Humanity has a long tradition of setting New Year resolutions, dating back to the Babylonians, who used to make promises to gain their gods’ favour and start the new year on the path to success. This is my favourite holiday practice because it’s rooted in an aspiration for self-improvement and success. However, U.S. News tells us that 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail by February. As for the UK, a poll showed that 63% of respondents had broken at least one of their resolutions in the past, the majority within a single month.
And yet, we’ve all heard of SMART goals. In other words, we all know our chances of success increase dramatically if our goals are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. So why haven’t we become goal-achieving machines by now?
The truth is, SMART goals are indeed the key to success, but setting goals and achieving them is a skill like any other. If we don’t learn to practise it correctly, goal setting will remain wishful thinking.
Writing down a list of SMART goals is a promising start, but it may also become our downfall. A month down the line, all those bullet points will start looking more threatening than exciting: “Where am I going to find the time to master pole dancing, learn Turkish, build muscle, and apply for MasterChef?”
If life were a road trip, goals would be our desired destinations. If you think of each bullet point as a stop on a map, you will start to see the relationships between them. Take “improve cooking skills” and “compete in MasterChef”, for example: the final goal is the competition, but you have to drive through improve cooking skills first. However, don’t mistake your goals with the steps to chase them: improve cooking skills is a step, or a gas station, where you can refuel the car before making your way to the final goal, MasterChef. Always think of the bigger picture.
You can draw the same line between “building ten pounds of muscle” and “going to the gym every day”: the increased muscle mass is the ultimate destination, while building the habit of working out regularly is the first step.
When you have learnt the difference between a destination and a gas station, the road to your ambitions will be free of all clutter. Now you can decide where to begin.
Achieving multiple goals
Often our resolutions touch different aspects of our life, as per my initial example of taking up a new fitness class, learning a foreign language, getting fit, and entering a cooking competition. Nevertheless, it’s still possible to figure out a road map. First, we need to make a decision: which of these goals is the most important? If all else failed, which one would we absolutely want to achieve? That will be our focus in the beginning of the journey.
Next, we need to break down the chosen goal into practical steps. Assuming MasterChef is our top priority for the year, the journey will look something like this:
1. Complete a cooking course
2. Master at least five recipes
3. Apply for the competition
4. Attend the competition
The key to being able to complete each step and move on to the following goals – Turkish, pole dancing, and so on – is to turn step 1 into a habit. Any new activity will take some time to become a natural part of our routine, but, when it does, staying on track will be ingrained into our brain instead of a conscious effort. For this reason, it’s essential to work exclusively on step 1 for at least a month, attending the cooking course and studying for it at home. Once the novelty wears off and this step becomes natural, it’s time to incorporate step 1 of the next goal into our daily life as we move on to step 2 of the first.
Make it a gradual introduction rather than a sudden addition: for instance, start going to the gym for an hour once a week. If you can keep practising recipes on a regular basis as well, perform both activities for another month, until you’re set on the right course for the two goals. When you achieve one or the other, you can begin working to the next one on your list.
Keeping your New Year resolutions begins with understanding that each goal is a structure made up of a number of components. Tackle each element one by one and make them into habits, focusing at most on one step for a maximum of two goals at a time. Think of the moment of achievement of each objective as a beautiful tourist attraction, where you reward yourself for your success before taking on the next Step 1.
With the Road Trip Mindset, no bullet point list will ever haunt you again.