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How Students Can be SMART in the New Year

2021 is now upon us. A new year represents a clean slate, an opportunity to put the past behind and look forward. However, if you want to improve yourself and be successful in 2021, start by reflecting on 2020. What went well? Congratulate yourself for that and carry those good habits into this year as well. What didn’t go well? Be honest! That hopefully short list can be divided into two categories: things that are out of your control and things that are. Don’t stress out about the former and focus your energy on the latter.

Tackling those areas of improvement requires a plan. But New Year’s resolutions typically have a very low success rate. Many of them are abandoned before January is even over. Any regular at the gym will tell you that the crowds die down by March. So, is there any point in making New Year’s resolutions? Yes! People who explicitly make resolutions are much more likely to attain their goals than those who don’t. Progress doesn’t come from sitting back and hoping for the best.

The key, then, is to make a good plan, as opposed to a bad plan or no plan. One of the main reasons that resolutions fail is because there is no direction behind a lofty goal. If your resolution is to meet the love of your life or to get into Stanford, how do you measure success along the way? Heck, how do you even begin? Such a task might feel so daunting that you will postpone working on it until you forget all about it. Or, if you’re like the old me, you won’t forget about it and just feel guilty and miserable all year. Don’t be like the old me.

What you need to do is to set your resolution in terms of SMART criteria. SMART is an acronym that started out being used by managers to set goals in the workplace. Well, you are the manager of your own life, so check out what each letter stands for:

S is for Specific. It’s not enough to say that you want to be healthier or smarter. Think about specific ways to achieve what you want and make that your resolution. Cutting the amount of junk food in your diet or reading more books is a specific goal that you are more likely to accomplish.

M is for Measurable. You need a way to measure progress towards your specific goal. If it’s a long-term measurement (e.g. run a mile in under six minutes), seeing the progression towards your desired number will help your motivation. If it’s a short-term measurement (e.g. talk to one new person outside my usual circle a day), it is satisfying to have a quantifiable thing you can check off your to-do list. Either way, having something measurable helps keep yourself accountable. If your goal was just to “gain confidence," it would be too easy to cop out and tell yourself, “I feel more confident!”

A is for Achievable. There’s nothing wrong with dreaming big, but like I mentioned before, we have to be careful about not choosing something so overwhelming that it frustrates us or prevents us from starting. It might not sound impressive to improve yourself by 15% in a year, but if you learned about compound interest, you’ll know that, at that rate, the improvement will be over 100% in 5 years and more than 300% in 10 years. I don’t know about you, but I would love to have a 300% bigger vocabulary. A huge achievement like that is just a string of reasonable goals that you can accomplish month after month and year after year.

R is for Relevant. You’ve laid out these specific, measurable, and achievable tasks for yourself. Now make sure they are relevant to your overall goal and the direction you want your life to go. Also consider how your goal fits in with your other goals, responsibilities, and circumstances. It can be tough to balance between your passions and what others might think is best for you.

T is for Timed. Similar to how your goal needs to be measurable, it needs to have a time frame for completion. People tend to work better under a reasonable timeline because pressure can be a great source of motivation. You can also use time to break up a big goal into smaller benchmarks. For example, if your resolution is to write a novel, you might try to complete one chapter every month.

Making SMART goals allows you to track your progress, which is a must. Not only will it keep you accountable, but it will be a great source of pride when you look back at that testament of hard work at the end of the year. There are many ways to do this, such as by keeping a daily log or journal. A friend of mine wanted to read and exercise at least four times a week. Check out how she tracked her progress:

I hope this has inspired you to make 2018 a year that you can be proud of. Reach out to your parents, mentor, or other people in your support network if you would like help in setting a New Year’s resolution or in keeping yourself accountable. Happy new year!