Call them resolutions, intentions, or goals, most of us are far better at setting them than achieving the desired outcomes of the goals we set. When things don’t work out how we had hoped we’re often left thinking that our lack of discipline (aka willpower) is to blame. The hope and belief in possibility we started with quickly turns to something between wistful acceptance and self-character assassination.
While discipline or determination (my preferred term) is an ingredient in the recipe for success in our efforts to improve our health and wellness (or any aspect of our lives), there’s a lot more that goes into the successful formula for achieving our goals.
Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible. —Tony Robbins
Components of Successful Goals
Before teaching you how to create goals that work, I’ll cover the elements of goals that get results.
Focus on behavior (not outcome).
Behavior is action. We can control our actions. If the outcome itself is the goal the path forward is unclear. Behavioral goals clarify what to do next. This is not to say that our outcome goals—goals that name the eventual result of our hard work, not the hard work itself— aren’t important. They most certainly are. (More on this below.)
Make them specific.
Effective goals are action-oriented. The more detail you assign to a particular action, the more you can visualize yourself doing the behavior, which motivates you to actually do it! You could think of yourself as an athlete visualizing success at the beginning of a race or game. Brain research validates visualization techniques.
Write them down.
Recording our goal on paper or a screen solidifies our commitment to achieving it, in a way that thinking, or verbalizing does not. Continuing to write your goal regularly (in a journal for instance) can be a powerful affirmation that motivates.
Connect to your values.
Goals that are linked to what you value most are goals you will achieve, i.e., Why do you want to achieve an outcome goal in the first place? Think of an outcome goal you want to achieve and fill in the blanks of this sentence: I want to __________ so I can __________. Your answer should motivate you to act over the long run, especially when obstacles appear.
How to Set Goals That Work
When you have a vision of what you want, think about what actions you need to take to get there!
Maybe you want to energetically run around the block so you can keep up with your kids. Or maybe you want to run a marathon because you value trying new things that challenge you. (You may have entirely different reasons for achieving these same goals. These are just examples.)
Let’s assume the next step is the same for both of these goals, and the next step is you need to “start exercising.” The following are all exercise goals you might set:
- I will walk at the park with Ashley.
- I will walk for 30 minutes.
- I will go for a walk.
- I will walk to the mailbox.
- I will walk on Monday at noon.
These behavioral goals are getting closer to what we need to set ourselves up for success, but we can do better.
Make Your Goal SMART
Goals that move us forward are SMART, an acronym that represents the Who, What, When, and Where of your goal. (You should already know your Why!)
SMART goals are…
What specific action will you take? Who will be with you? Where will you be?
Quantify the behavior. How many minutes? How much weight (will you lift)? How many laps?
The goal is an action you will take, never something you won’t do (even if the outcome goal is ultimately to stop doing something!)
Is the behavior reasonably “doable?” Is it enough to challenge you but not discourage you?
When are you going to do it? What day? What time?
Continuing with the goal above around exercise, here is a well-written SMART goal:
I will walk at the park with Ashley for 30 minutes on Monday at noon.
Notice the “I will” phrasing. When you set goals use this confident language and commit! As long as the goal is realistic (based on factors such as your schedule and the support and resources you have available) go all in and savor the pride you feel when you succeed at achieving your goal.
SMART Goal Implementation Strategies
In addition to making your goal SMART, you can use these strategies to set yourself up for success.
Have a reminder system.
Especially when you are just starting out, consider having multiple reminder systems: sticky notes, reminders on your various devices, or you could ask your friend to text you. Kids love helping by reminding their parents to work on their goals!
Have a back-up plan.
In our exercise example above, the back-up plan could be an alternate day, time, place, and/or walking companion.
Note: A back-up plan can be a useful tool for “free spirits” who prefer to build some freedom of choice into how they achieve their goal. In this case, the activity could be walking or a bike ride. Or identify two times (or days) and pick one of them. (Be careful with this strategy. In the beginning, when you are experimenting with new behaviors you might find it more effective to 100% commit to Plan A and make Plan B a legit Plan B.)
Use the buddy system.
Bonus points for adding accountability (and fun!) to your goal by coordinating activities with family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, or an informal meet-up type group.
Long-term Success with SMART Goals
If you aren’t 100% successful at executing your weekly SMART goals, remember to focus on something positive about your experience, even if that’s learning what didn’t work. Use that information to help you succeed in the future.
To make progress on our journey toward achieving our outcome goals we continue to set SMART goals to challenge ourselves, learn, and gain confidence.
I help my coaching clients set weekly goals. Each week we breakdown their experience and strategize next steps, if the goal is one they wish to continue to pursue.
Keep in mind that it is absolutely okay to change course when setting goals. Maybe you’re not ready yet, for any number of reasons. Set that goal aside and move on to something you are ready to work on.
You can “coach” yourself! Set a time each week to evaluate your experience working on your goal. Ask yourself these questions.
- What was positive about your experience?
- What supported your success?
- What did you learn?
- Why is this goal important?
Okay, that’s how to set goals! I invite you to think about an outcome goal that’s important to you and why and commit to taking a step forward by creating a SMART behavioral goal. Then go make it happen! You can do it!
You can leave me a comment with your questions or to let me know what you’re working on!