Goal setting is a way for a person to clearly state what she or he wants to achieve; it creates focus and direction, and inevitably guides thoughts, actions, and behaviors. However, goal setting can be a bit more complex than most of us think. It is easy to say, “I will lose weight” but this statement lacks many things that are essential to good goal setting and ultimately, the success of achieving them.
Bestselling author, Dr. Cherie Carter-Scott, recommends the SMART technique for successful goal setting and achievement. With this technique, each goal has the following five qualities: Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic, and Timely.
The goal needs to be very specific so that it is clearly defined and achievable. For example, the goal “I will be thinner by summer” is too general. What does thinner mean to you? When, exactly, is summer? A specific goal would be “I will lose a half-inch each from my waist, hips, and thighs by the first of August.” Another example of a general goal might be “I will get involved in my community.” A better goal would be “During February and March, I will attend three meetings of community organizations and join the one I like the most.” This is much more specific, and it will be easier to recognize whether you are on track. Try to include information on who, what, where, how, and why.
This quality also has to do with specificity and reflects how you know whether you have achieved the goal or not. The goal “I will feel better about myself” is not measurable. By what criteria can you measure that? You need to set goals that have some kind of measurable benchmark. These might be inherently available in the goal (e.g., pounds, inches, dollars), or you might have to create a benchmark, such as a scale of 1 to 10. For example, “On a scale of 1 to 10, I’m currently at a 3 in terms of liking myself.I will rise to the level of 6 by the end of June.”
This is the quality that empowers you to be in control. Set goals that allow you to take some specific actions to achieve them. The goal “I want to be liked by more people” is not action-oriented; it is based on the actions of others. However, the goal “I will meet at least ten new people by the end of October” is action-oriented, as is the goal “I will ask my friends two things I can do in order to be a better friend to them.” You want your goals to have some action in them so that you can be proactive in achieving them. This is especially important to remember in relationships. You cannot control the behavior of others, so having a goal of getting more flowers from your boyfriend is not a good idea. However, you certainly can set a goal for telling him that flowers are important to you and for requesting that he give you flowers more often. You can even have a goal regarding how you will handle the situation if he does not honor your request, including buying yourself flowers at least once per month. These are all the things for which you can control the action.
It’s very important that goals be realistic; otherwise, you set yourself up for failure. While you might wish to lose 20 pounds in 2 weeks, this is not a realistic goal. You also have to be able to envision yourself accomplishing the goal and believing that you can do it—otherwise, you won’t.
This is where you address the “when” of your goal. Each goal needs to have a target date for completion; otherwise, it is too easy to put it off. It’s important to get specific about when you will accomplish something because this holds you accountable for taking action. However, it’s also important to be realistic about the time frame—setting the deadline too far away will not be very motivating, and too close can be discouraging.
Smaller Achievable Steps
Once you have a clear goal that has all of the SMART qualities, break each goal into smaller steps that will lead to the achievement of that goal. Each smaller step should also have a specific deadline, and the smaller steps should lead to accomplishing the SMART goal by its stated time frame. For example, if your goal is to lose 20 pounds in six months, a reasonable goal, some specific smaller steps might include:
- Join a local gym (by week 2)
- Exercise for 1 hour at least 4 times per week (every week).
- Substitute your morning mocha for a low-fat latte (at least 5 days per week)
You will want to set a series of smaller steps that, over time, will lead you to achieve your goal. It’s also good to use these as milestones along to the way so you can adjust if you are not on track.
Goals are different from objectives or intentions, which are also very valuable tools in personal transformation. Read more about them in the Intention section of the Wellness Toolbox.
Obstacles to Success
Setting goals can be fairly easy, but achieving them can be another matter. If achieving goals were easy, then everyone would have exactly what they want. People could set goals and then just achieve them. However, as you try to achieve your goals, you might find that you have some obstacles in your way. These might be unforeseen challenges, such as becoming sick with the flu or discovering that you have no talent for singing, or there might be a lack of resources or motivation. If you are knocked off track by an unforeseen situation, such as becoming ill, you might have to adjust your timeline accordingly. You want to be reasonable with yourself and know when flexibility is appropriate.
