Planning to set new goals in 2021? Read this first

Associate Professor Christian Swann

After a year like no other, many people are already planning ahead for their 2021 New Year’s resolution.

Head of Human Sciences at Southern Cross University, Associate Professor Christian Swann has some insightful new research that may change the way you think about your goals for the year ahead.

“The work we’re doing at Southern Cross University dives into the way people set goals, and the work I’m leading is really around whether or not SMART goals – which are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timebound – really are the best kind of goals to make. A typical SMART goal might be that, ‘I want to read 12 books this year’.

“Our research is showing there’s a problem with that approach, and we’re seeing evidence of a new way to set goals that is more likely to help people stick with them longer term. Instead of using SMART goals, the idea of ‘open goals’ has been showing a lot of promise, where you might say, ‘I want to see how many books I can read this year’.”

This has a lot to do with how people deal with failure. While SMART goals can work for a minority of people, often this approach causes people to lose heart and give up early in the year. If they feel like they’re falling behind, it can be difficult to ‘catch up’ and make progress. This sets up a lot of people to fail with their New Year’s resolutions, and can make people feel stressed, disappointed or like they’ve failed.

Open-ended goals on the other hand are perfect for New Year’s resolutions.

“If people see how many books they can read this year and set a benchmark based on that, then it gives them a figure to work from. They are then able to try and better that achievement the following year, and that’s when SMART goals might be more useful,” said A/Prof Swann.

This new type of goal setting helps us to set a benchmark first, rather than just picking a number from thin air. If someone manages to read six books this year by following an open goal, then next year they can try to top it by reading seven or eight books. They’ll know that the specific target they set is achievable.

So, if you’re thinking about what you want to achieve next year, try an open-ended goal.

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