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If Goals Seem Unreachable, Make Them SMART to See Progress

Setting and achieving goals is important to making progress and positive change in life. Unfortunately, major goals can be the easiest to put off because they tend to be too complex – to get healthier this year, for example.

If you aren’t making progress on your own goals, don’t blame yourself for not trying hard enough. Instead, learn to set goals that you can more easily pursue and that create positive momentum. One popular method for setting goals that can work for anyone – even those who struggle with medical or mental conditions – is the SMART framework (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound).

Where to Start

Christina Pierpaoli Parker, PhD, a clinical psychologist at UAB Medicine, says pursuing goals helps us move toward our highest ideals. “Well-formulated goals can overcome our natural aversion to change,” she says. “However, goals represent a double-edged sword – they can fill us with confidence and purpose or make us feel like we are stuck.”

Pierpaoli Parker recommends thinking about goals as extensions of our values, so that a deeper meaning is attached to achieving them. For example, “My doctor said I need to lose weight” is a much less powerful motivator than, “I want to lose weight so I can practice baseball with my children.”

The goals we will most benefit from are value-driven, she adds. Ask yourself if your goals reflect values such as:

  • Staying active in the community
  • Spending quality time with family
  • Enjoying hobbies and interests
  • Being able to travel
  • Taking care of others
  • Preserving independence

The danger of setting unmanageable goals is that you may reinforce negative self-beliefs. Depression, for example, is affected by a belief that life is filled with more negative events than positive ones. So, when choosing a goal, start with one that is value-driven, seems achievable, and feels right. “You need some easy wins to create a positive feeling and behavioral momentum,” Pierpaoli Parker says.

The SMART Framework

If your doctor suggests taking action to lower your cholesterol, you may not know where to start. You understand that high cholesterol increases your risk for heart attack and stroke, but there are so many options — including diet, exercise, and stress management — and perhaps you aren’t doing well with any of them. Pierpaoli Parker recommends picking the low-hanging fruit. For instance, walking regularly may seem like a good way to start because you’ve done it before, you have a dog, or simply because there’s a walking track nearby.

The SMART framework is built on the following concepts:

S – Specific: The goal should present a clear course of action. “I’m going to walk my dog at the track three times a week.”

M – Measurable: The goal needs to be measurable, so you’ll know if you’re on track. “I will walk eight laps at the track today.”

A – Achievable: A goal should not depend on an activity far beyond your ability or involve circumstances you cannot control. “I’ve walked in the past, so I know I can do it. And it’s convenient, since I have a dog and a nearby walking track.”

R – Relevant: The goal should have relevance to your values. “Walking is about the bigger picture of staying healthy to do the things I love, but it will also lower my cholesterol and risk of stroke and heart attack.”

T – Time-Bound: The goal should be planned for a certain duration on certain days, so that it becomes routine. “I will walk from 7-8 pm on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for the next month. After a month, I can reassess and decide if I want to add distance or walk even more often.”

Adding Social Support

Pierpaoli Parker says social support is one of the strongest predictors of making positive improvements in battling depression and obesity. “This could be established by involving others in your activity or talking to them about how it will improve your life,” she says. “Especially in the South, people sometimes feel bad about taking time for themselves, so it helps to focus on the social aspects of your goals: accountability and responsibility to others. Setting and achieving your health goals gives you the psychological gasoline to show up for others more authentically and effectively.”

Dealing with Setbacks

Putting yourself in the mindset of a scientist is helpful for fine-tuning goals, Pierpaoli Parker says. If you receive “data” indicating that your goal did not actually meet one of the SMART criteria (you always missed the Friday walk, for example), it may be an easy fix. She recommends making the revised goal a bit easier to achieve than is necessary, to build confidence.

Pierpaoli Parker says she’s seen SMART goals prevent burnout and procrastination in academics, help people struggling with diabetes and weight management, empower hoarders to overcome their impulse, and enable people with depression and anxiety to live better lives.

“Start low and slow,” she says. “When we start small and form new behavior patterns, we create positive momentum for mind and body. If you’re in a rut, the only way out of your problems is going through them, and setting SMART goals can help you take your first few steps forward.”

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