Reading Resolution for the New Year?
Try Formulating a SMARTER Goal Instead. Plus: Which Works Better, Habit or Achievement Goals?
Last year the podcaster and Arizona Republic columnist Jon Gabriel decided to read some classics. What for? His kids were reading them for school—something he actively avoided as a student. But now he had a compelling reason. “If my kids mastered the classics, they would be smarter than me,” he said, horrified. “I couldn’t let that happen.”
We smile at the joke but likely recognize the problem: If staying ahead of the kids is the only reason for reading, a parent will never persist through Sophocles, or even Salinger. Why?
We find extrinsic drivers far less persuasive and lasting than intrinsic, a fact confirmed not only by reams of motivational and achievement research but probably our personal histories as well. Luckily for Gabriel, his rationale didn’t stop there.
Gabriel started with Homer’s Iliad. “I was expecting a painful slog,” he admitted, “but I soon fell into the rhythm of the thrilling war epic. After a few days, I was done and sat there in shock. I had read a classic and actually enjoyed it.”
Like a taste for hops and oysters, his extrinsic motivation had morphed into something intrinsic. One book was all it took; Gabriel had the bug. He next devoured The Odyssey, then Xenophon’s Anabasis and Vergil’s Aeneid. “I was eager for more,” he said, admitting his own surprise. “What started out of a sense of obligation turned into an addiction.” No wonder Gabriel recommends reading classics in the New Year.
Because of a phenomenon known as the fresh-start effect, a turn of the calendar offers the perfect moment to consider trying something new. Now’s when we resolve to lose weight, lift weights, stop smoking, start hobbies, save money—anything really, including reading more, or reading something more significant than our usual fare, such as the classics.
But resolutions are usually more ought-to than want-to. As a result, most of our best intentions flounder by February. At minimum, unless we find new activities intrinsically rewarding—like Gabriel found the classics—motivation often proves elusive. Quitting is just a difficulty or distraction away. But waning motivation represents only the beginning of what usually sinks our annual resolutions.
Resolutions typically suffer from being too vague, too subjective, and in conflict with other aspects of our lives. One way around these and other problems? Reformulating our reading resolution as a SMARTER Goal—that is, as a specific, measurable, actionable, risky, timebound, exciting, and relevant outcome.
Full disclosure: This is a framework we teach at Full Focus, where I serve as chief product officer. General Electric pioneered the basic system in the 1980s. Full Focus founder Michael Hyatt later modified the framework as detailed in his best-selling goal-achievement book, Your Best Year Ever, online course, and live event.
I followed this methodology in 2023 with my classic novel goal and plan on repeating and expanding the effort this year. How does it work?
Let’s examine each of the seven characteristics mentioned above by looking at my 2024 classic novel and memoir goal: Read twelve classic novels and twelve classic memoirs in 2024 and share a review of each every month through year end.
Specific. If we’re going to set a reading goal, it helps to define what sorts of reading we plan to do. Specificity directs our efforts and keeps us focused. Mentioning “classics” offers a start, but we might define it even further. In my case I’m reading classic novels and memoirs—defined as generally well regarded and widely known books written before the close of the last century—and I’ve gone so far as to list the specific twenty-four I’ll be reading.
Measurable. Resolutions are often a bit squishy and subjective, but a measurable goal enables us to track how we’re doing against the objective. I’m reading twelve classic novels and twelve classic memoirs; what’s more, I’m sharing a review of each every month; so by April, July, September, or whenever, I’ll know exactly how I’m tracking. While the granularity might seem a turnoff for some, it enhances motivation as well: Early on I can see how far I’ve come, and as I pass the midpoint I can see how little I have left to go.
Actionable. Many resolutions falter because they express an intention or aspiration but don’t prompt the actions necessary for their fulfillment. Goals require action, and so I’ve formulated my goal with an initiating verb detailing the primary action: read. Oftentimes we formulate resolutions with state-of-being verbs. A person might say they want to be healthier, be smarter with their money, be a better friend, and so on. To be better read sounds too archaic to imagine someone saying today, but the point holds. It’s better to start with an action verb: “Read twelve classic novels. . . .”
