Having spent the last three years working in mental health means that I have spent a lot of time focusing on goal setting. As an occupational therapist I am always seeking out new ideas for how to assist my clients to achieve their goals. If you’ve spent any time looking at motivational literature in the last 10 years then you are probably familiar with SMART goals:
S – Specific
M – Measurable
A – Achievable
T – Time-based
It is no wonder it has become a popular concept. The helping and self help professions all love a tidy little acronym. These principles can be very helpful when trying to break down larger goals into smaller actions but sometimes just relying on an acronym can be too simplistic. Instead, I like the idea of breaking down a generic long term goal by asking questions such as:
What do I want to accomplish?
Why is it important to me?
What does achieving my goal feel like?
These questions facilitate a conversation about what one wants to achieve and why. Often what we want to achieve will be much too big to fit into one simple goal. It is good to have lofty, forward-thinking goals but these can also be overwhelming. Focusing only on big-picture goals leads to getting discouraged, to the all too familiar “I’ll never get there” feeling.
So we need to ask ourselves:
What is the first step?
What comes after that?
And so on and so forth until we have the beginnings of a plan. We often need to work backwards to break a giant goal into manageable chunks. And we don’t need to come up with the whole plan all at once, because often we won’t know what all the steps are. In fact I think we can safely say that if we knew what all the steps were, then we would already be there. It’s the same as having a destination in mind but not spending the time determining the directions to get there. If we take off on the road without a map we might eventually get to where we want to be but it will likely have taken a lot longer than it needed to. Or even worse, we could end up lost and confused and back where we started.
I love an analogy almost as much as an acronym so I’ll continue on this road. When we are looking at traveling a long distance, we need to consider a few things:
How long will it take me to get there?
How will I know I have arrived?
These are the questions that lead us to the measurable and time based part of goal setting. It’s important to ask these questions because we need to know when we can stop and reevaluate our path. We don’t just drive cross country in one burst, we stop and rest and refuel. We look at maps. We consult others who have taken a similar journey for tips and we use these to alter and reassess our plans. It’s the same with setting goals. If we don’t build in the opportunity to reflect and reset and admire how far we’ve come, then we will lose momentum.
So when I’m working with clients (and myself) we look at current goals and the questions mentioned above in a conversational format:
What do I want to accomplish? What is the end goal? Why is it important to me? This is important to define, because often it will cause us to dispute the initial goal and rethink it. For example, I might say I want to lose 25 kg because that will get me to an ‘ideal’ BMI, but upon reflection this goal has no intrinsic value to me. It goes without saying that if the goal means nothing to me (other than adhering to expectations externally placed on me) I’m not going to have much motivation to achieve it. I do want to lose some weight, but the reason for this is that I want to improve my overall health.
The motivation for this is that I recently spent Christmas with my family. My brother, who has put on a fair amount of weight over the last few years, was having issues getting around because of his size. The thought of not being able to walk around easily made me extremely anxious. I have a similar body type to my brother, and a similar propensity to put on weight both through genetics and attraction to certain foods. What I want to accomplish is developing long-term lifestyle changes that will keep me well here and now, and also nudge me towards a fitter version of myself.
What does achieving my goal feel like? This question is often very difficult to answer outright, but it is important to try to visualise ourselves accomplishing our goals and what it will feel like as we move towards them. For me, moving towards my goal feels like a lessening of anxiety, a reduction of a burden. It isn’t so much about looking good in clothes, or reaching a number that pleases my doctor, instead it is about reaching a place of peace inside myself. The best thing about framing goals in this way is that it allows us to experience rewards from working towards our goals and not just achieving them outright.
Once we have determined what we want to do, and how that should feel, we can ask ourselves:
What is the first step?
To determine what this is, it’s good to think of something that can be done over the course of the next week that will kick off the journey. It needs to be small enough that it is easily achieved. It should be both measurable and time based (it’s important to be very clear about what we are trying to achieve and when). It should clearly align with the bigger picture vision we have for ourselves. For example, while I want to lose weight, I’ve defined my goal as working towards longterm lifestyle changes, thus deciding to drastically reduce calories is not the way to go about it. Instead, I have decided to try to eat more vegetables.
Over the next week I will eat 5 servings of vegetables a day by cooking at home.
It’s always easier to add things than to take them away, and psychologically this feels like an addition. Still, it will likely reduce my calories as I will have to replace carbs with vegetables to fit 5 servings in. At the same time it will up my nutrient uptake. I love to cook, so this goal is also a bit of a fun challenge.
Which brings me to the most important point. It is a good idea not to define too many new actions at once. If you are adding long term lifestyle changes like this, it might be best to only add one each week or two. It is so much better to slowly progress forward than to cause a set back by overburdening yourself. If you write down your action and it doesn’t give you a little bit of excitement at rising to the challenge of meeting it, it might not be the right step right now. Before committing to the goal it’s important to ask:
Is it too much at once? Can I break it down further?
Is there something I need to do first that will make this step easier?
Does it align with my intrinsic values, or is it an extrinsically defined goal? In other words, is this something I want to do, or something I think I should do?
Creating exciting and achievable small term goals can make all the difference for long term success, especially when the process includes reflection, celebration and re-evaluation.