You’ve probably heard the standard advice about making New Year’s resolutions stick—make them realistic, make yourself accountable to others. You might have even heard of the acronym SMART, which represents the gold standard of goal achievement, i.e., making resolutions specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. What’s often missing is the “how”: how to implement these principles in setting goals for the new year, and how to make sure you’re sticking with them.
Checklists can make your resolutions not just SMART but intelligent by helping you articulate the precepts of resolution-making and ensuring that your plan will work. In essence, the checklist method of goal-making is simply breaking down each resolution with a checklist of steps that will help you achieve the overarching goal. But using the principles of SMART as you craft your new year checklist will help your list be more than just a scroll of things you’d like to do—it will be a template for bringing your better self into the light.
- Specific: Pay attention to the words you choose when writing your list. Start each item not just with an action verb, but with an actionable verb. For example, let’s say your goal is to save money, and you know you need to start using a money tracker but aren’t sure where to begin. Instead of “research money trackers,” write down “Google customer reviews for four money-tracking apps.” Author and productivity expert Maura Nevel Thomas refers to vague verbs like “research” as speed bumps for goal setters. “People write down something that’s meant more as a memory jogger, thinking, ‘I’ll know what I mean by that when I get there in the list,’” Thomas says. “But speed bumps are meant to slow you down. So when you get to that item, you might be like, ‘Oh, yeah, where am I with that?’ Actionable verbs help take away those speed bumps.”
- Measurable: When you’re specific in your checklist, you also increase the odds of making your goals measurable. Who’s to say when you’re finished “researching” money-tracking apps? But you’ll know when you’ve finished reading reviews for four money-tracking apps. After you’ve written out your checklists, thumb through all the pages and ask yourself at every point how you’ll know when each item is complete. If your answer is ever “I don’t know,” rephrase the item.
- Achievable: The checklist method helps you spot gaps in your goal-making so you’re not trying to go from 0 to 60 without a proper warm-up. The American Psychological Association recommends changing one behavior at a time, and checklists by nature are oriented toward exactly that—one item at a time.
- Relevant: The idea behind this tenet is that goals should be meaningful to you, not something that’s decided on a whim or because it simply sounds like a good idea. The act of sitting down, pen in hand, to create your checklist inherently helps clarify what’s worthwhile to you. As Kathleen Adams at The Center for Journal Therapy puts it, the act of writing by hand in a journal creates what’s known as a “constant presence”: intimate, personal and relatable.
- Time-Bound: If your checklist is structured according to the principles above, it will lend itself to being naturally time-bound—that is, it will be a series of smaller goals that surge toward your larger resolution, which keeps your goal top of mind. Part of why resolutions fail is that they slip from our day-to-day attention span. As Atul Gawande, M.D., writes in The Checklist Manifesto, the natural fallibility of human memory and attention is one of the reasons checklists are helpful in life-or-death situations like the operating room.
On a more practical level, for items on your list that you’re resistant to finishing, assign a time limit. “If it’s something you’re really dreading, you could do it for just five or 10 minutes,” Thomas says. “Once we get started, we usually keep going—and if you don’t, you’ve still met your time goal with this bite-sized chunk.”