Being S.M.A.R.T. about New Year’s Resolutions

Here are some tips for making new year's resolutions using the SMART method, rather than just listing them on sticky notes, like this wall full of post-it notes.

I am a list maker. I write on Post-its, palms, notebooks, chalkboards — anything that is within my reach when an idea strikes. Whether it is a to-do, quote, or “for later,” paper becomes my slate, my sounding board. I write, write, write, with the hope that my ink can become the soil for an idea, helping it blossom into something real.

When the holiday season comes around, I rush to my notebook well before the mall. Instead of coming up with one New Year’s resolution, I make a list of specific things to accomplish in the coming year. This encourages me to return to the list later and (hopefully) check things off, holding myself accountable for my progress.

Though it’s fun to create this list, it’s disappointing months later if I find certain tasks unwatered, forgotten, wilting. I know I’m not alone. As US News & World Report states, about 80 percent of those who make New Year’s resolutions abandon their goals by mid-February.

Assessing past resolution goals

As I review resolution lists from years past, I discover that items that were typically checked off first are ones that I was excited to do — whether it was a creative project, committing more time to lesson planning (my favorite part of my teaching job), or seeing friends and family more often. The abandoned items were the ones I was less excited about: waking up earlier, making my own lunch more often, leaving time in my day for confronting students that I tutor who I knew would give me the most pushback.

Even though there were many items checked off, some of the goals were unspecific, and I realize now that it is hard to measure if I actually completed those items. Who is to say what “more often” means? What does “committing fully” to something even look like?

I have found that these two problems, putting off what you don’t want to do and being unspecific, can be solved by two different methods: S.M.A.R.T goals and To-Dread Lists.

S.M.A.R.T. approach to New Year’s resolutions

You may have only seen the term “S.M.A.R.T. goal” in nagging emails from your employer — but they can be extremely effective in our personal lives as well. S.M.A.R.T. stands for specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused, and time bound, meaning you can truly tell when you have completed it.

For example, rather than “I’m going to go to the gym more,” one of my S.M.A.R.T. goals is: “I will go to the gym every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday at 7 p.m. for at least one hour.” I calculated that going to the gym at least three times per week will make paying for a gym membership worth it — and if I don’t hold myself to that, I will have to cancel the membership.

Side note: If you’re feeling ambitious, you can add something like: “By March, I will be able to hold a plank pose for 30 seconds longer than I currently can.” Personally, I’m not going to add something like this yet, because I’m takin’ it one step at a time — and my arms are real weak.

Click to download this free guide to making meaningful resolutions.

Hold yourself accountable

Writing these S.M.A.R.T. goals down and reading them aloud is key to holding yourself accountable. However, if you are struggling with personal accountability, consider getting someone else involved. Set up weekly check-ins with someone you trust to talk about how you can help each other through dreaded tasks. Have them call or text you at a certain time of the week when you know you’ll need the extra motivation. Sacrificing your pride to admit your struggles may be worth the clear conscience — and to-do list.

A friend and I joined the gym together, and, along with the membership price, she has been my main motivator for keeping my goal to attend the gym multiple times per week. We agreed to take classes at the gym together at a certain time, and knowing that someone will be there working out beside me is just another factor that drags my feet to the ellipticals even when I am exhausted after a long workday.

Cobble together a To-Dread list of resolutions

If S.M.A.R.T. goals alone aren’t enough for you, you can add the To-Dread list (I promise, it’s not as awful as it sounds.)

After you’ve made your S.M.A.R.T. goals, separate them into two columns: Yay and Nay. Yay is what you are excited to do, and Nay is what you may be less than enthused about.

Next, you will number your list in the order in which you want to complete them — with most of your Nays at the top. Your Nays must be done first, before you get to your Yays; this way, your Yay goals will seem like a reward. Every time you are tempted to complete a Yay item, you are forcing yourself to check off a Nay first — and before you know it, you have more blossoming flowers on your page than wilting leaves.

When I revised an old resolution list using the To-Dread list method, my notebook page transformed to look something like this:


  1. Have dinner with friends once a week
  2. Workout three times a week
  3. Check-In with behavior students twice a week
  4. Call students’ parents once a week

Revised (using S.M.A.R.T. and To-Dread approach)

  1. Check-In with behavior students twice a week (Nay)
  2. Call students’ parents once a week (Nay)
  3. Workout three times a week (Nay)
  4. Have dinner with friends once a week (Yay)

The Nays are not necessarily items that you do not enjoy. Checking in with students who are typically resistant and then communicating with their parents are essential to my students’ growth; however, these are the parts of my job that I find to be the most difficult, so they’re categorized as a Nay and are now at the top of the list. After I get through those and complete my workout for the week, I can reward myself by having dinner with my friends once a week — which I know is essential to my mental health and self-care.

To some, this may seem daunting, especially if you are not typically a list maker, but we all need accountability systems to successfully face challenging goals.

Some encouragement for the year ahead

This year, instead of just posting your resolution on Facebook, why not create a specific personal list that you can go back and read? Or try confiding in someone close to you so they can help you be successful?

The worst that can happen is your lists end up on more crumpled up Post-its at the bottom of your desk drawer.

Best case scenario? You beat the 80 percent who abandon their resolutions by February, reach the Yays on your list, and celebrate how you want to — while making satisfying check marks along the way.

Here’s to next year being your best year, yet!

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