As a former teacher, I had my students set 1-3 big goals for the year, and break them into smaller goals for every quarter. This involved a lot of tracking (coloring in graphs, sticker charts, decorating a book and putting it on the wall every time they passed a quiz, etc.), but we always started with two key things. The first: the brain is malleable, meaning it can change and grow—You can always get better at something. The second: how to really set a goal. I used the acronym SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused, and time- bound. Their enthusiasm in achieving their goals was contagious and I quickly applied this to my own life.
I’m not the owner of a Fortune 500 company, but I do know what it’s like to have a dream, break it into reasonable steps, and achieve a goal. I also know what it’s like to see hundreds of students grin from ear to ear when they not only achieve their reading goal, but surpass it. It’s an incredible feeling, and something that is completely doable.
1. Pay attention to the semantics.
Instead of calling it a New Year’s resolution, call it an intention or a goal. Swap “stop eating candy” to “avoid sweets.” This can shift your mindset. Sure, some of these changes may seem synonymous or trivial, but a resolution is a decision to do or not do something. An intention is an aim and makes it more hopeful. Words like never can stop can lead to all-or-nothing attitudes and make it harder to get back on track.
2. Talk about it.
Sharing goals with a friend or two who has some of your same core values not only helps you verbalize it, but it keeps you accountable, and gives you another person besides yourself that’s on your cheering squad. Plus it can spur ideas and deep conversations that might not have otherwise been possible.
3. Keep it realistic.
I once had a goal to travel to all seven continents. This is a wonderful dream-big bucket list kind of goal, but in no way possible for me at the time I set it (finances were one huge factor). I hadn’t set up a plan where I was saving up for it, hadn’t researched a plausible itinerary. Instead, having a goal like, “I want to travel to 1 new state and to 1 new country this year” is much more manageable, so long as each month I am working towards it.
4. Be specific.
If a goal reads: “I want to read more” it will be hard to see if that has actually been accomplished. If it reads: “I want to read 2 books a month” it sets up a way to measure progress and adjust accordingly.
5. Break it down.
When I used goal setting in my class, each student had a big goal that they wanted to achieve by the end of the school year. Let’s say they wanted to read 18 books by June 5. Well, after that, it just becomes simple math. 18 books in the 9-month school year meant that a student would have to read 2 books a month in order to meet this goal. This also makes to easier when you think about it becoming overwhelming. If I read for 20 minutes right now, I can make progress, be on track and not have it pile up later. Once you have your big-picture goal, it makes it more manageable to cut it into slices and eat it one bite at a time, rather than shoveling in the entire cake at the last second.
6. Commit to monthly or quarterly checkins.
Don’t beat yourself up if the goal isn’t quite met yet, or it hasn’t been started yet. Maybe it needs to be revised. Life happens, and it’s okay to not have these things set in stone. These are things you are aiming for, and it is a living document, not something laminated or framed in a gallery. Figure out if it’s something that you still want, and plan out smaller steps to obtain it.
Create a vision board of what you want your life to look like. Write a short paragraph of what your biography will say. Write a check to yourself for how much money you want to make. Practice your acceptance speech for your Oscar.
8. Be truthful.
Just because magazines are shoving diet tricks and New Year-New You resolutions at you doesn’t mean that it has to be yours. If it’s really not important to you, then don’t bother putting it on your radar. Set goals that are truly meaningful to you for the bigger picture, not just because you think it’s what you should do.
9. Get support.
Maybe you’ve always wanted to take swing dance lessons but were too afraid. This could be the year you make it happen. Check discount sites like Groupon or Living Social to see if there is an intro offer. Ask your friends if they want to start a book club, or weekly dinner dates. Find Meetups with people doing the same thing. Having someone else who is interested in the same thing will help motivate you to go, and could even cultivate new friendships.
10. Start now.
January 1 only happens once a year. This is not the only time that you get to reflect on where you are in life and create goals about where you want to be in life. Remember that you can start anything at any time, even if you think it’s too late. Just because you had a piece of chocolate does not mean you’ve blown it and you have to start on Monday. Start with the next meal. Start your 2016 goals now, even if it’s May 14 or November 2.