The new year has arrived (thank goodness – adios 2020!) which means it’s that time that many of us began thinking about goals and resolutions! As we reflect on what we have (or have not) accomplished this past year, our minds race to prescribe new goals (or ones we are still working on). As exciting as this sounds, this can also be a time of feeling a lack of progress and hopelessness, because we did not do what we had set out to last year or we have no clue on where to start with setting new goals.

Why do we set goals anyway?

Every one of us may spend countless hours thinking about our present life and future. Almost everyone wishes to change their lives in some way. Whether it is family life, friendship, career or finances, we all want to change something. The first step is to set goals.

“Stop smoking…lose weight…make it to the gym more often.” While these are all good goals to aim for, achieving success can be difficult since that often means major life changes. It’s fairly easy to say, “I want to give up cigarettes,” or “I’m going to drop 30 pounds this year,” but actually making those things happen requires some drastic and difficult changes in the life we’ve gotten used to living. And as we bump into those difficult changes, or drift back a bit after making some progress toward our goal, the result is that we become discouraged and give up on what we’re trying to achieve.

But the answer to the problem is actually quite simple — don’t try and bite off too much at once!

A lot of the time, as the American Counseling Association observes, the reason we might not be where we want to be with a particular goal is because we did not “plan” properly or we set goals that were not realistic. It’s time to change that! Instead of looking at the big picture of, for example, “I want to lose 30 pounds,” set goals like: “I want to eat a healthy dinner at least 3x/week.” As you break down the big goal into smaller ones, you may notice they are easier to achieve, thus motivating you to set additional short-term goals to get to your long-term goal.

It can sound overwhelming at first, but there is a formula to help with this process. This formula is called S.M.A.R.T goal setting: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. So, what do each of these mean and entail?

Specific: Define specificities around your goal. For example: Who else does this goal involve? What do you want to accomplish? Is there a location this goal takes place in? Is there a time frame you are looking at? Why is this goal significant to your life? Example: Imagine that you are currently a marketing executive, and you would like to become head of marketing. A specific goal could be, “I want to gain the skills and experience necessary to become head of marketing within my organization so that I can build my career and lead a successful team.”

Measurable: How will I know when this goal is accomplished? How can I stay on track? Do I have target dates for my mini-goal and my overall goal? Example: You might measure your goal of acquiring the skills to become head of marketing by determining that you will have completed the necessary training courses and gained the relevant experience within five years’ time.

Attainable: Is my goal realistic for me to achieve with effort and commitment? Do I need to break it down further? What resources do I need to accomplish this goal? Example: You might need to ask yourself whether developing the skills required to become head of marketing is realistic, based on your existing experience and qualifications. For example, do you have the time to complete the required training effectively? Are the necessary resources available to you? Can you afford to do it?

Realistic: Are there any other conditions that need to take place in order to reach this goal? Have I accomplished anything similar in the past? Is this the right time? Is this worthwhile? Do I believe this can be accomplished? Example: You might want to gain the skills to become head of marketing within your organization, but is it the right time in your life to undertake the required training or work toward additional qualifications? Are you sure that you’re the right person for the head of marketing role? Have you considered your spouse’s goals? For example, if you want to start a family, would completing training in your free time make this more difficult?

 Timely: A goal should be grounded within a timeframe. Is the timeframe realistic? Should I tell people about my goal to hold myself accountable? What are my “deadlines” for each of my “mini-goals”? Example: Gaining the skills to become head of marketing may require additional training or experience, as we mentioned earlier. How long will it take you to acquire these skills? Do you need further training so that you’re eligible for certain exams or qualifications? It’s important to give yourself a realistic time frame for accomplishing the smaller goals that are necessary to achieving your final objective.

Some other important things to consider when brainstorming goals are: What benefits will achieving the goal have on your life? What are potential obstacles might you run into, and what are their solutions? It is also helpful to identify a support system of people who can help you if you feel stuck.

So, the next time you want to set a goal for yourself, (whether it is at the start of a new year or any time in between) take some time to map out your goal and answer the questions we just reviewed. You might see that your goals are actually more within reach than you had originally thought! Good luck!