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Time is fleeting. Here's how to stay on track with New Year's goals

How to stick to new year's goals
Rose Wong for NPR

Time is a thief, as my Uncle Dan loves to say, and if you want to achieve your most cherished life goals, you have to learn to manage it. As we all dive into the new year with fresh resolutions, psychologists say managing our time is the place to start.

"Time management is essential to the smart goal approach," says Keisha Moore-Medina, a therapist at the Menninger Clinic in Houston, who helps clients navigate goal-setting, using a well-known strategy that was developed in the 1980s known by the acronym SMART.

It's a formula that helps you organize your time around your goals. And this may require you to say 'no' to activities that don't align. Goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound — requiring a deadline or specific time frame. Here's how SMART goals work and how they can help you use your time for the things that matter most.

Specific: Know precisely what action you will take

"Goal pursuit requires focused attention," says Elliot Berkman, a psychologist at the University of Oregon. "Our minds need to be focused on one thing," he says. So, clarity is key.

In daily life, we're driven by our habits, which come easily. It's almost as if we're on autopilot. "We can drive, listen to the radio and chew gum at the same time," Berkman says. But working toward a new goal can require a lot of brain power. We need to fend off distractions and stay focused. It's slow going when we're trying to master a new skill or change our behaviors, Berkman says. "Goal pursuit is so hard compared to habits," he adds.

Following through on a resolution can take a lot of planning and effort, which is very time-consuming, so it's best to be very clear on your aim.

Measurable: Have a plan to measure your progress

When it comes to goals, there's often a big divide between intention and action. Lots of us know what it means to eat healthier, but it can still be hard to follow through. The German poet and author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe put it something like this: It's not enough to know something, you also need to apply it.

One way to help chip away at this gap, is to make time each day to track what you've achieved. A study, published by the American Psychological Association finds that people who regularly monitor their progress are more likely to succeed. So, if you want to train for a race, tally your mileage. If you're learning to play the piano, log your practice. If your aim is to eat better, journal your meals.

Tracking provides us with the long view of our progress. Day to day we won't always be successful. "Life is throwing us things left and right and it's OK to not reach a goal in that moment," says therapist Moore-Medina. Logs and tallies can serve as a reality check on how far you've come and what you need to do differently to achieve your goal.

Achievable: The goal must be doable

To reach a larger goal you have to break it down into smaller pieces, says Moore-Medina, and think about "whether this is actually achievable. It's a reality check on just how much time and resources you have to devote to it. And, it sometimes begs a bigger question: Why should I commit to this goal?

"Goals should be an expression of our values," says Berkman. "And to the extent that they are an expression of our values, they're helpful in prioritizing our time," he explains.

Having clear goals makes time management easier because you're organizing your time around a clear mission. He advises people to question the motivation behind their goals and to reflect on their core values. For instance, if you aim to become more physically fit, ask yourself why?

Do you want to look better? Or is your goal rooted in a deeper value or purpose, perhaps to be healthier and live longer so you can spend more time with family. There's actually research to show that people are more likely to accomplish their goals and feel happy with their success, if their goals align with or reflect their core values.

Relevant: Figure out why the goal is important

Goals and values should be connected, and this often requires more reflection than we realize. "It can be difficult to set goals because we don't know ourselves that well," says Ken Sheldon, author of the book, Freely Determined: What the New Psychology of Self Teaches Us About How To Live.

"It's easy to sort of get distracted or to get out of touch with the things we really care about, or maybe just people telling us what to do," he says. And we can spend years living out other people's dreams for us — for example, going to law school because your mother wanted you to be a lawyer. If you're extrinsically motivated, you may have the grit to power through. But Sheldon says you may not be happy with the outcome, even if you're very successful.

In a study of hikers who set out to complete the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, Sheldon found that levels of internal motivation were linked to the hiker's feelings of satisfaction after finishing the hike. "You can grit your way through it and you can get it done," says Sheldon, "but you may not feel any better when you finish." Whereas if you manage to pick a goal you really care about, "you'll both get it done and you'll feel better when you're done," he says.

Time-bound: Nothing focuses the mind like a deadline

Staying focused on a goal is like a shot of adrenaline. Moore-Medina says it's important to set goals that have clear time frames.

In our personal lives, we may have more time and discretion but, Moore-Medina's advice for goal-setting on the job is to write down your specific goals and share them with your supervisor. She suggests mapping out an action plan during an annual review meeting, based on how your goals align with what the employer needs or wants. Then throughout the year you can refer back to the plan, especially if you're being asked to spend time on a task that does not fit the goal, "it gives you some negotiating room, it gives you empowerment," Moore-Medina says.

Bottom line: Set concrete goals and plan a path forward. When you're filling your days with tasks and activities that align with your goals, it's time well spent.

This story is part of NPR's periodic science series "Finding Time — a journey through the fourth dimension to learn what makes us tick."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.