Modern staircase

I was struck by a phrase from this Harvard Business Review article: “the illusion of progress.” The article itself is about things we should all stop doing, including reading annoying things and making life too complicated; it’s a good read.

Like many people, I struggle each year with making resolutions that stick. It occurred to me: maybe I’m doing it wrong. Why not apply a traditional business goal-setting model to this year’s resolutions? Take your main resolution, and try making it SMART:

Specific – If your goal is “exercise more,” that leaves a bit too much wiggle room. Instead try setting a goal, such as run 3 times per week instead of 2, or finish a race. If you want to be more productive, list some specific ways you plan to do this, whether it’s blocking time for key tasks, a “not to do” list, or reducing the number of meetings you attend.

Measurable – If you want to run any race–5k or ultramarathon–you’ll need a training plan. Lay out how you’re going to get there, and track your progress. If you want to build your business network, brainstorm a list of ideas on how you will do this, then put them on your calendar. Find a “goal buddy” and keep each other on task.

Attainable – If you don’t exercise much now, a marathon probably isn’t attainable right away. Start small, and build. If your goal is a raise and salaries are frozen company-wide, it won’t happen no matter how much you deserve it.

Realistic – If you plan to exercise more, eat healthier, lose weight, be more productive, expand your network, stay in touch with friends and spend more time with your family this year, you might find that your goals conflict (unless, of course, you’ve found a stray DeLorean). The more time you spend at the gym, the less time you’ll have to spend cooking healthy meals. If you can’t pick just one goal, find ways to make them work together. Maybe spend time cooking healthy meals with your family, or exercising with a friend.

Timely – Can you reach the goal(s) you’ve set within a few months, or a year at most? If not, maybe your goal should be broken into smaller chunks, so you can make measurable progress sooner. Run a 5k this year, and imagine how happy you’ll be if you get to the 10-miler too. Instead of setting the goal “write a book” try “write a chapter a month.” It’s a lot less intimidating goal in that form, and you’ll probably make more progress.

Be sure to think about the reasons behind your goals. If your goal is to arrive at work 30 minutes earlier, it might help to think about why. Do you want to spend more time working on important goals? Arriving half an hour earlier without a plan for how this will improve your productivity will most likely just result in spending an extra half hour at work–the illusion of progress.

Track your resolutions like business goals this year, and see what happens. And remember, the same rules apply as in business: the more strategic goals you try to tackle at once, the more likely you are to fail at all of them. If you have multiple goals for the year, try spreading out the start of each, maybe one per quarter. That way, the first becomes habit before you tackle the second.

p.s. If you’re not sure what goals to set, you could always let someone else set them for you. I did this last year, and made substantial progress with my goal of relaxing (set by my husband), by taking yoga classes most weeks (every week wouldn’t have been realistic) and spending time reading on Sunday afternoons. By simply clarifying how I was going to get there, I was able to achieve my goal of doing more nothing.