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Making New Year’s Resolutions Like a Doctor

September 22, 2019 | by Dr. Ari Grubner

How to set SMART goals for the new year.

I didn’t think my inspiration for Rosh Hashanah would come from my boss in the hospital, in a room full of fresh new medical doctors.

I had just started my residency in a busy New York hospital and I didn't bank on having much time for spiritual growth and improvement. But it seems God sends us the inspiration we need, no matter where we are or what we are doing.

On a regular Thursday afternoon I took my seat among a room full of my resident colleagues and waited for Dr. Thompson to arrive for our weekly meeting. Dr. Thompson, an experienced and wise physician, is in charge of our residency program and he meets with us periodically to touch base and discuss our progress as new physicians.

On this particular Thursday afternoon, just a few days before Rosh Hashanah, it was clear that Dr. Thompson had a specific agenda to discuss.

“I’d like to discuss goals,” he began. “You have all graduated from medical school. You have all spent countless years studying, taking tests and excelling academically. However you are now at a new stage of your training. You are now practicing as physicians. No one will be on top of you to ensure that you keep studying and to keep improving. No one will call you aside and chastise you for mediocre performance. I know this is new for you, and that’s why I feel the need to point it out.”

He paused for a moment and looked around the room. We were all silent.

“The only way you will continue to grow in your professions is if you set goals for yourself. No one else can do this for you, and no one will really know or care whether you set goals or not. But at the end of the day, if you want to be the best you can be, you will need to be self-driven and you will need to do this.”

Some in the room shifted uncomfortably. “Besides needing to be self-driven, there is another issue with goal-setting at this stage of your careers. In medical school, there was an objective, measurable way to know how you were doing – your test grades. Your goals may have been ‘get an A in microbiology’, or ‘pass this upcoming anatomy test’. Those are good goals, and there is a simple way to keep track of whether or not you have been meeting those goals: simply look at the grade that you’ve received. But this stage in your life is different. Things are not as clear cut.

“Many of you may have some vague goal in your mind, perhaps something like ‘I would like to be a perfect doctor’. That is a nice goal but what's wrong with it?”

The room was silent. Some looked down to avoid being called upon. Finally someone shyly answered, “That goal is too vague.” Another said, “It's unattainable.” Someone else shared, “it is impossible to know when you’ve accomplished it.”

Dr. Thompson nodded and then continued. “Exactly. All those points are correct. We need guidelines to ensure that the goals we are setting actually make sense. We need to set SMART goals.”

Dr. Thompson shared with us a deep, yet simple, structure for goal setting that applies to all goals in life:

Specific: In order for a goal to be appropriate and attainable, it should not be vague.

Measurable: Goals must be objectively measurable. A famous painter was one asked how he knows when he is done adding strokes to his paintings. “When I am done, I just know,” he replied. This is not the way to set personal goals. Goals should be objectively measurable by an onlooker, and should not simply be an inner feeling of “being done”.

Accountable: People spend thousands of dollars to hire personal trainers and diet coaches. The bulk of the benefit from such coaches comes from the accountability to another person. People all have biases and if we are not held accountable by others, we will inevitably bend the truth or simply forget to follow up on the goals we have set. When setting a goal, involve someone else. Tell them about your goal, include them in it if possible, and make it clear that you want them to follow up with you.

Realistic: Goals that are set too high will leave us feeling dejected when we are not able to actualize them. Goals set too low will not help us grow. The only way to really find that perfect balance is through trial and error.

Time-line: When setting a goal, tell yourself you will try it for a specific amount of time. This gives one the ability to re-assess periodically and then to re-assign goals.

Dr. Thompson did not plan on giving a Rosh Hashanah sermon. But God can send us messages that we need to hear through any avenue, even the most unexpected. We just need to have our eyes and ears open to make sure we pick up on it.

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