What I Learned About Goal Setting from Keeping a New Year’s Resolution

January 10, 2022

At the start of January 2021, I resolved to make a new recipe every week for a year. My son was 15 months old at the time and becoming quite the little foodie. Rather than resorting to the same recipes over and over, I decided to make new dishes for our family to try.

My first new recipe was homemade rosemary cheddar crackers. On December 30, 2021, I made my last new recipe – sheet pan sausages and pineapple. In total, I made 71 new recipes, and some weeks I tried two or three new ones.

Like many people, my past is littered with unkept New Year’s resolutions. I made other resolutions last year that I didn’t keep. What happened to exercise at least 15 minutes per day? Reading at least one book per month? Like many learning professionals, I have an intrinsic interest in personal and professional development. What motivates someone to achieve a goal? What was different about my recipe resolution that made me want to keep it? The lessons I draw from this will help me with future goal setting, both for myself and in my learning design.

I’ve concluded there are three main reasons I kept my resolution:

  1. I recorded my progress: This is the biggest reason I stuck with it. In Week 1, I set up a spreadsheet to record my new recipes. I included the source of the recipe and gave each a rating from 1 to 5. I also added comments that would improve it for next time (“cut the sugar”, “reduce baking time”, “delicious as written!”). That blank spreadsheet looked daunting at first, but as weeks turned into months, you better believe I was motivated to not miss a week.
  2. It was relevant to my life: I have a toddler. We have to eat. If it’s something I’m doing anyway, why not make it more interesting? It took more effort than “tried and true” recipes – finding a recipe, getting different ingredients, cooking less efficiently – but it wasn’t an exorbitant amount of extra effort. Trying to find the time to read for pleasure with a rambunctious toddler… that’s another story.
  3. It was achievable: I set terms for the resolution that made it realistic. My goal wasn’t to make a new main course each week. It was to make a new recipe each week. It could be a new muffin recipe. Or a side dish. As long as I’d never made it before, it counted. If I’d said at the outset that it needed to be complicated, I would have failed. Again, compare this to my failed resolutions. Was it realistic to expect me – parent of a toddler during a pandemic – to exercise 15 minutes every day? You could argue I got that exercise from having a toddler! I just didn’t record time spent running after him.

Nothing I’ve said is revolutionary. If you’re familiar with SMART goal setting, this is it. My recipe resolution was:

  • Specific: I made at least one new recipe every week.
  • Measurable: I recorded every new recipe in a spreadsheet.
  • Achievable: I could count any recipe if it was new to me.
  • Relevant: I had to put nutritious food on the table for our family.
  • Time-bound: It had to happen each week.

Only in retrospect do I see this was a SMART resolution. Many goals appear SMART but aren’t. Exercising 15 minutes a day? That’s measurable and time-bound. But it wasn’t specific enough – what type of exercise am I doing? It also wasn’t achievable or relevant given my life circumstances. Same thing with reading one book per month (and that resolution ignored that I read a lot of journalism, so shouldn’t that count?). Achievability and relevancy are the hardest parts to nail in goal setting, whether you’re making a New Year’s resolution or designing a learning experience. When we ask learners to absorb more content than is feasible for the human brain, that’s not achievable. When we fail to define the “What’s in it for me?”, that limits relevancy for learners.

As for a 2022 resolution, I’ve decided to focus on professional development. Each week, I will do something to further my learning and development practice. I might read an article or blog post. Or listen to a podcast. Or participate in a webinar. I’ll record each “learning chunk” in a spreadsheet. So far, this goal is specific, measurable, achievable, and time-bound. What about the “R” (relevant)? As the mother of a two-year-old, I might have to stretch for the relevancy more than I did with recipes. Sometimes relevancy means keeping an eye on the long-term vision you have for your own life – not just satisfying the immediate needs of others. My career is also important to me, which makes this goal-relevant.

In setting your own goals or supporting learners with theirs, consider how to incorporate SMART elements, paying particular attention to making them achievable and relevant.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash