It’s that timeof year again, when everyone is focused on what they’ll do differently in the year ahead. I’m not big on making New Year’s resolutions for myself, but I do think they’re a great way to keep us focused on the important things in life.

On the other hand, I am big on setting goals. Many people confuse goals and resolutions, thinking they’re similar. They are very different. Here are some details to help understand the differences:

Resolutions

Resolutions are simply statements of behavioral change, or habits. These don’t have to have dates attached or be structured. It’s okay to have a resolution like, “Be more punctual” even though you haven’t specified a way to measure it.

To be effective, resolutions should be framed in a positive way, because the brain can’t effectively deal with negative change. You wouldn’t want to make the above-mentioned resolution to “Not be late” because that’s negative.

Usually resolutions are framed to be gradual changes rather than massive changes. A resolution to “Stop smoking” would be better set as a goal rather than a resolution.

Resolutions can help us stay focused on an area of life that needs attention, but they aren’t nearly as effective as goals.

Goals

Goals are specific achievements that you plan to reach within a given time frame. To be useful, they must be SMART. This is a handy acronym that helps you organize your goals properly. For a goal to work, it must meet the following criteria:

S = Specific

M = Measurable

A = Attainable

R = Realistic

T = Timely

Specific

Goals need to be structured so that we understand exactly what they mean. If they aren’t, the brain doesn’t embrace them and they fade away. They need to identify what you will accomplish. In an ideal situation, you’ll even specify why it’s important. If your plan is to stop smoking, you should make a list of why this matters. You’ll feel better about yourself, have more money in your budget, live longer, have better smelling breath, have whiter teeth, breathe easier, etc. That list will help you stay focused, especially when the going gets tough.

Measurable

You simply can’t manage something that you can’t measure. So you need to be able to measure how you’re doing. Measurements can be small or large, and your goal can be broken down into different kinds. A goal of “lose weight” is meaningless. The mind won’t buy into it because there’s nothing to grasp. Instead, frame it as “lose 20 lbs by March 14,” which can be measured. You can then break it down further to “lose 2 lbs per week.” Now you’ve got something really exciting to work with, something you can track. In a case like this, make sure you specify the starting and ending weight.

It’s also important to include as many people as possible when you set a goal. One of my favorite public speakers is Zig Ziglar. He once talked about how he set a goal of weighing a certain amount. He put the goal into a book he released so that he would be forced to meet the goal, as tens of thousands of people would now be aware of his target weight. This kept him accountable.

Attainable

Some prefer the word “Accountable” in this spot in the SMART acrostic, which relates to the above point of letting others into your goal so that you are accountable to them. Some prefer “Action-oriented” for the A, pointing out that goals need to be something that involves action of some kind. Business goals often use “Agreed Upon” for this point, referring to the need to have all stakeholders agree on the objective. Most references to SMART refer to “Attainable” instead, so I’ll focus on that.

To be effective, a goal must be something that stretches you, but also something that is possible. If your subconscious mind doesn’t fully believe in the goal, you will never reach it. When you identify something that really matters and is attainable, your mind will begin to see opportunities in all kinds of areas you never saw before, helping you reach the goal.

Realistic

There is some overlap between the last point and this one. But not really an issue. The word “Realistic” simply means that it has to be something that makes sense, even if it is physically attainable. For example, a goal that you will never eat another piece of chocolate as long as you live might be attainable, but it isn’t very realistic. And if a goal isn’t realistic, then the mind won’t embrace it and you’ll fail. Instead, frame your attainable goals around plans and habits that actually make sense on a day-to-day basis. A business might want to set a realistic goal of increasing customer satisfaction survey results by 12% in the next 12 months. That means 1% improvement each month, a very realistic approach. A DanceSport athlete might set a goal of increasing callback marks by 10% each competition.

Timely

Goals absolutely need a timeframe, or they won’t work. Set a date. It might be a weekly goal (2 lbs per week), a monthly goal (1% per month), an events-oriented timeline (10% each competition), or a specific date (make the finals at the national championships). Any of these are useful because the mind needs a time commitment to embrace the goal. Without a time limit, there’s no urgency and nothing will happen. You’ll remain unfocused.