Goal setting is a very popular tool for anyone trying to make changes in their behaviour. Much success has been achieved by individuals who have set SMART goals for becoming more physically active or eating well.
As a mental health professional, you're in an ideal position to share the following information with consumers who are contemplating making changes by incorporating more physical activity and healthy eating behaviour into their lifestyle. You may also find the personal goal-setting worksheet helpful.
Setting SMART Goals
The acronym “SMART” is often used when talking about goal-setting. Each letter refers to an attribute that must be present in each and every goal in order to create a useful activity plan:
S = Specific
M = Measurable
A = Attainable
R = Realistic
T = Timely
Everyone can benefit from setting goals and objectives that are SMART.
Goals should be straightforward and emphasize what you want to happen. Specifics help you focus your efforts and clearly define what you're going to do.
Specifics are the What, Why, and How of the SMART model.
What are you going to do? Use action words such as direct, organize, coordinate, lead, develop, plan, build, etc.
Why is this important to do at this time? What do you want ultimately to accomplish?
How are you going to do it? (By ... )
Ensure the goals that you set are specific, clear and easy. Instead of setting a goal to lose weight or “be healthier,” set a specific goal — for example, to walk five kilometres at an aerobically challenging pace.
If you can't measure it, you can't manage it. In the broadest sense, the goal statement itself is a measure for the project: if the goal is accomplished, then it is a success. However, short-term or small measurements can usually be built into the goal.
Choose a goal with measurable progress, so you can see the change occur.
How will you see when you reach your goal? Be specific! "I want to walk in my neighbourhood four times a week on my own before Victoria Day" shows the specific target to be measured. Your progress on "I want to start walking” is not as measurable.
Establish your criteria for measuring progress toward attaining each goal you set. When you measure your progress, you stay on track, reach your target dates, and experience the exhilaration of achievement. That exhilaration is what will spur the continued effort required for you to reach that ultimate goal.
When you identify goals that are important to you, you begin to figure out ways you can make them come true. You develop the attitudes, abilities, skills and financial capacity to reach them. You begin seeing previously overlooked opportunities to bring yourself closer to achieving your goals.
However, you probably won't commit to doing goals you set that are too far out of your reach. You might start with the best of intentions, but the knowledge that it's too much for you means your subconscious will keep reminding you of this fact, and will stop you from giving it your best effort.
A goal needs to stretch you slightly, so it feels achievable but still requires a real commitment from you. Aiming to lose 20 pounds in one week simply isn't achievable. But setting a goal to lose one pound per week and then, when you've achieved that, to keep losing one more pound each week until you reach your (specific) healthy weight — that will keep your goal achievable for you.
The feeling of success that this brings will help you to remain motivated.
This is not a synonym for "easy." Realistic, in this case, means doable. It means that the learning curve is not vertical — that the skills needed to accomplish the goal are available, and that the goal fits with your personal plans. A realistic goal may push the skills and knowledge of the people working on it — but it should never far exceed them.
Devise a plan or a way of reaching your goal that is realistic for you and where you are at the moment. A goal of never again eating sweets, cakes, potato chips and chocolate may not be realistic for someone who really enjoys these foods. It may be more realistic to set a goal of eating a piece of fruit each day instead of something sweet. You can then work toward gradually reducing the amount of sweets you eat, as this feels realistic for you.
Be sure to set goals that you can attain with some effort! Too difficult, and you set the stage for failure — but setting the bar too low transmits a message, especially to yourself, that you aren't very capable.
Set the bar high enough for a satisfying achievement!
Set a timeframe for the goal: for next week, in three months, by my next birthday. Putting an endpoint on your goal gives you a clear target to work toward.
If you don't set deadlines for yourself, the commitment is too vague. Your goal will tend to stay out of reach because you feel you can start at any time. Without time limits, there's no urgency to begin taking action now.
Times set must be measurable, attainable and realistic.
