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Setting Goals That Work: the Building Blocks of Success

Written by Dr. Danielle Keenan-Miller

Goals come in all shapes and sizes, large and small, monumental to quotidian. At best, our goals motivate us to make incremental progress towards something we want or something that will improve our lives. But all too often our goals end up being a source of frustration, stress, or disappointment. The difference between accomplishment and failure isn’t the willpower of the person making the attempt. Anyone can be helped to reach their goals more effectively. The difference is in how we create the roadmap for accomplishing goals, starting with how we set goals in the first place.

We can borrow from the decades of research done by industrial and organizational psychologists to learn the best ways to achieve our goals. In business, not meeting goals often means loss of money, time, or other important resources, so the industry has invested significant money in understanding how to help employees better meet business goals. One useful and widely used roadmap that emerged from this research is the use of SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely.[29] Let’s take a look at how you can apply SMART principles to whatever goal you’re working on.

Start by making your goal specific. Write out your goal in one sentence that describes exactly what you want to achieve. Too often, we fail to meet our goals because they are vague. What does it mean to “eat more healthfully” or “be a more present parent”? If you can define the goal more clearly (e.g. eat three vegetables and two fruits per day, or spend 30 minutes playing with my child where I don’t check my phone), you will be more likely to take specific actions to help you meet your goal.

Having a clear definition also helps with the next step, which is making the goal measurable. To continue our examples from above, it would be pretty easy to check off at the end of the day whether you met your eating or parenting goals. If you’ve ever used a fitness tracker that buzzed when you hit a predetermined goal, you know how motivating it can be to get the feedback of “mission accomplished!”.

If your goal is not set up in a way that’s measurable, you’ll deprive yourself of that motivating feedback.

Recognizing when you have not met your goal is also important because it gives you the opportunity to identify obstacles and find a way to work around them. If your goal isn’t well quantified, it’s easy to let it slide.

Good goals are also achievable. We sometimes set goals to make a radical overhaul without checking in about what the realistic odds are of being able to make such a drastic change. If you’re more of a couch potato than a gym rat, setting out to exercise for an hour every day is a recipe for failure. Don’t fall into the trap of imagining a future self that has more time or more motivation– if it would have been difficult for you to accomplish your goal today or yesterday, it’s probably not realistic to do routinely. If you set a goal that is too challenging, you run the risk of feeling defeated and giving up entirely. Setting a smaller goal (like walking for at least 20 minutes three days a week before work) will lead to early accomplishments, which increase self-efficacy (the belief that you can do it), and thereby lead to even more goal-directed activity. You can always do more than you set out to do or increase your goal over time, but start small.

Identifying how this goal is relevant to your life can also help you stick to it. Why is this goal important to your life? Identifying how this goal will help you to live more in line with your values can help carry you through the difficult moments where persistence is difficult or uncomfortable. Goals often fail when they are adopted for the wrong reasons, like “my friend said this worked for her” or “it seems like the right thing to do.” Connecting to why this change is meaningful to you, whether it’s because your body feels better when you’re eating more nutritious foods or because you want to remember positive times with your kids, can ignite your deeper, intrinsic motivation. Try to define in one to two sentences why this goal matters to you and write that down next to the specific statement of your goal above.

Finally, make the goal timely. In what time frame will you be able to determine whether or not you met your goal? Having a clear “finish” line increases motivation. Ideally, you’d set a long enough time frame that the behavior starts to feel like a habit, but not so long that the end date seems impossibly far away. At the end of your specified time frame,  reassess your goal, perhaps increasing the frequency or intensity of the goal, tweaking it to make it more realistic or relevant, or setting a new goal.

Setting SMART goals is the foundation upon which successful behaviors are built. Remember, a goal without a plan is just a wish! So, what’s your goal? How do you stay motivated? Tell us on Twitter @Psych_Secrets.

[29] Doran, G.T. (1981). There’s a SMART way to write management’s goals and objectives. Management Review, 70, 35

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