Time is fleeting. Here’s how to stay on track with New Year’s goals

Posted on:

< < Back to

WASHINGTON, D.C. (NPR) — Time is a thief, as my Uncle Dan loves to say, and if you want to achieve your most cherished life goals, you have to learn to manage it. As we all dive into the new year with fresh resolutions, psychologists say managing our time is the place to start.

“Time management is essential to the smart goal approach,” says Keisha Moore-Medina, a therapist at the Menninger Clinic in Houston, who helps clients navigate goal-setting, using a well-known strategy that was developed in the 1980s known by the acronym SMART.

It’s a formula that helps you organize your time around your goals. And this may require you to say ‘no’ to activities that don’t align. Goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound — requiring a deadline or specific time frame. Here’s how SMART goals work and how they can help you use your time for the things that matter most.

Specific: Know precisely what action you will take

“Goal pursuit requires focused attention,” says Elliot Berkman, a psychologist at the University of Oregon. “Our minds need to be focused on one thing,” he says. So, clarity is key.

In daily life, we’re driven by our habits, which come easily. It’s almost as if we’re on autopilot. “We can drive, listen to the radio and chew gum at the same time,” Berkman says. But working toward a new goal can require a lot of brain power. We need to fend off distractions and stay focused. It’s slow going when we’re trying to master a new skill or change our behaviors, Berkman says. “Goal pursuit is so hard compared to habits,” he adds.

Following through on a resolution can take a lot of planning and effort, which is very time-consuming, so it’s best to be very clear on your aim.

Measurable: Have a plan to measure your progress

When it comes to goals, there’s often a big divide between intention and action. Lots of us know what it means to eat healthier, but it can still be hard to follow through. The German poet and author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe put it something like this: It’s not enough to know something, you also need to apply it.

One way to help chip away at this gap, is to make time each day to track what you’ve achieved. A study, published by the American Psychological Association finds that people who regularly monitor their progress are more likely to succeed. So, if you want to train for a race, tally your mileage. If you’re learning to play the piano, log your practice. If your aim is to eat better, journal your meals.

Tracking provides us with the long view of our progress. Day to day we won’t always be successful. “Life is throwing us things left and right and it’s OK to not reach a goal in that moment,” says therapist Moore-Medina. Logs and tallies can serve as a reality check on how far you’ve come and what you need to do differently to achieve your goal.

Achievable: The goal must be doable

To reach a larger goal you have to break it down into smaller pieces, says Moore-Medina, and think about “whether this is actually achievable. It’s a reality check on just how much time and resources you have to devote to it. And, it sometimes begs a bigger question: Why should I commit to this goal?

“Goals should be an expression of our values,” says Berkman. “And to the extent that they are an expression of our values, they’re helpful in prioritizing our time,” he explains.

Having clear goals makes time management easier because you’re organizing your time around a clear mission. He advises people to question the motivation behind their goals and to reflect on their core values. For instance, if you aim to become more physically fit, ask yourself why?

Do you want to look better? Or is your goal rooted in a deeper value or purpose, perhaps to be healthier and live longer so you can spend more time with family. There’s actually research to show that people are more likely to accomplish their goals and feel happy with their success, if their goals align with or reflect their core values.

An illustration shows a character going the the process of setting and meeting goals
[Rose Wong for NPR]

Relevant: Figure out why the goal is important

Goals and values should be connected, and this often requires more reflection than we realize. “It can be difficult to set goals because we don’t know ourselves that well,” says Ken Sheldon, author of the book, Freely Determined: What the New Psychology of Self Teaches Us About How To Live.

“It’s easy to sort of get distracted or to get out of touch with the things we really care about, or maybe just people telling us what to do,” he says. And we can spend years living out other people’s dreams for us — for example, going to law school because your mother wanted you to be a lawyer. If you’re extrinsically motivated, you may have the grit to power through. But Sheldon says you may not be happy with the outcome, even if you’re very successful.

In a study of hikers who set out to complete the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, Sheldon found that levels of internal motivation were linked to the hiker’s feelings of satisfaction after finishing the hike. “You can grit your way through it and you can get it done,” says Sheldon, “but you may not feel any better when you finish.” Whereas if you manage to pick a goal you really care about, “you’ll both get it done and you’ll feel better when you’re done,” he says.

Time-bound: Nothing focuses the mind like a deadline

Staying focused on a goal is like a shot of adrenaline. Moore-Medina says it’s important to set goals that have clear time frames.

In our personal lives, we may have more time and discretion but, Moore-Medina’s advice for goal-setting on the job is to write down your specific goals and share them with your supervisor. She suggests mapping out an action plan during an annual review meeting, based on how your goals align with what the employer needs or wants. Then throughout the year you can refer back to the plan, especially if you’re being asked to spend time on a task that does not fit the goal, “it gives you some negotiating room, it gives you empowerment,” Moore-Medina says.

Bottom line: Set concrete goals and plan a path forward. When you’re filling your days with tasks and activities that align with your goals, it’s time well spent.

This story is part of NPR’s periodic science series “Finding Time — a journey through the fourth dimension to learn what makes us tick.”

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Transcript :


‘Tis the season of resolutions and making changes in our lives. But changes take time. And it’s one reason why writing down our goals is a lot easier than actually following through. As part of our series on time, NPR’s Allison Aubrey joins us to talk about some tried and true strategies to stay on track. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: How do you stay on track? I mean, I write down my resolutions every year, and within 24 hours, I feel like I break them all.