Everyone will benefit from goals and objectives if they are SMART. SMART is the instrument to apply in setting your goals and objectives.
Examples of Goal-Setting for Physical Activity
- I want to take 20-minute walks around my neighbourhood three times a week at a heart rate of at least 120 beats per minute (bpm).
- I want to eat two to three servings of fruit and/or vegetables at each meal every day.
To adjust the goal, you can:
- Increase/decrease the amount of time allocated to walking.
- Increase/decrease the number of days allocated to walking.
- Increase/decrease the heart rate at which the walk should occur.
- Use distance instead of time as the measuring factor (e.g., walking 2 km at a heart rate of 110 bpm).
- Increase or decrease the amount of servings of fruits and vegetables.
- Eat fruits and/or vegetables at snack time.
- Keep a record of your heart rate before and after each walk.
- Record how long it took before your heart rate reached 120 bpm on your 20-minute walk.
- Buy a pedometer and record the number of steps you take each time you go for a walk.
- Keep a food journal to track how many servings of fruits and vegetables you eat each day.
- I will enlist a walking friend or buddy to help me stick to the goal.
- I will schedule my walking time so that I cannot say that I am too busy to walk.
- I will plan a menu and shop for the fruits and vegetables listed in the menu.
- My first impulse was to choose an exercise goal of walking for 60 minutes at a heart rate of 120 bpm (i.e., moderately vigorous) because I usually walk around the neighbourhood for 20 minutes at a low-moderate level — but I realized that I’d soon start excusing myself from such a lengthy effort if I wasn’t in better shape first.
- If I really dislike fruits and vegetables, I will start with smaller amounts and test different produce to identify ones I might enjoy.
- Within the first three weeks of setting the goal, I want to be able to bring my heart rate to 100 bpm in the first 10 minutes of the walk.
- By the seventh week, I want to be able to maintain a heart rate of 110 bpm for most of the 20-minute walk — at which time I’ll adjust my goal to a longer walk.
- By the 15th week, I want to be able to complete a 60-minute walk at a heart rate of 120 bpm for most of the walk.
- By the end of the first week, I want to ensure that I’m eating fruits and vegetables at least once every day.
- By the end of one month, I want to be eating fruits and vegetables at each meal every day.
- By the end of four months, I want to be eating two to three servings of fruits and/or vegetables at each meal every day.
- I want to be able to complete a five-kilometre walk in 60 minutes.
- I want to create a healthy weekly menu plan that includes three meals per day and two snacks.
- With each successive run, record the time it took to complete the five-kilometre walk. This way, you can keep track of your progress.
- Keep records of each weekly menu plan. Mark off at the end of each week which meals you actually prepared.
- To be able to complete a five-kilometre walk in 60 minutes, I will also do core-stability training to enhance my performance.
- I will put time aside during the week to make sure I walk at least once a week.
- If I find my original stated goal is too ambitious (or too easily attained), I will walk five kilometres in 75 minutes (or in 45 minutes).
- I will ensure that my menu items are easy and economical to prepare.
- My goal is to walk five kilometres in 60 minutes because I am now able to walk five kilometres in 90 minutes.
- My goal is to prepare one healthy meal and one healthy snack each day. My goal is realistic because I already prepare regular meals and snacks daily; they just aren’t always very healthy.
- Within three months of training, I want to be walking five kilometres in an hour.
- At the nine-month mark, I want to be able to walk five kilometres in 45 minutes.
- Within one month, I want to be following a weekly menu plan that I’ve created.
Cox, R. H. (2002). Chapter 6 in Sport Psychology: Concepts and Applications (5th edition). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Duda, J. L. (1989). Goal perspectives, participation, and persistence in sports. International Journal of Sports Psychology 20(1), 42–56.
Stratten, M. (2005). Placement Learning Plan Instructions and Template. p. 3–4.
Adapted from the Physical Activity Resource Centre, February 2006.