6 months. This is specific, easily measurable, and has a clear time course. From this starting point, you can also easily break it down into helpful sub-goals that will help you stay on track. If you hope to lose 20 pounds in 6 months then you can easily check-in at 2 or 4 months, or even calculate that you should be losing weight at a rate of just under a pound a week. A similar process would not be possible if your goal was “look good in a swimsuit” or “lose weight”. With this well-defined measurability, you can also easily build in rewards at meaningful checkpoints that can help to keep you motivated for the long haul. Another important aspect to highlight is that this is an attainable goal. While you might feel better basking in the idea of a new year’s resolution to “lose 60 pounds and run a marathon in 2 months,” it is not realistic and will ultimately create disappointment and reinforce the idea that you cannot achieve your goals.
With this framework in mind, you can begin to tackle much bigger problems, not only for your own health but for society at large. If your goal is a political one, try breaking it down into the specific things you want to achieve and continue to subdivide your objective into smaller and smaller actions that can move you towards your destination. “Winning hearts and minds” on a particular issue is not a SMART goal, but achieving a specific objective like “speaking at your city council meeting,” or “writing to your senator every time a specific issue comes up” are meaningful and effective steps towards your larger goal and are things you can and should feel proud of.
I will be using the concept of SMART goals to create my resolutions for 2021 and I am excited for all the good that can be done in the new year. I hope 2021 proves to be a happy, healthy, and productive year for you all!