Exercise more often, eat more healthy foods, lose weight, stop smoking, learn a new language – New Year’s resolutions always have us thinking of big, positive changes and envisioning our “best self” in the upcoming year. Unfortunately, most polls show that up to 80% of Americans fail by about mid-February. Why?

In his 2012 New York Times bestseller, The Power of Habit, journalist Charles Duhigg tries to answer this question and to dissect exactly what makes us do what we do on a regular basis.

Duhigg breaks all habits – positive and negative – into three components: a cue, a routine, and a reward. For example, a two o’clock stomach growl leads to an afternoon snack and then a full, satisfied feeling. A stressful conversation can lead to a nicotine craving and the relaxing feeling of a cigarette. He then says in order to change them we need to focus on that middle portion – the routine – in order to make a lasting change.

A fascinating book, The Power of Habit uses examples such as large companies focusing on safety metrics instead of sales in order to boost year-end profits, and offensive linemen focusing on linebacker footwork instead of touchdowns to produce football wins.  Duhigg outlines a theory of how to turn your brain on autopilot and to remove decision making in order to help replace things like a morning cigarette or midnight snack with a morning jog or a bowl of broccoli.

Speaking of midnight snacks, weight loss is usually the most common resolution we make. Immediately after the holiday calories stick to our ribs, it seems natural to make a New Year’s resolution to get them off. When working with patients to encourage behavior change, I often utilize the “SMART” goal tool.  Initially designed as a business management exercise, it easily translates into medicine, and is distilled into the following elements:

Specific – define who, what, when, and where
Measurable – use visible, objective criteria
Attainable – make your goal realistic in scope
Relevant – worth your time and effort
Timely – within a specific amount of time

Revisit your own personal resolutions for the New Year and reshape them using this format. 

“Lose weight” becomes “I will lose 5 pounds in the next 30 days by eliminating sugary beverages.”  “Exercise more” becomes “I will take the stairs instead of the elevator every day this week.”  “Stop smoking” becomes “I will have one less cigarette every day this week” Finally, “Learn French” becomes “I will listen to one French podcast every day at lunch this week.”

With a simple rephrasing, the vague and sometimes overwhelming nature of goals can be clarified with a SMART goal. Believe it or not, this can allow for a more positive personal growth experience and helps you stay both motivated and disciplined. The beauty of it is, SMART goals can always be revisited, and you can always set new goals every day. Happy New Year and happy SMART goal setting!