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  • Writer's pictureDr Maike Neuhaus

The art of setting REALLY SMART goals

Take a moment to reflect on some of your big goals that you have pursued in the past. What goals were they? How did you go about reaching them? How many did you reach? What did you find easy and what was hard? And what would you name as the key elements that helped you along your journey?

I’m sure you’ve heard of SMART goals at some stage in your life. While I’m a fan of acronyms to help me remember a process or method, SMART is just one of a number of techniques you can do to optimise your goal in a way that you maximise your chance of success.

Start with a big dream - then break it down

I really hope that you take time to reflect on your own potential – how you would actualise yourself if you lived your best possible life or were your best possible self. In other words: I hope you dream big.

Breaking down your dream or bigger life goal into bite-sized goals is the next step of goal setting. But that doesn’t mean turning a perfectly sized goal intro microscopic excuses for goals. It’s also not about making goals attainable as you would when using the corresponding SMART technique. We’ll do that in the next step.

This step is about distinguishing massive life goals or core goals from short-term goals or the next step. The purpose is to get a clearer picture of what concrete steps and implications would be involved if you actually were to pursue this goal. The purpose is to lift the fog that is often present when we have what seems to be huge life ambitions. Because often, when we go through this step of breaking goals down, it quickly becomes obvious that they are attainable after all.

The good thing about starting your goal setting with a big dream is that it pretty much ensures your goal aligns with your values.

Focus on your behaviour – in a positive way

The key with any goals is to focus on the things you can control – and that is your behaviour. What is it that you can do to realise your goal? Ensure you articulate it positively: focus on what you are GOING to do, not what you are NOT going to do as that will guide your focus. For example, instead of aiming to spend less time on the couch, articulate what you want to be doing when you’re not on the couch, such as going for a half-hour walk each night after dinner.

Leverage your strengths

If you do what you’re good at, you will inevitably love what you’re doing. Now is the time to tap into your self-knowledge and preferably dig out your strengths test profiles. Then think about how you can use your strengths to achieve your goal.

Identify a joyful way of pursuing your goal

If you have a goal, the first step should be to explore if there is a way to attain it that you feel intrinsically motivated for. It’s about finding your joy factor. Let's say you want to become fit. Often, when we form a goal like that, we tend to form goals around it that may be the most ‘obvious’ route. Perhaps it's running or joining the gym. But maybe you’ve done dancing as a kid and have always enjoyed it. Then why not consider joining a dancing group or taking dancing lessons as a means to become fit?

Maximise your autonomy

Research shows that we are most motivated to act out our goal behaviour if we have a good level of autonomy over it: not too little and not too much. That means aiming for internally controlled activities or goals. What is your sense of perceived control over the action? In other words, how much input or say do you have over it? Consider any tweaks your goal may need until you feel like you’re 100% in charge. Then consider how competent you feel at it.

Involve others in it - directly or indirectly

Research also shows that we enjoy activities more when they meet a certain threshold of relatedness. Relatedness is the level of meaning, connectedness to others and a purpose bigger than us.

Does the activity you chose have any social meaning for you? Are you doing it together with someone? Maybe for someone? Does it have any other impact on your sense of belonging and/or purpose? Let's say your goal is to go running more often. Think about if you can do it together with someone. If you can afford it, can you hire a running coach who may be in need of some work anyway after the Covid-19 crisis? Do you have a friend who’s also been struggling with fitness and who you could motivate by running with you? Or could you train for a charity running event that supports a cause you are passionate about? Take a moment to reflect on the relatedness factor of your goal and opportunities to enhance it.

Now do the SMART thing

Ok, now it's time to make your goal SMART. SMART is an acronym to help us remember the characteristics every goal should have to increase your chances of achieving it. They are: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. Let me explain them with the help of an example. Imagine your goal is to become fit.

The first step is to ensure that your goal is specific so that you know what exactly it is that you have to do in order to achieve your goal. When you say ‘become fit’, what do you mean by that? How do you want to become fit? So, you might give it some detail by saying that you want to become fit by going for regular runs.

The second step is to make it measurable. This is important so you know what you’re aiming for and so you know if you’re progressing and when you’ve achieved your goal. So, how much running do you want to do? Or, how much running do you think you need to do in order to become fit? So, you might say that you want to go for a 30-minute run five times a week.

The third step is to ensure that your goal is attainable. You may have heard about the importance of setting realistic goals. Because if you do and achieve your goals, this will increase your confidence to achieve them also next time, making you more resilient to obstacles along the way. Attainable also means that your goal doesn't clash with any other goals or commitments of yours. So, double check that you've got the time and resources to prioritise and pursue your goal in the way you intended. If you see any red flags, you're better off tweaking your goal and being less ambitious.

So, what does this mean for your imaginary goal to become fit? Well, do you think a 30-minute run five times a week is achievable for you? This depends how fit you currently are, how much running you’ve done in the past, how many other commitments you have etc. But if you’re not currently doing any running and your fitness level is low, this goal sounds very ambitious to me. So, you might want to aim for a 20-minute run three times a week instead – or whatever you would define as attainable for you.

The fourth step is to check if your goal is actually relevant to you. Why do you want to do it? Is it actually meaningful to you? This is an important concept that is often only touched on superficially. What this really means is that you need to ensure that your goal matches your values. Remember that your values are your fundamental attitudes and guide your attention, thoughts and behaviours. They are what you deem important in life and you are internally, emotionally drawn to them. If you started with a big dream and one of the milestones is to move regularly and get strong, you're good.

Ok, last but not least, make your goal time-bound. When are you going to start [fill in goal]? Today? Monday? Next month? How long do you want to be doing it for? Four weeks? Three months? Determine when you will push the Go! button and give it a deadline. Specific dates and time constraints will add a much more powerful element to your commitment.

Find a trigger to cue yourself

The next step takes the idea of attainability and prioritising a touch further. The idea is that you organise yourself in a way that makes pursuing the goal easier than not pursuing it. The thing is, our goals are usually built around new habits. And habits are behaviours that are triggered by contextual cues by means of association.

So, think about what existing trigger you can use or how you can create a trigger for your desired behaviour. It has to be so obvious and in your face that you stumble over it, rather than running the risk of forgetting about it.

For example, if you want to go running in the morning, you could put your running clothes and shoes out the night before and put them right next to your bed. So, when you wake up, that’s the first thing you see and the most convenient set of clothes to put on. Of course, wearing the clothes doesn’t guarantee that you’ll go running, but it will get you one step closer and thus make it more likely. If you want to go running after work, have your running gear ready for when you come home. If you’re in a position to combine commuting home from work with running, maybe catch public transport into work and your running gear and run home. You can leverage your whole eco-system to cue yourself to perform the new behaviour.

Maike x


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