As far as I know, the idea of having SMART goals came from the business world, and has found its way into other areas. Lately, I have found the concept of making our goals SMART more and more useful. And the more I speak to people in the counselling room, the more I find that using even one of the criteria is helpful in getting them closer to where they want to be.
You can search online for slight variations of it, but generally I use the following approach to setting goals.
Specific – make sure that what you want to work on is narrow enough that you can give your time and attention to that one thing. I often find people wanting to be ‘better’ or ‘healthier’, but often set themselves up because it is too broad. Being healthier could mean running 10 minutes three times a week; eating more vegetables; sleeping more. Feeling better could involve reaching out to friends; having a better work/life balance; engaging regularly with a chosen hobby. Counselling can help narrow the focus so that you make better use of your time and energy.
Measurable – it is important to measure your progress because you are more likely to release dopamine (the chemical in our body that gets released when we are doing the right thing). It is important to give yourself evidence that you are progressing and achieving something. This makes it less likely that you will lose motivation! There are plenty of apps to do this, or you can just resort to a pen and paper (or a whiteboard) – be proud of your achievements, mark them down and keep track of how you are moving forward!
Achievable – I like to push people to work just outside of their comfort zone! But think about baby steps. I can’t run 10km but I am more likely to achieve a 5km run. And then I will build up as I get better each time. Similarly, someone might not be able to manage their stress but could manage to focus on their breath once a day. Improving relationships could be about practicing being more honest or assertive. I often ask people, “if that feels too difficult, what feels achievable right now?” and build up from there. We fall short when we set our expectations too high and when we don’t reach the goal that is too difficult, we lose motivation. So it is important to be more realistic (and caring)!
Relevant – It happens too often that other people give us something to aim for, and in doing so we don’t develop that internal motivation. In the counselling room, it seems to be far more helpful if the person sitting opposite me comes up with something on their own. I might say, “OK, so what do you want to focus on?” rather than “it might be useful to focus on meditation to help with your stress”. Of course, I am there to offer guidance if needed but it is important to find the internal motivation or the thing that is most personal to you. This is better than allowing someone else to push you somewhere that isn’t meaningful. You know what direction you need to head in.
Time bound – rather than making the goal too restrictive (achieving it by next week) or too loose (no end date, or too far in the future), it is important to work out a date that you want to achieve something. You might even link it to a specific event (by the time your birthday comes around, or by the time the end of term happens). Having a fixed endpoint can help to focus some of the attention, and help you to aim for something concrete. And it allows you not to drift, or to not take it seriously – after all this is your happiness or well-being!
So to recap:
- Narrow your goal down so that you know what to focus on – don’t waste time on a goal that is too broad.
- Keep track of any progress you make – it is important to recognise how far you get.
- Work at something realistic – it could be slightly outside of your ability or comfort zone but within your reach if you push yourself
- YOU need to decide what is a meaningful goal – this increases your chance of keeping at it, rather than feeling like you are being told to do something.
- Give yourself an endpoint to work towards – this avoids becoming too relaxed or too rigid
If you need support with achieving your life goals or to create a plan that works for you, reach out and see how counselling could help.