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USM Professor Advocates Setting ‘SMART’ goals in the New Year

Wed, 01/03/2024 - 08:48am | By: Van Arnold

New Year Goals

Eat healthier. Exercise more often. Stop smoking. Save money. Sound familiar? As another new year begins, many people are inclined to create a set of resolutions designed to improve their lives.

New Year’s resolutions are as traditional as black-eyed peas and cabbage. But, as the calendar rolls over to 2024, are we setting realistic goals? Dr. Austen Anderson, Assistant Professor in the School of Psychology at The University of Southern Mississippi (USM), advocates setting healthy goals, regardless of the starting point.

“I think setting realistic goals as part of an ongoing effort at living intentionally contributes to a good life,” said Anderson. “Failing to set goals means we just get tossed around by whatever life throws our way, which can keep us from getting where we really want to go.”

A Forbes Health/OnePoll survey conducted in October of 2023, found that 61.7% of respondents say they feel pressured to set a New Year’s resolution. In addition, many respondents plan on setting multiple goals with 66.5% stating they plan on making three or more resolutions for the year ahead.

Anderson endorses the widely touted approach of setting SMART goals – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.

The resolution of ‘I’m going to get healthier this year by exercising more’ lacks the potency of ‘I will ride my bike in the evening at 6 p.m. on the Trace (specific), for 20 minutes (measurable), three times a week (time-bound)’ assuming that this regimen is within the capabilities of the goal-setter (achievable) and contributes to what they want/care about (relevant),” said Anderson.

The failure rate for New Year's resolutions is said to be an estimated 80% with most people losing their resolve and motivation just weeks later in mid-February, according to U.S News and World Report. Myriad reasons contribute to the lack of success in meeting resolutions. Among those might be thinking too big, lack of clarity, or a defeatist attitude.

Though not a keen New Year’s resolution-setter himself, Anderson concedes that he has previously set unrealistic goals.

“I think the reasons why people fail to accomplish their goals are as varied as the goals and people themselves,” he said. “Sometimes, the goals are too difficult, sometimes there’s a lack of intrinsic motivation, sometimes there wasn’t enough preparation, sometimes our harsh reaction to a slip-up in a resolution led to giving it up altogether.”

To combat the frustration or self-loathing from failing to accomplish New Year’s resolutions, Anderson suggests a term he calls “Acceptagement (Acceptance + Encouragement). In this concept, you practice accepting things as they are at the time, while simultaneously encouraging yourself to try – again – to improve.

“Acceptance without encouragement can lead to stagnation,” said Anderson. “Encouragement without acceptance might lead to self-shaming or unrealistic expectations. So, when February 1, or April 9th, or the last day of the semester rolls around and one of my goals wasn’t met, hopefully I can say ‘I didn’t accomplish my goal. Welcome to the human race!’ Now, is that goal still important to me, and if so, what can I do differently to make it happen?”

Through his training in psychology and psychotherapy, Anderson points out that he has come to hold values in high regard. For most people, values represent the things that are most important to them.

“Values can partly be discerned from questions like, ‘what do I care about most in life’ and ‘at the end of my life, what would I like those I care most about to think/say about me.’ If we can reconnect with those values and consider how our goals contribute to those values (e.g., sleeping better so I can be more pleasant with my family and friends; eating healthier so that I can have the mental clarity to pursue my deepest interests, etc.) I think we might be more successful.”

When asked if he had made any resolutions for 2024, Anderson noted: “I’ve got a personal goal-setting session coming up, so no new goals yet, but soon!