Student looking out over mountains

Doing better in school, keeping in touch with family, feeling healthier—it’s New Year’s Resolution season! Psychology research has shown that the way to see progress towards our goals isn’t just the effort we put in: it also comes down to the way we set up our goals and how we take them on. Check out the keys to success here.

Values and priorities
Start by writing down the things you care about and want to give attention to in 2018. Whether that’s relationships, health, academics (or all three), starting broad and then filtering down will help you figure out exactly what you’re striving for. Plus, research shows when we write goals down we’re more likely to work toward them.

For example, if family is your top priority for 2018, jot down notes to get to the root of what you want. If it’s a better relationship with a sibling, brainstorm ideas for what you can do, i.e. spending more time together. Then identify the specific action you can dedicate your energy to, like setting aside every other Sunday night to Skype, have dinner, go to the climbing gym, or just texting to check in.

Repeat this exercise with all of your values to help nail down productive resolutions. While an improved GPA is a great value, the way to make it happen is with specific goals, like “spend 20 minutes reviewing notes after every lab” and “attend the professor’s office hours at least once a month with specific questions from lecture.” Completing these smaller, incremental goals can set you on track to meet your overall intention of a better GPA.

Take some time to rank all of these goals, too. Keep things manageable by acknowledging that it’s okay if not everything happens at the same time: maybe in January the focus will be on Priority #1, and in February or March another one or two can be introduced.

SMART goals
The most effective, achievable goals are the ones we set using the SMART method, hinted at above. This method relies on keeping the goal Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound.

For example, with a goal like “Try cooking at least one new healthy recipe each week,” the action is specific, the quantity of recipes is measurable, the small number to start is attainable, the improved nutrition is relevant, and the dedication to doing this each week keeps it time-bound. On the other hand, a goal like “eat less fast food” is broad, subjective, and can get tricky to keep track of, especially without a clear alternative.

SMART goals also rely on performance over outcome. This means setting goals that we have the most control over. While a goal like winning the intramural championship is exciting, this relies on other players, officials, good health, perfect timing, and even luck. Translate these instead into things you have the ability to achieve, like practicing an extra hour every week to improve your technique.

Staying positive
Reframing our goals to be positive and attainable also increases our likelihood of success. Focusing less on losing weight and more on finding a fun workout class or committing to taking walks with a friend, for example, gives us something to look forward to in the moment instead of waiting for a far-off reward, and helps us reach our goal of being healthier.

Keeping a positive and realistic view also helps us stick it out through roadblocks. Perhaps the goal was to start going to bed half an hour earlier every night, but by the second week of the semester we realize it just isn’t possible every day. We can easily reframe this goal without giving it up: this week, we can go to bed half an hour earlier on Monday and Tuesday. We’ll already start feeling better, and when our schedule calms down, getting to bed earlier on Wednesday will feel doable too.

The new year is a great time to start making one little change in the areas we care about and taking small steps toward our larger goals. By staying realistic and focusing on the positive, we can turn our fresh start into long-term success.