By Josephine D’Ippolito

It’s that time of year again. You know, that time when we make resolutions to get healthier, skinnier, richer, happier and overall better…only to abandon our best intentions a few weeks later.

New year, new you, right? But why do we so predictably fail? How can we make better goals and give ourselves grace in the process of working towards them?

We’ve done a deep dive into common New Year’s aspirations and have even created a new acronym to help us achieve them. Read on to learn how to make your resolutions SMART AF (adaptable and forgiving, of course) and actually achieve what you set out to accomplish.

Why do we make New Year’s goals?

It’s believed New Year’s resolutions began about 4,000 years ago as a religious practice, and the custom was not terribly different from today’s approach. People of different faiths looked back on their mistakes and resolved to do better in the upcoming year.

“It’s similar to an existential issue of life and death, where the year we are in is dying and a new year is beginning,” explains Mount Kisco-based psychologist Marc Abrams, Ph.D. “And with that comes a profound sense of wondering, ‘Who am I? Where am I going? What do I want to do?’”

Katonah-based psychologist Dana Zelman, Ph.D., adds that people find a new year alluring.

“It’s a blank slate,” she explains. “So it amplifies a general desire for self-improvement.”

And yet, about 80 percent of people lose their resolve by mid-February, according to U.S. News and World Report. So, why does the New Year’s resolution only have a life span of around six weeks?

We’re going about it the wrong way

We often make goals to change something we don’t like about ourselves. It could be anything from losing weight or making more money to learning a new skill or working less. But a negative mindset is not conducive to meaningful lifestyle changes.

Instead, before you attempt to make or achieve any self-improvement goals, you should make sure you like yourself. Zellman says this can be especially difficult after the holiday season, as we’ve just experienced everyone’s social media persona at holiday parties and online.

“After the holiday season, we may withdraw to a place where we’re only looking at the best versions of other people,” she says. “We can get stuck thinking about ourselves in a framework of inadequacy or loneliness, and that’s not fair.”

You need to be emotionally strong when setting goals, so find ways to change your perspective and create social connections. Call a friend or neighbor and meet for a walk, or be more present with your partner. Social connectivity is key to our emotional resilience.

“It’s also important to be in a good place emotionally if you want to achieve your goals,” says Abrams. “It’s easier to change from a place of self-acceptance; it’s very hard to change when you don’t like where or who you are, and you believe that by doing certain things, you can become somebody better.”

Your resolutions do not have to fundamentally transform you. Instead, consider tweaks to your lifestyle, which will eventually make an impactful change in your life.

Start with a word

Before doing the work of setting goals, Fran Hauser, a best-selling author and career coach based in Bedford, establishes a word of the year.

“Pick just one word (or maybe two) that will be your guiding light in the new year; it’ll be your north star,” she recommends. “Going into 2021, my word was ‘fun,’ and it motivated me to emphasize fun in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise.”

For example, Hauser planned activities she knew her family would enjoy in the new year, including a trip to L.A. She also scheduled gatherings with friends and girls’ trips with her closest friends.

Hauser says your word can be whatever you need it to be; there are no rules. If you want to try new things, your word could be “yes,” as in, you’ll say yes to more things. Or if you want to exercise more, your word could be “move.” Your word could also be a short phrase, such as “embrace change,” “get healthy” or “save more money.” Whatever it is, identify it, say it, write it down and let it guide you towards the realization of your goals throughout the year.

Be SMART about setting goals

Often, even when we set goals from a solid, healthy, accepting place, we still fail. There’s the ‘I love myself, but I want to lose twenty pounds!’ Or, ‘I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, but I want to double my income.’

This is where SMART goals come in. Rather than setting lofty, ambitious goals with no strategic path, make goals that are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound. SMART goals allow you to create an action plan by naming specific actions you can take that will get you to where you want to be.

For example, if you want to spend more time with your family and/or loved ones, you could make a goal of having dinner or a game night with them once a week. Or if they live far away, you could schedule (and stick to) a weekly call. If you want to learn a new skill, set a goal to take a class and/or practice the new skill for a set amount of time each day or week.

But sometimes, our end goal is not totally within our control. Take the example of losing weight: everyone’s body is different, and losing weight is not guaranteed, even when adhering to a strict routine. Using SMART goals provides a framework for working towards a larger goal, with smaller, specific, achievable goals in between. So, your goal could be to go to the gym three days a week, only drink water with dinner or reduce your sugar intake to one dessert a week.

Use a stepped approach

Let’s use a stepped approach to take SMART goals one step further (pun intended).

“You should create a scaffolding of goals: short-term wins that build to a long-term goal,” Abrams recommends.

So, if your goal is to ‘get more sleep,’ you may want to try the 10-3-2-1-0 rule, but not all at once. Do one activity for a few days or a week before moving on to the next. The rule goes like this: 10 hours before bed, stop caffeine intake; three hours before bed: no more food or alcohol; stop working two hours before bed; one hour before bed, cut off all screen time; and then 0: the number of times you hit snooze.

If you are looking to ‘get more organized,’ try naming a handful of practices you want to implement into your routine and adding them to your lifestyle one at a time. Some goals might be to clear your inbox at the end of each day, go paperless with regular household bills, don’t leave dirty dishes in the sink, make better to-do lists – you get the idea.

Plan to step up every three, five or seven days, depending on how confident you feel about adding your current change to your routine. Keeping this period short gives you more opportunity to pat yourself on the back. With each step, there is a real achievement to feel good about.

“If you don’t feel good about what you’re doing, change is so much harder,” says Abrams.

Make the time

Goals can also be difficult to achieve because we don’t have enough time in our day. Prioritize goals when possible by adding them to your calendar. Or, take a cue from Hauser, who has found another way to keep herself on track.

“I write my goals on a board in my office, so they are always top of mind,” she explains. “I see them every day, multiple times a day.”

Hauser says she blocks out time for herself every Friday morning—from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m.—to review her plans for the following week and ensure she has enough activities scheduled to meet her weekly objectives.

If detailed scheduling doesn’t work for you, find other ways to prioritize the steps you want to take towards your goals.

“Set aside a specific time each day to work towards your goal,” Abrams recommends. “This way, you can establish a regular routine to help you meet your goal.”

Be adaptable and forgiving

While the SMART goal framework is a helpful place to start, it doesn’t address the hiccups. For example, there are times when one person is sick and cannot make it to the weekly dinner, or your goal to get more sleep is derailed by a sick child or a work deadline.

When that happens, and it will inevitably happen, it’s important not to give up. Instead, adapt.

That might mean you need to change or reduce the goal to make it more achievable. Or, you might simply need to pivot and reset. But don’t be too hard on yourself. We are human, and we are going to stumble from time to time.

“Give yourself grace and treat yourself with the same empathy you have for others,” suggests Zelman. “Forgive yourself and move on.”

So, SMART goals are not enough. We also need to be Adaptable and Forgiving. With that, we leave you with the SMART AF approach to setting New Year’s resolutions. And on that note, go forth and achieve your dreams!

This article was published in the January/February 2024 edition of Connect to Northern Westchester

Josephine D'Ippolito
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Josephine D'Ippolito is a lifelong northern Westchester resident, growing up in Mount Kisco and currently residing in Yorktown Heights. She is passionate about food and design, and her writing has been featured in various local publications, including Westchester Magazine and The Journal News.