In the case of not being good at singing, that might not be something you can change. There are certain things you can control, such as how much time you devote to practicing and using resources like singing lessons and a vocal coach. But if after your best effort, singing continues to be a challenge, you might need to rethink your dream of being a rock star. Goals aren’t always achievable even with our best efforts, and it’s prudent to know when to move on and set different goals.
Other obstacles might be more emotional, such as realizing that you are pursuing a career only because it pays well but that you have no real interest in. Often, if we set goals to please others in some way, we might not have the personal motivation to succeed. People often set goals because they feel that they should—the “shoulds” undermine people’s success because, without the personal motivation, the difficult or challenging circumstances can stop your forward movement.
If you discover that you are not making progress on a goal, look at whether it is something you really want. If not, look at why you think you should have that goal. Has someone made a specific request of you such as a family member or supervisor? Or have you assumed that you should for some reason, such as thinking you will be happier if you have a job that would allow you to afford a sporty car? If you can identify why you set that goal in the first place, it can help you evaluate whether or not you want to keep the goal. If you decide to keep it, you will need to find your own personal reasons for wanting that goal so that you have the motivation to succeed.
You might even discover some hidden obstacle that you didn’t know existed such as an internal emotional conflict. Sometimes we discover that we have more complex emotions at work underneath the experiences, ones that might have to do with our past and might require meeting with a professional counselor to work through.
For example, I once worked with a client who could was not achieving her goal of losing weight. Through her journaling and our coaching sessions, she discovered that she had a fear of becoming sexually attractive to men. This issue had to be addressed before she could lose the weight.
Another client wanted to write a book but found himself embroiled in writer’s block on a regular basis. When he looked deeper, he realized that while he wanted to be published, he didn’t want to engage in the long publicity tours that book publishers require of their authors. He had to first address his beliefs and concerns about fame before the writing could flow.
If you find yourself struggling to achieve goals, take the time to explore what is happening. Journaling can be a great tool for getting at your deeper truth, as can coaching and therapy.
Your Support Team
To overcome these obstacles, it is important to utilize all the resources available to you. Certainly, tools in the Wellness Toolbox can help you as can various resources in the Wheel of Wellbeing. In addition, it’s always a good idea to also have a support team in place. The purpose of a support team is to help you achieve your goals, especially when you hit an obstacle. They are people who either can give you specific assistance or are there to encourage you when the going gets a little rough. These should be people whom you can count on and whom you trust. Sometimes people are automatically on your support team; for example, your therapist or coach can be counted on for giving you support. Others might need to be asked or informed that you would like them on your team.
It’s always a good idea to tell someone what kind of support you would like from him or her; this gives you a much better chance of getting exactly what you need when you need it. Your request might go something like this:
“I’m calling because you have always been really helpful to me in the past. Right now, I am working on a specific goal, and I’d like your help. The goal is (fill in here), and what I’d like from you is (fill in here).”
Your request could range from asking for specific advice, to listening to you vent when something is hard, to reminding you of your strengths and that you can do it, to giving you brutally honest feedback, and so on. A good support team might include family members, friends, therapists, coaches, mentors, and advocates.
A mentor is someone who has a bit more experience than you in the particular area on which you are focusing. She or he should have achieved some level of success that you are hoping to emulate. This mentor will share his or her own story with you and can provide you with advice about how to achieve your goal. You can have different mentors for different parts of your life, and they should change with time as you achieve a certain level of success and need a new mentor for the next level you wish to achieve. Look for people who could serve as mentors to you and then approach them. Most people are quite flattered to be told that they are looked up to and to be asked to be a mentor. If they do not have the time to serve as a mentor, they might be able to connect you to other people who are available.
Advocates are different from mentors in that advocates do not need to have achieved anything in the area in which you have set goals. The only thing they need to do is to care about you and believe in your ability to achieve your goals. Advocates are like cheerleaders — when the going gets rough, they enthusiastically remind you that you said you wanted this goal and that you absolutely can achieve it. You can never have too many advocates, but be sure that they are on board for believing in you for that particular goal. A person who is a strong ally in supporting your goal to lose weight might not be the best ally for career planning if this person really doesn’t want you to move across the country. His or her personal preferences might get in the way of supporting you completely. So choose your advocates carefully, be explicit about what you want them to support you on, and even give them guidance about how best to support you when you call on them.
- If Success is a Game, These Are the Rules by Cherie Carter-Scott
- The Productivity Puzzle by Sara Caputo