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Are SMART goals really the key to goal-setting success?

Setting and achieving goals can improve our wellbeing, but how do we make them stick? SMART goals are often recommended, but are they always the best option?

Key points

  • SMART goals, which stand for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound, can be a great way to start creating a sense of positive achievement, which is important for our wellbeing.
  • SMART goals are a fantastic tool, but they can also lead to two possible outcomes: success or failure.
  • In some situations, an open-ended goal might be a better approach than a SMART goal.

 

Whether it’s learning how to cook a new cuisine, saving for a house or retirement, or exercising more, plans and goals can help us focus on what’s important and move ahead in our lives.

And it’s not just about the “thing” that we’ve set as our aim. When we’re working towards or meeting our goals, the sense of achievement we feel can transform our entire sense of wellbeing.

The Australian Unity Wellbeing Index, which has tracked the wellbeing of Australians for more than 20 years in partnership with Deakin University, shows that having a sense of purpose is crucial to our wellbeing. Described as “achieving in life”, it forms part of the “golden triangle of happiness”, along with relationships and our finances.

What happens, though, when you’re struggling in this area? Perhaps you feel like you’re failing to achieve any of your goals. Or maybe you’ve put the idea of achieving anything worthwhile in the “too-hard” basket.

Have you tried SMART goals?
Ruby Wolinska, MindStep Coach for Remedy Healthcare, Australian Unity’s healthcare division, says SMART goals can be a good starting point to help people set goals and stay the course.

“A SMART goal is a very structured type of goal-setting. The word SMART is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. So, when we’re setting a SMART goal, we want to make sure that we’re adhering to each of those.”

Let’s think about it in terms of that vague but important goal shared by many people—to feel a bit happier.

Ruby says that while this is a fantastic goal, we need to make it more specific. “Think exactly what you want to accomplish, who needs to be included in that process, and why you want to do this.”

Perhaps your level of fitness is something that’s getting you down and you’re lacking “me” time. You might decide some regular time walking in nature might help make you feel happier—that becomes the specific aim.

Now you need to make it measurable. “I want to go walking for 45 minutes, three times a week” is a goal that can be measured. It’s also something that might tick off the next requirement of being achievable. If you set a goal to walk every day and you’re finding you can’t fit it in, perhaps you’d have to reconsider whether your goal is achievable.

Finally, you need to make sure your goals are relevant—that is, aligned with your overall objectives—and time-bound. You can make goals time-bound by setting a deadline or schedule.

Alex Kingsmill, Director of Upstairs Coaching, agrees that SMART goals can be a great way to start striving for the sense of positive achievement that is central to sustaining our overall wellbeing.

“A SMART goal is a way to focus your attention and to make your goals and what you’re striving for intentional and I think, in that sense, it’s a really positive tool.”

However, both Alex and Ruby emphasise that supplementary or alternative approaches to goal-setting may be more useful in some situations.

 

Other goal-setting approaches for success
In her work as an evidence-based life and career coach for women, Alex says there are two key challenges around SMART goal-setting.

“First, a SMART goal might tick all the boxes, but it won’t matter to you if it doesn’t fit with your values or connect to your greater sense of purpose or meaning,” Alex says.

“That’s one of the things that I think matters. And the way I would approach that is by having a conversation with clients about what matters to them, what do they really want in life, and what it is that’s going to get them there.”

By doing this groundwork, you can be sure that what you’re working towards is intrinsically connected to your deeper values and goals.

The second challenge is staying motivated. While there is a time element embedded in the SMART goal approach, “it doesn’t necessarily keep you on track or encourage you to return to your goals and keep tracking them,” says Alex.

When working with clients on SMART goals, Alex recommends a feedback mechanism. “It can be fancy, such as using an app, or a simple approach like using a sticker or stamp on a poster. You just need some way to keep tracking your progress.”

An open-ended approach
The problem with SMART goals is that there are two outcomes: success or failure. Ruby says this can be limiting in some circumstances:

“Let’s say you’ve set a SMART goal around achieving 10,000 steps of walking every day. Maybe you only achieved 9,000 steps for the day because you’re feeling a bit under the weather. Straight away, achieving 90 percent of your goal for the day falls in the failure category.”

A better approach might be to have an open-ended goal to encourage a sense of enjoyment and exploration, she says. Having a goal to discover how high you can get your daily step count by the end of the year can help you enjoy the journey towards better fitness—and who knows where you might end up? Perhaps you’ll far exceed 10,000 steps a day—something you might not have achieved if you had a more specific goal.

 

Goal-setting: just get started
When it comes to setting goals, it’s important not to overcomplicate things, says Alex. “Goal striving isn’t rocket science, but people tend to build it up. We all have goals. Getting out of bed and brushing your teeth is a goal, even if you don’t think of it as that way.”

Bigger goals can help us flourish in the world and strengthen our mental health, she says. And one of the best ways to start tackling these bigger goals is by taking SMART goals and other ideas around goal-setting, deciding on the best approach for you, and then writing down your goals.

A final word from Alex: “Any approach that’s going to help you be more intentional with your goals and keep you focused is going to be very worthwhile.”


Disclaimer: Information provided in this article is of a general nature. Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this publication. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest.

Remedy Healthcare Group Pty Limited and Australian Unity Health Limited are wholly owned subsidiaries of Australian Unity Limited. An Australian Unity health partner, Remedy Healthcare provides targeted, solution-oriented healthcare that is based on clinically proven techniques. For more than 10 years, Remedy Healthcare has worked with more than 100,000 Australians – helping them to manage their health through caring, coaching, empowerment and support.

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