While I believe that setting SMART goals can be beneficial sometimes, I think we can forget our true selves in the process. Often when I am working with mental health consumers they complain of ‘goal fatigue’. It seems every new service, clinician and doctor they see insists that they set more goals. This insistence can be demoralising, especially if the service/clinician/doctor has pre-conceived expectations of what goals their clients should set. And let’s face it, with so much importance placed on data and KPIs, the creation of self-directed and personally meaningful goals can be pushed aside in favour of institutionally defined guidelines.
You don’t need to be a health consumer to understand how pervasive these institutionally defined guidelines are. These are the shoulds that fill our heads when we visit the doctor, or open a magazine, or look at social media, or even when we look in the mirror:
I should lose weight.
I should eat healthier.
I should exercise more.
I should spend more time being productive.
I should (insert your own self loathing here)
The problem with shoulds is that they replace what we want for ourselves with someone else’s ideas. Building goals on statements like this does nothing to address our own individual volition and motivation – our whys. Not only that, these sorts of goals set us up for failure because they function as statements of blame. They suggest that what we are currently doing is not good enough and therefore they imply failure before we’ve even started.
Unfortunately, our should statements are often so indelibly etched in our minds that it can be very hard to do traditional goal setting without resorting to them. For many people (myself definitely included), the very exercise of goal setting may be harmful to the self because of the way it unleashes those shoulds to scream at us all at once. Indeed, working towards goals built on a foundation of shoulds is like erecting a building on a foundation of quicksand. All of the hard work and planning will soon collapse and disappear from view. There is no point in designing a building if we don’t have strong ground to build it on.
So what about those of us who are feeling vulnerable, but also want to make some positive changes in our lives? I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently, buried as I am under 30 years or so of shoulds. And the product of all of this thinking is that I need to focus on my foundations: my motivations and my values and the volition that carries me through.
Right now, what motivates me is being kind – to the environment and those around me. And learning, one tiny step at a time, to be kind to myself. Taking the time to weave social responsibility into the things I do every day. Paying enough attention to what is happening in the world to maintain a productive outrage, and tuning out before I get crushed by it. Utilising the best parts of myself to connect beyond me, to the greater world.
Maybe, for the moment at least, I don’t need so many SMART goals with their measurable end points and list-ticking efficiency. Maybe I have enough KPIs in my professional life and don’t need any more of them. For the time being, perhaps it is good enough to focus on kindnesses. These are values that can, in time, become goals and actions and todo lists. Tracking and recording our progress and looking at ways to improve are wonderful tools for development, but we need to start from the right place. That is the SMART thing to do.