Risky. By risky I don’t mean walking blindfolded on the interstate or parachuting with a tablecloth. I mean stepping outside our comfort zone. It might sound counterintuitive, but research shows challenging goals stand better odds of achievement than unchallenging goals. Why? If a goal’s too easy, it doesn’t command enough of our attention, effort, and other resources; we eventually find something more interesting to do. The risk in my goal? I’ve got a busy schedule, and reading and reviewing twenty-four books will prove tricky.
Timebound. Time keys such as deadlines not only establish the available time for taking the necessary action, they also prompt that very action and assist in its planning. My goal includes three time keys. The first (“2024”) indicates the timespan of the goal and implies the final deadline: December 31, 2024. The second (“every month”) defines the milestones for each of the deliverables. This enables my planning and works with the measurability mentioned above to ensure the goal can be tracked. And while not strictly necessary, the third and final (“through year end”) reemphasizes the outer limit of the goal.
Exciting. As Jon Gabriel’s story shows, goals prove more attainable when we’re internally driven. If we’re not excited, we’re likely to bail—hence the reason New Year’s resolution statistics usually resemble the 2023 Carolina Panther’s win-loss record. Intrinsic motivation keeps us going. “Television began boring me,” said Gabriel of his own experience watching his motivation change. “I actually looked forward to turning off the screen and getting back to my stuffy old books.” I’m with him. And here’s a tip: Let this determine your goal. If classics bore you, pick something else: mysteries, true crime, literary fiction, philosophy, whatever. Choose whatever reading will keep you reading.
Relevant. Another reason New Year’s resolutions fail is that they express an aspiration that doesn’t align with our real interest, values, or the other demands on our lives. Despite our best intentions, the goal is fundamentally irrelevant to us. What about mine? As I often joke, I have one hobby and have structured it into my life and my life around it. That is to say, my goal is closely aligned with my interests, values, and other demands.
There are no right or wrong goals, but there are effective and ineffective goals and all shades in between. The more closely we can conform our goals to these seven characteristics the greater the odds of our success—and fun along the way. That said, we’ve got one final consideration: What type of goal should we set?
Achievement vs. Habit
Goals come in two basic styles: achievement goals and habit goals. The former describes a one-time accomplishment with a predetermined endpoint, the latter an ongoing practice. Resolutions are usually too vague to be classified as either.
Can you guess the type of my reading goal? Here it is again: Read twelve classic novels and twelve classic memoirs in 2024 and share a review of each every month through year end. If you answered “achievement goal,” congrats! You get a gold star. But we can also imagine changing the goal to be less focused on a final outcome and more perpetual.
Here’s a similar SMARTER goal but now stated as a habit goal: Read a classic novel or memoir each weekday morning between 5:30 and 6:00, beginning January 1. You’ll notice it’s still specific, but I’ve removed the focus on a final number of books. It also uses different time keys; instead of a deadline, it’s got a start date (“January 1”) and two time triggers (“weekday morning” and “between 5:30 and 6:00”). These time keys prompt action and assist in both planning and tracking.
Which is better? It depends on what we want. Some people are more motivated by one or the other. If we’re going to bother setting a goal, we should work with whatever better serves our needs, interests, and personality.
Sometimes goals like this can work well together. We can, for instance, use a habit goal to help us accomplish an achievement goal. In my case that would look like a daily morning date with whichever of my twelve classic novels or memoirs was appointed for that month. The structure of the habit helps me maintain my effort toward the completion of my larger goal.
Okay, but what if you’re just not a goal-setting sort of person?
You’re still reading?! Thanks for sticking it out. I get it. I used to look down on goal-setting as too regimented and contrived. It certainly can be. But the point of the SMARTER system is to use a little regimentation to help us get more of what we want and avoid getting distracted by what we ultimately want less.
Remember, that E stands for exciting. We’re only setting goals for stuff we care about. And if it’s something as wonderful as books, isn’t that worth a try?
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