Some of us love setting goals. We have a vision of where we want to be. Then we create a plan of what we need to do in order to make our dreams a reality. Perhaps we use “To Do” lists, or track our progress on electronic devices–either way, we feel that we are working towards what we want.
Western culture, and it’s bias towards “doing” vs. “being”, elevates goals as a key component of attaining success. We have self-improvement goals around fitness and weight-loss. There are work goals, relationship goals, company goals…the list goes on. Do a search on Amazon.ca for goal resources and there books that tell you “How to Get Everything You Want–Faster Than You Ever Thought Possible”. It’s not enough that we fulfill our plans, but now we must do it as fast as possible!
As a human, I’ve been goal-driven for a long time. As a therapist, I’m starting to question if this behaviour is a good idea. By I pondering the idea of goals, I’m starting to see that they may be a double-edged sword–if done well, they can be a useful tool for providing a framework for accomplishment. However, they can also be an unforgiving taskmaster that gets in the way of enjoying life.
Are Goals a Good Thing?
There is little double that goals are a tool to help us get things done. Goals can keep us directed and focused on where we are going. We experience the satisfaction that comes from crossing items off our “To Do” lists or noting that we have met our aspirations for the day or week.
However, I suggest that while goals can help us to be focused on where we want to be, they can lead us to become too focused. When we have a narrow view of where we’re going, we can miss the wonder, magic and possibilities that are outside of our line of sight. For example, if we see the only way to reach a fitness goal is by attending cross-fit classes, we lose out on the beauty and fitness opportunities provided by a hike in the woods.
What happens when we don’t reach a goal? As we become attached to the outcome of our efforts, if things don’t work out as we expected we may feel guilty, or that we’ve failed. We become fixated on what we didn’t do, versus what we did accomplish. Goals become a way to be unkind to ourselves.
The Story of Sylvia
Sylvia is a 35 year old woman who has decided that it is time to regain her health and fitness levels that had declined due to the changes in lifestyle during and after two pregnancies. Sylvia’s two children were born within 15 months of each other. The short period between pregnancies left little time for her body to recover. Now, three years later, Sylvia is struggling to lose the residual weight gain. Her blood pressure is higher than recommended, and she is often winded when climbing stairs. Sylvia has decided to lose 30 lbs in three months, and get in better shape, by going to the gym and watching what she eats.
For the first week, Sylvia is highly motivated to reach her goal. With Heather’s (her partner) support, she was able to go to the gym five times. She created a meal plan and stuck to it. She removed all the ‘junk’ food from the house and left fruit on the counter for snacks. When Sylvia weighed herself at the end of the week, she was a little disappointed that she had “only” lost two pounds, but figured that it was better than gaining weight. She vowed to “do better” next week.
For the following two weeks, Sylvia kept to her schedule…though it was getting difficult. She was losing her excitement faster than her extra weight. Heather was starting to feel somewhat resentful of Sylvia’s time at the gym as it was taking away from family time. It was difficult for the couple to keep up with the time needed for the healthy eating plan and both were starting to miss some of their favourite meals.
By the end of the fourth week, Sylvia had given up on her weight loss, fitness and health goals. Both children had come down with colds and wanted more attention. She had been to the gym only once, and when there felt too tired to do a complete workout. They were sick of the strict whole foods diet, and had started ‘cheating’. Sylvia had gained back two of the total five pounds she had lost since starting this process. She felt frustrated, hopeless and resigned that she would be carrying around the extra weight for the rest of her life. She was afraid that she would need to start taking blood pressure medications.
What if there had been another way for Sylvia to formulate her goals that would have been more helpful? Enter SMART Goals!
Goals are a tool, and like any tool they are most useful when we use them with skill. The more thought we put in at the beginning when creating them, the better easier they will be to accomplish. Used properly, they are no-longer a double-edged sword.
Let’s look at how Sylvia’s goals would have changed if she had used this method.
Specific: Part of Sylvia’s goal was specific (lose 30 lbs.); however, what did she mean when she wanted to “get in better shape”? Would she be able to do 50 squats in one minute? Ride her bike up a steep hill without stopping? Run up a flight of stairs? Did she know her ideal blood pressure score?
Measurable: A goal is measurable when you are able to determine where you are in meeting the goal. In Sylvia’s case, it means not only answering the question of how she will know when she has reached it, but also creating signposts along the way. For example, if Sylvia wants to lose 30 lbs. in three months, that means she would need to lose 10 lbs/month or 2.5 lbs/week. She can measure her progress along the way. Perhaps she can check her blood pressure on a monthly basis by visiting her local pharmacy.
Realistic: In order to avoid frustration and discouragement, it’s very important that goals are realistic. How realistic was it for Sylvia to lose 2.5 lbs/week? Is this healthy? How much work and commitment to exercise would it take to accomplish this part of the goal?
Determining if our goals are realistic often requires knowing ourselves (what we’re truly capable of), and finding out how much support we have from others (Heather is willing and able to support four gym trips a week, but feels that five is getting in the way of family life). We may need to do some research to learn what others have been able to accomplish under similar circumstances.
Time-based: Having ideas of timing are important. When we know our timing, it makes the goals more concrete. It’s the difference between saying I want to learn to cook Indian food sometime in the future and I’m going to learn to cook vegetable curry by the end of next month. The months can fly by and we’re no closer to serving homemade curry to our friends!
Sylvia set a time limit of three months. Based on all that she has learned by looking at the other areas of SMART goals, is this still possible? As the creator of the goals, she can decide.
Goals in Therapy
When I start working with a new client(s), I ask them how they would like things to be different when they are finished therapy. By answering this question, we are starting to to think about therapy goals. Depending on the individual client(s) situation, creating SMART goals may then become part of the therapy process.
In the end, if used wisely, goals can be a tool that can help you to reach where you would like to be.
And now for something completely different. Goals come in all shapes and sizes! Enjoy?!