How to set SMART goals

Goals are necessary to help us achieve our desired ends. People need to see progress to derive meaning and success. In matters of health & well-being goals are effective and motivating tools. We consistently compare ourselves to benchmarks, internally and externally. If we don’t deliberately set appropriate goals for ourselves, we are destined to feel frustration and failure. When we meet our goals, we feel successful and capable of taking on more.

We have all achieved something of which we are proud. Perhaps it was challenging physically or intellectually. We feel at the summit of success. But from this new vantage point, we see higher peaks in the distance, yet to be climbed. Our sights become transfixed on the future. So it is with goals. Once achieved, you set about planning the next steps.

NFL football offers an example. During the season, there is nothing more important than winning the Super Bowl. During the playoffs, though, you begin hearing analysts and fans from eliminated teams discussing the draft, trades, scouting. They no longer care about their former quest. Even for the championship team, within a week of the game, the conversation turns to maintaining their dominance, there’s more work to be done.

This underscores the importance, but not supremacy, of goals. Goals give you direction and motivation. Equally, they can be unreachable and demoralizing. They need to be designed the right way to help your progress towards capturing health and well-being.

Here’s an example of a bad goal: “I want to be more fit.” This provides no useful direction. In what way would you like to be more fit? Within what timeframe? How will you measure success? “I want to be more fit” is a vision. It’s a sense for betterment that you have. This is important. But you can’t strategically move toward realizing your vision, unless you set goals along the way.

I suggest using a concept from the business world called SMART goals:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-based

Specific:

Goals should be narrow in scope. This allows you to focus and plan. Improving fitness is too general. You could go about this in 1000 ways. Becoming a better runner is more specific.

Measurable:

I don’t know who to attribute it to, but there is a mantra in the quality improvement space, “You can’t improve what you can’t measure”. Tracking metrics allows you to see change. Objectivity is ideal, but subjective measures are useful as well. For example, tracking calories will help you meet your targets. But if you feel hungrier, this is important information too.

Attainable:

This seems intuitive but deserves attention. Thinking you want to be the next Usain Bolt, even if you’re already a sprinter, is probably not attainable. This is another example closer to a vision, than a goal. It’s far better to set easily attainable goals, especially at the outset of any endeavour. There is no cap on the number of goal iterations you will navigate. Achieving goals is a positive reinforcement. It bolsters your confidence in your ability to succeed. Near-term, incremental improvements are the best goals to set.

Relevant:

Goals need to support the long-term vision you are striving toward. Adhering to this strategy can be liberating. All manner of quick fixes and alternatives to your current goals are constantly foisted upon you via social media and the like (check out my post on assessing health information). Before clicking down the internet hole, ask yourself “would making this a new goal help me toward my ultimate vision?” If the answer is no, don’t waste your time. SMART goals should keep you laser-focused.

Time-based:

Everyone knows deadlines are motivating. They keep us accountable. They add structure where whimsy naturally lives. Adding time incentives is a good tactic, so long as they aren’t unreasonable or arbitrary. Too far in the future, things can be put off to tomorrow. That said, we are generally terrible at estimating how long a project will take to complete. Things usually take 1.5 times longer than we think. Keeping this in mind, proximal goals fuel the fire, while overlay distant goals extinguish it.

Let’s bring this home. Consider a person who runs as part of her fitness routine. She typically logs 5-8km at a 5:30km pace. Her vision is to become a better runner in her quest for healthy living. Her SMART goal is as follows – By the end of the summer, I will run 10km in under 55 minutes. With this simple statement, she has met all the SMART criteria. Even better, to make herself accountable, she signs up for a 10km road race at the end of the summer.

It doesn’t have to be complicated, but it does take thoughtful planning. Now start applying SMART goals to your strategy for health & well-being.

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