AUBREY: Don’t we all? It’s a big problem, right?

FADEL: Yeah. So what does time have to do with it?

AUBREY: Well, if you want to accomplish something new in 2023, there’s just 365 days to do that.

FADEL: Yeah.

AUBREY: One way to increase your chances of success is to realize you have to think a lot about time management. I mean, time really is our most precious resource. As my Uncle Dan loves to say, time is a thief. Every day, Old Man Time takes another 24 hours from us. It just goes by in a snap.

FADEL: Yeah.

AUBREY: We tend to fill our days with routine activities. We’re creatures of habit. But when we intend to do something new, whether that’s in our personal life – say, get in shape – or in your professional life – say, developing a new skill – that takes effort, it takes planning, and both of those require time. I spoke to Keisha Moore. She’s a therapist who helps people navigate goals and how to set goals. She says the time piece is often overlooked.

KEISHA MOORE-MEDINA: Time management is essential to the SMART goal approach. If you don’t have clear deadlines, if you don’t have a time frame, you lose yourself in that process.

AUBREY: Now, when Moore talks about SMART goals, she’s actually talking about a tried and true framework that’s been around for decades to help people navigate their goals.

FADEL: OK, so what are SMART goals?

AUBREY: Well, SMART goals are based on the understanding that there are some fundamental things needed to make a change. SMART is an acronym. The S in SMART is for specific – what exact action will you take? M, measurable, A, achievable – you ask, is this goal actually doable? R, relevant – is the goal relevant to your values or bigger priorities? And T, time – you ask yourself, how much time will it take? And what is the deadline to reach this goal? I spoke to Elliot Berkman. He’s a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon.

ELLIOT BERKMAN: The way time figures into goal pursuit is that because goal pursuit requires focused attention – right? – our eyes and our minds need to be focused on one thing, that means it comes at the cost of other things.

AUBREY: You may need to learn to say no to tasks or commitments that distract you from your goal. Basically, in order to accomplish A, you may need to stop doing B.

FADEL: OK, but that’s really hard to do…


FADEL: …Because we have so many demands on us. And then, it’s easier to go after the easier thing to do than the goal you’re trying to reach.

AUBREY: That’s right. I mean, you can’t say no to parenting duties.

FADEL: True.

AUBREY: You can’t just say no to what your boss or supervisor asks of you on the job. So this leaves us with, again, precious little time to focus on this new thing. Now, Berkman says, since much of our day is habitual, it’s routine, this is the easy part. But when we set a goal, it requires a different way of thinking. This is where executive function comes in. You have to keep focused attention. You have to fend off impulses and distractions. And this is really hard work for our brains.

BERKMAN: Goal pursuit is so hard as opposed to habits, because habits, you can do a bunch of them at the same time, right? We can listen to the radio and drive and chew gum all at the same time because those are all habitual, fast thinking. But the slow stuff is one at a time, and that’s where it really – time really comes in.

AUBREY: So bottom line, achieving a new thing this year is going to take time and you may need to restructure your day to make it happen.

FADEL: OK, so really, it’s a big commitment. So I guess when we pick these goals, we have to be certain about what it is we want.

AUBREY: Absolutely right. Berkman says before you set a big goal, you should ideally go through a process of reflection, what he calls the goal decision tree.

BERKMAN: The personal mission statement idea – I’m a big fan of that, and I think it’s very evidence-supported. And the exercise we do with our subjects is to walk people through their high-level core values. What are the things – the kind of abstract ideals that an individual cherishes in life?

AUBREY: So say your goal is to become more physically fit. Well, an external motivation may be to look good. But if you ask the deeper why – why do you want to be in better shape? – maybe you say, OK, well, my bigger goal is to be healthier.

BERKMAN: And then I would go on and ask myself, OK, well, why do I want to be healthier, right? Well, maybe it’s to, you know, try to live longer. And again – right? – ask, OK, well, why, right? Why is that important? And at some point, you keep asking why until you hit the kind of highest level in this goal tree.

AUBREY: So you want to be healthier so you can provide for your family or spend time enjoying life with family. If that’s your higher priority, your value, well, he says that’s the motivation that can help carry you through. There’s actually research to show that you’re more likely to accomplish your goal if it aligns with the core value or mission.

FADEL: OK, so what about in people’s professional life? Should goal-setting work the same way with this core value and mission?

AUBREY: It can be a similar process. Therapist Keisha Moore says she advises people to write down their specific goals and then at the earliest opportunity, maybe through the annual review process, get on the same page with your supervisor – develop an action plan based on how your goals align with what your employer needs or wants. Then throughout the year, you can refer back to the action plan.

MOORE-MEDINA: It’s there, it’s concrete and you can bring it up. So it gives you some negotiating room. It gives you empowerment.

AUBREY: You can organize your time around the goal, and then it’s easier to say no when you’re asked to spend time doing something that doesn’t fit with this agreed-upon list of priorities. So bottom line, again, having concrete goals can make time management easier, and this is a key to success.

FADEL: NPR’s Allison Aubrey.

Thanks, Allison.

AUBREY: Thank you so much. Happy New Year.

FADEL: Happy New Year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.