While annual statistics are bleak when it comes to the success rates of New Year’s resolutions, don’t conclude that goal setting is a fruitless endeavor, says physical therapist. Simply resolve to set smarter goals.

“Setting small, attainable goals throughout the year, instead of a singular, overwhelming goal in January 1, can help you reach whatever it is you strive for,” said Lynn Bufka, PhD, a psychologist with the American Psychological Association (APA). “Remember, it is not the extent of the change that matters, but rather the act of recognizing that lifestyle change is important and working toward it, one step at a time.”

Plenty of Americans seem to recognize that lifestyle change is important, especially this time of year when around 45 percent make resolutions, mostly related to health. According Nielsen ratings, the No. 1 New Year’s resolution in the U.S. last year was to stay fit and healthy (37 percent), with losing weight coming in at a close second (32 percent).

About 64 percent of these resolutions make it past four weeks, however, with an overall success rate of about 8 percent, said the University of Scranton in the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

These stats seem to cast a dim light on the capacity of people to make tangible changes in their lives – but it shouldn’t. The lack of success often begins with the goal itself. An ideal goal, according to experts, should be SMART, an acronym that stands for five specific qualities: specific, measureable, attainable, realistic and trackable.

“When setting goals, think about process and outcome,” states the Mayo Clinic, which advocates setting SMART goals for health-related issues such as exercise, weight loss and healthy eating. “Process goals are most important because changing your habits (processes) is key to success.”

The Mayo Clinic offers the following guidance for setting your own SMART goals:

Specific: Don’t be ambiguous when setting goals. Include all the important W’s in your goal: who, what, where and why. Instead of saying “I’d like to lose weight,” be more specific: “I want to lose 15 pounds by May 1 so I can go hiking without experiencing knee pain.”

Measurable: Always set concrete marks that allow you to measure the progress of your goal. Include your long-term goal, of course, but also include a few benchmarks along the way (e.g., lose 4 lbs. in Jan., 3 lbs in Feb., etc.).

Attainable: Make sure you have the time, resources and ability to achieve your goal. If you’re strapped for cash, don’t make it your goal contingent on joining a gym. Or if running is painful, don’t make it a goal to jog every day.

Realistic: Aim high, but don’t leave the stratosphere of what’s truly possible. Setting unrealistic goals – aiming to run a marathon when you’ve never completed a 5K, for instance – could just set you up for disappointment.

Trackable: Choose goals that allow for tangible ways to track progress, be it through weight lost per week, calories eaten per day, miles run on the treadmill, etc. Like in a sport, keeping score keeps you focused and motivated.

And of course, before beginning any new exercise regimen or weight-loss program, consult your physician or a certified physical therapist.

“Lasting lifestyle and behavior changes don’t happen overnight,” said Katherine C. Nordal, PhD, executive director for the professional practices of the APA. “Willpower is a learned skill, not an inherent trait. We all have the capacity to develop skills to make changes last.”

SOURCES:

Mayo Clinic: Be SMART about weight loss
APA: Americans Report Willpower and Stress as Key Obstacles to Meeting Health-Related Resolutions
APA: Making your New Year’s resolutions stick
Statistic Brain Research Institute: New Year’s Resolution Statistics
Medical News Today: Training Yourself To Have More Willpower