Despite New Year’s resolutions having a staggeringly low success rate, there’s something infectious about the spirit of renewal at this time of year. We can’t help but forget about the disappointments of past years and try again… often without doing anything differently, which repeats the cycle from fierce ambition to epic fail.

Never mind that now: with the new year around the corner, the team here at Brainscape has put our noggins together and plundered the interwebs to bring you this foolproof toolbox to help you FINALLY see those ambitions through!

So, whether your New Year's resolutions are to learn Spanish or the guitar; start exercising or stop smoking; or pursue a passion or stop chasing a bad romance, here’s how to transform your goals from resolution to reality.

(And since NY resolutions are all about habit-building and breaking, check out this video by Brainscape founder and CEO, Andrew Cohen...)

Hi! We’re Brainscape

We’re the brains, minds, and hearts behind the world’s smartest study app. We’ve brought together some of the brainiest experts, students, and educators to compile smart, digital flashcard collections for hundreds of subjects—which you can peruse in our Knowledge Genome—as well as helpful guides (like this one) on learning faster and crushing life in general.

What sets Brainscape apart from any other study app is that its adaptive learning algorithm leverages decades of cognitive science research. And through the cognitive principles of spaced repetition, active recall, and metacognition, it can help you learn anything TWICE as efficiently as traditional study methods.

So, now that you know who we are and why your personal development is important to us let’s address the reason why you’ve probably already failed to keep this year’s New Year’s resolutions. And the clock hasn’t even struck midnight on December 31st yet!

The reason you’ve already failed to keep your NY resolutions…

I’m gonna level with you: if you have a New Year’s resolution in mind for this year, you’ve probably already failed to keep it.

You might be crystal clear on what you want to achieve, but unless you’ve made your goal SMART, you won’t stand a snowball’s chance in Saudi Arabia of making any changes permanent.

What I mean by SMART goals are: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. (The term “SMART goals” was originally coined by George Doran in his 1981 article “There's a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management goals and objectives”.)

These five little adjectives are the difference between New Year’s resolutions that belly-flop and those that bring about powerful, lasting changes to your life.

Let’s dig a little into each one…

Make New Year’s resolutions SPECIFIC

Bow and arrow target practice

Specific goals are clear and well-defined, focusing on ONE particular objective. It’s not enough to just say, “I want to get into shape.” You have to be more specific with your goal. How many inches would you like to lose around your waist? How fast would you like to be able to run a mile? Or what weight would you like to be able to bench press?

Similarly, it’s not enough to say, “I want to write a novel.” A more specific goal would be to write 1,000 words—or for just one hour—a day for three months.

Your next step: Reframe your New Year’s resolution in the context of a single day or a specific next step. You can’t write a novel or learn the guitar in a day, but you can commit to practicing a skill for just one hour every day for three months. That is a specific goal.

[Read: How we learn: the secret to all learning & human development]

Make New Year’s resolutions MEASURABLE

Measurable goals have quantifiable outcomes, allowing progress to be tracked and measured. This allows you to see your progress (which is enormously motivating) and determine a more efficient path forward based on how well/poorly a particular strategy is performing.

It also gives your goal a destination: a point on which you can focus your efforts, which is profoundly important from a psychological perspective.

Your next step: Reframe your New Year’s resolution using specific, numerical targets and time-frames:

  • If your goal is to increase your small business sales: “I want to increase company revenue by 10% in the next quarter.”
  • If it’s to get in shape: “I want to decrease my body fat percentage by 1% per month until I reach my goal percentage of 27%.”
  • If it’s to learn a new language: “I want to dedicate one hour every day to my studies: 20 minutes for vocabulary drills, 20 minutes for reading, and 20 minutes for conversation practice.”

These are all measurable goals.

Measurable goals

Make New Year’s resolutions ACHIEVABLE

Achievable goals are realistic and attainable and, importantly, take into consideration the resources you have and the constraints you face.

Goals, while ambitious by their very nature, also need to be realistic to your unique circumstances and resources. If they’re not, you’ll greatly hinder your chances of success, which’ll lead to disappointment and less resolve the next time you aim for a goal. (That’s why the phrase “My New Year’s resolution is not to have any New Year’s resolutions” exists.)

An example of an unachievable goal is: "Become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company within the next year." Ha! This is simply unrealistic, given the typical time frame and experience required to attain such a position.

An achievable version of this would be: "Obtain a promotion to manager within the next 18 months by completing a leadership development program and consistently meeting or exceeding my performance targets." This is much more realistic given the available resources (such as the leadership development program) and the specified time frame!

Your next step: Scrutinize your New Year’s resolution(s) taking into account the resources you have and the constraints you face. Do they walk that line between realistic and ambitious? If not, make the necessary adjustments.

[Read: How to build strong study habits (or any habits in general!)]

Make New Year’s resolutions RELEVANT to you

Relevant goals are aligned with your overall mission, values, or purpose in life; in other words, what is deeply important to YOU. This makes the fourth element of SMART goals super sneaky because what we think we want is oftentimes skewed by what society and, worse, our families demand of us.

For example: the modern standard of beauty demands that we all look like runway models, which is why a popular New Year’s resolution is to lose weight. But is this goal really relevant to you—particularly women—if you’re perfectly healthy but gloriously curvaceous because, damnit, Nature didn’t intend for us to look like skeletons?

Not really! And so if you’re driven to the gym because you want to align with society’s ridiculous demands, you’re probably going to fall off the fitness wagon pretty quickly.

But if you’re driven to the gym because it makes YOU feel physically and mentally good, that goal suddenly becomes relevant to your values, so those changes you’re trying to make will be much more likely to stick.

(MONEY is another of society’s expectations that often seduces us away from what we intrinsically find to be important and meaningful.)

Your next step: Audit your New Year’s resolution(s) to make sure the driving force behind them aligns with your mission, values, and purpose and not with what you think society or “your tribe” demands of you.

Skinny woman holding a weight scale

Keep New Year’s resolutions TIME-BOUND

We already lightly touched on this in the “Measurable” element of SMART goals but it’s important enough to deserve a section of its own. Time-bound goals have a specific timeline for completion, providing a sense of urgency and accountability. For example:

  • "Save $3,000 for a down payment on a house within the next six months."
  • "Lose 10 pounds in the next three months by exercising regularly and following a healthy diet."
  • "Complete a project proposal for my company by the end of the week."

By setting a specific deadline for your New Year’s resolution, you’ll be more likely to stay focused and motivated. Time-bound goals also help to ensure that progress is being made and that the goal will be achieved within a reasonable time frame.

Deadlines may have a bad rap, but if you’re like me, you get your best work done when there’s a fire lit under your butt!

[Read: Small life-changing habits that take ZERO time]

Say it with me now: S-M-A-R-T Goals

New Year’s resolutions fail 100% of the time because we don’t make them SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.

So as the new year approaches, review your resolutions with this acronym in mind because it is literally the key to transforming any personal or professional goal into solid gold reality!

Now, the only thing left to say is…

Happy New Year from Brainscape