So, you’ve decided to start changing your life. You want to lose 10 pounds, you want to run a half-marathon, you want to get a master’s degree, or you want to move to another city. Either way, you have a goal of something you’d like to accomplish sooner rather than later.
Clients usually come to counseling with a goal in mind of something they would like to accomplish or see change at the end of their treatment. We could just go all Freud-style on them and just let them ramble on for months at a time with no real emphasis in one direction or another, but that’s not really ethical. It’s also not consistent with people’s pocketbooks. We want you in and out in as few sessions as possible because we want you to go on living your life!
This is why we create S.M.A.R.T. goals. I posted this picture in Monday’s post, so that’s why it may seem familiar.
So, in the first example, if I get a client who wants to work on their depression, I get an idea of what their depression looks like. My depression and your depression may not be the same thing. I do this because I want to understand the first part of the client’s goal for lessening depression.
- Specific – I make the goal with the client very specific. If they say their depression is defined by lots of crying, listening to sad music, and spending days on the couch, then I tackle those symptoms first. We agree we’re going to set a goal that decreases these symptoms and has the client feeling happier. Instead of just saying, “Be depressed less,” as a goal, we choose, “Decrease symptoms of crying, listening to sad music, and couch surfing for overall mood improvement”. We will know this goal was achieved because the client decides that a week without crying would be a sign that they are getting better. That’s a goal.
Now, that can still be ambiguous. How will be know the client is getting better? We often choose interventions like a mood journal so the client can keep track of how often they feel depressed. Or we measure how often the client does things that indicate he/she is depressed.
- Measurable – The goal can be measured for improvement. There has to be a way we both know that what we’re doing in-session is working. Whether it’s journaling, secondhand report (like from a spouse), or some other intervention, we have to know that we are making progress. We set markers to indicate as such. A week without crying is measurable.
The next one is the kicker. If I get a client that is morbidly obese who comes into my office and tells me they want to lose 100 pounds in 2 weeks, I have to assess how realistic the client’s goals are. If they say they want to lose 100 pounds in a year, then that’s something I can work with.
- Attainable – you aren’t going to be the President of the U.S.A. by January 2013 and you’re certainly not going to lose 50 pounds a week. Your goal has to be something reasonable that we can work toward. It’s unlikely that a person with severe social anxiety hoping to find a partner will do so in 2 weeks. It might happen in 5 months. We have to make sure that it’s something you can do before we set a goal to achieve it.
- Relevant – Is this goal going to work on your presenting problem? So if you want to run a marathon, will a goal of swimming laps 3 times a week achieve that goal for you? Sure, it might help, but it’s definitely not going to train you for the ultimate goal. Your interventions and steps have to correlate with your overall goal.
The one I find to be the most important and the one I also look at when I set goals in my own life, is the final piece of the S.M.A.R.T. puzzle. When I decided to train for a half-marathon, I knew I had to buy my entry into the race and set a date to race.
- Time-Bound – There has to be an end in sight. Even with marriage, the goal is set from the beginning – “Til death do us part”. With my half-marathon, it was 5 months or so. I had to know when my goal was ending so I could prepare to achieve it. Especially when it comes to goals that are hard to work on, the time element is a life-saver. You remember your old self wanting change badly. You remember the optimism you had when you set your goal date. You force yourself to keep striving. If you never know when your goal has come to fruition, had do you know when to push yourself?
I’m sure some of this may seem obvious to a lot of you. Maybe not. Being in a profession where I help people achieve goals daily, I exercise my knowledge of S.M.A.R.T. pretty often and has influenced my life positively. I don’t say to myself anymore, “One day I will do…,” I say, “By the time I move to Seattle, I will have done X.” I make my goals tangible.
So if you’re struggling with something you want to accomplish and you don’t know where to start, try a S.M.A.R.T. goal plan. I’m willing to bet if you follow the format, the only thing that will be stopping you from achieving your goal is you. Maybe that’s the place you need to start.