2015 calendars hit the stores months ago. Have you started to work on your New Year’s Resolutions yet? For many of us, this has become an annual ritual, but by March, we're back to our old ways. Don't let that be you! There are still more than nine months left in the year, so what’s the best way to achieve your 2015 goals? Most experts agree it’s about making them “SMART.” That is, Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely.
Compared to wishful thinking, SMART goals offer a concrete, coherent approach to change. Here are some examples of SMART goals, including one from a university HR department.
SMART goals are much better than the dreaming and fantasizing of “getting more exercise” or “retiring by age 30.” But how smart are these SMART goals? Based on what we know about the science of change, what’s the chance they will actually work and provide the intended results?
- I will walk 5 days every week for 30 minutes each.
- I will lose 15 pounds starting January 2nd by cutting out desserts and snacks and by controlling my portion sizes in three months.
- By August 1, 2009, implement a new performance management system for Classified Staff, A&P Faculty, and University Staff using clearly defined processes and guidelines so employees and managers can more competently evaluate performance and develop their careers.
Unfortunately, it turns out “SMART” goals actually aren’t very smart.
The Problems with SMART Goals
Take a look at the examples again and imagine how these SMART goals might be carried out. If anything is true, it’s that we humans are hard-wired for efficiency and survival, which means that given a choice, we’d rather be couch potatoes than gym rats. We are programmed to conserve energy, whether physical or mental, and we don’t like paying high costs, whether it’s in money, time, or effort.
The problem with SMART goals is that they don’t take this into account. Plus, people confuse having made SMART goals with finding the best ways to achieve those goals. Walking 5 days a week for 30 minutes each time is a fine goal to aim for, but how you get there is another story.
4 Key Factors for Success
A successful process accounts for four factors: scope, context, environment, and reward.
1. Scope. Small is better than big, and tiny is best of all. Stanford professor BJ Fogg has demonstrated that focusing on your desired behavior and making it a Tiny Habit is the secret to successful, enduring change. His example is flossing just one tooth as the way to work up to flossing all your teeth. If walking 30 minutes every morning is the goal, then the tiniest behavior to first establish is the habit of putting on your walking shoes first thing out of bed.
2. Context. Humans are highly sensitized to cues, so taking control of the context in which the new, tiny behavior takes place significantly boosts the likelihood of success. Peter Gollwitzer, a professor of psychology at New York University, formulated the “if-then” concept to translate intentions into action by linking desired behaviors with situational cues: “If situation Y is encountered, then I will initiate behavior Z in order to reach goal X!” Combining Fogg’s tiny with Gollwitzer’s if-then brings us to: “If I brush my teeth, I will floss one tooth in order to reach the goal of regularly flossing all my teeth,” or, “If I get out of bed, I will put on my walking shoes in order to reach my goal of walking 30 minutes.”
3. Environment. Environment, both physical and social, plays a key role in whether you succeed or not. For example, stairways decorated with art, putting fresh fruit in an attractive bowl under good lighting, and dressing up salad bars with kale are environmental factors proven to increase physical activity and healthier eating. Likewise, obesity is contagious. When friends become obese, the risk of your putting on the pounds also increases. So, hanging out with healthy-weight friends is critical if you want to achieve your healthy-weight goal.
4. Reward. Feeling good drives us. Make new behaviors “stick” by celebrating even the smallest achievement. I don’t mean buying a new scarf or golf club. Again, think tiny. Increase your sense of “feel good” and accomplishment by rewarding yourself after even the smallest success. Say to yourself “good job!” or “fantastic!” or do a fist pump after you floss one tooth, smile at the first person you see at work, or take one deep breath after you sit down to eat. You’ll be amazed at the power of celebrating.
By taking these four steps you can turn your "SMART" goals from this year’s resolution into next year's success story!
Dr. Deborah Teplow is CEO and co-founder of the Institute for Wellness Education. She developed the curriculum that led to US Department of Labor’s approvals of wellness coaching as a new US occupation and a Registered Apprenticeship Program. She was founder and CEO of Health Focus medical publishing, has served on an expert panel for the US Department of Health and Human Services, as a director on the board for the Global Alliance for Medical Education, and a subcommittee chair for the Alliance for Continuing Medical Education.