Setting S.M.A.R.T. goals

“When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.” 


Goal setting can feel like an impossible task. If you’re asking where to start, this article is for you. We all have tasks and projects we want to accomplish. What I find often is too many competing ideas of which project to start creates anxiety or stress and limits action. Choice paralysis is a real thing. Multitasking adds to an person’s experience of feeling like one is living in a pressure cooker. Deadlines, the needs of others, family obligations, work-life balance, perfectionistic tendencies, depression, anxiety, and extending one’s self too far are some of the main contributors to not starting a project. 

Andrew Smart, author of Autopilot: The art & science of doing nothing makes a compelling case for why multitasking is counterproductive. The book advances the idea that multitasking is a myth. Smart advances the idea that idle time is needed for psychological health and wellbeing. The corporate culture of do more at the same time actual does more damage on a physiological level. Engaging in a series of tasks at the same time actually requires your brain to use more neurochemicals than it does focused on one task.

A parallel example would be driving your car 150 MPH 24/7 365 days a year. Eventually the gas in your tank would drain. And the car would start to show signs of excessive wear and tear faster than it was expected. We were made to do one task well at a time.

Consider the published studies that show a strong correlation between texting while driving and increase in car accidents. I recall once when I first had my drivers license an accident that I had following a brief decision to change music on a Zune (a Microsoft competitor to the iPod) resulting in a car accident with someone who was stopped at a red light.  I had only taken my eye off the road for a split second and boom. Look at the quality of your driving, for example, when you are engaged in some other activity and navigating you car around the road with its various obstacles. 

Now take that insight and explore how your performance at work or in school is hindered when you are also trying to engage in some unrelated activity. For example, lets say you are conversing with someone and trying to read a text message from another person simultaneously. How much of that conversation did you understand? Texting while talking is quite distracting , impolite, and difficult to follow an ongoing conversation. 

What is a solution to the multitasking problem, you ask? S.M.A.R.T. goals. This mnemonic device of goal setting uses evidenced-based principles to break tasks down to smaller and more achievable pieces. It stands for Specific, Measurable, Achieveable, Realistic, & Time-Limited.  Let’s explore this skill further:


My observation is when someone initates therapy there is this vague goal one intends to achieve. Often people say, “I want to be sober” or “Be happy”. The issue with these types of goals is they lack specifity. Specific goals are well-define and often have a desired outcome. In order for a goal to be attainable there needs to be some concrete and tangible outcome.  


Outcomes mater. Think about how you will measure whether or not you have achieved you goal. Break your goal down into smaller tasks. Building a support network is a large enterprise. Perhaps you might measure decrease in anxiety level in social situations. Or maybe you might monitor contact with one identified person. What is important is that we can show progress to achieve the goal. No work will go perfectly. Allow yourself to learn from the data collected. 


It is easy to set one’s self up for disappointment when one sets unrealistic goals. The importance of being compassionate toward self and understanding current needs and limits is critical to success. For example, Finding your dream job is only possible if you are willing to put yourself out into the world and take risks. Jobs, with rare exceptions, do not come falling from the sky. Are you willing to put forth the effort to accomplish your goal?  If you said no, then more than likely you will not secure employment. 


Realistic is a hard one to define. Accomplishing goals may sometimes require grit and a willingness to persevere in spite of negatives outcomes. Let’s return to the job search example. If you live in a small town and you intend to apply for 50 jobs in one day, does there exist that many opportunities? This goal while specific and measurable may not be realistic. Start small with any goal. Try applying for 5 jobs or even connecting to one support person. If you achieve that task, you will feel accomplished. Continue to do this until you are able to achieve your goal. 


The last part of goal setting is to consider time constraints. Remember in any given week there are 168 hours. No more and no less. Take into consideration competing needs like sleep, work, relationships, childrearing (if applicable), self-care, eating, and travel time. You get the point.

Making a committment to spend 40 hours in a week on a goal might not be likely. Be honest with what you have scheduled. Practicing yoga or meditation for 25 mins each day is better than no practice at all.  Spending one hour to apply for a job is better than applying for no jobs. There are probably other who would agree that more time in a given week would be amazing. Nevertheless, we must live in our current reality. Give yourself a deadline and identify milestones to help you see that you are achieving your goal. 

Remember to have fun

Choose to start small. Setting your goals to high is likely to create disappointment. By starting small you can build on what you have accomplished. The best advice I have is find an accountability partner. Find someone with whom you can check in and report your successes or struggles.  A mentor in community college showed me compassion when she agreed to be my accountability partner.

I was procrastinating from writing a paper on free wil for an independent study. The professor was in the middle of dissertation writing. Weekly we would check in with one another to see the progress the other had made. It may be difficult to find this type of person.

Share your goals on social media. Allow people in your life to remind you of the intention you set out to achieve. When you hit a wall and feel like giving up, step back and reevaluate. Your decision to start setting a goal is not a permanent decision. Remember you can always alter the goal to make it more relalistic, measurable, and time-limited. Learn from what did not work. 

Post a goal that you are working to achieve. If you could alter that goal into a S.MART Goal , what would you need to do? 

Happy goal setting!!!

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