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Is Your Goal Too Big?

Matthew Cuddeback, LCSW

When working in the field of mental health, we often utilize SMART goals. SMART is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Based. The reason we do this (as in many fields) is because we often have a great idea and a great goal and can’t wait to get there. However, it can be incredibly easy to get side-tracked, lose sight, or feel overwhelmed, when we have something big we want to accomplish and set a plan in motion to get there. So, along with using the SMART format, it can also be helpful to simply ask yourself if your goal is too big.

When I am working with someone in session and we are discussing goals and they say something along the lines of “My goal is to lose weight.” I see that as merely the beginning of the discussion around this specific goal. This can be a great goal, and I would never discourage a person from going after their goal, but there are two major pieces missing. First, it doesn’t meet much of the criteria for a SMART goal and second, it is big. Big and vague goals are progress killers. So, I would work with this client to start to dig. Why is this important to you? Are you hoping to lose weight because of a health issue? Is it that you want to feel better about your appearance? Let’s pinpoint the reason for wanting this and focus on it. For the sake of this example, we are going to say the client said they want to lose weight because they haven’t dated in a while and feel losing weight will give them confidence to feel more comfortable. Now we are getting somewhere. 

Now that we understand the goal is specifically about wanting to have better self-image, we can move to the clarifying of the goal by use the SMART guide. “My goal is to lose weight.” Doesn’t meet any of the SMART criteria except perhaps Relevant. So, let’s build on this. Be specific, “I want to lose weight, so I feel more confident.” Measurable? “I want to lose 20 pounds in one month.” That’s Measurable, but maybe not Attainable. How about, “I want to lose 10 pounds.” That feels more doable. The Attainable aspect of a goal is one of the areas that often sets us up for failure. Just because you want something doesn’t mean it is realistic for you within the constraints of your life. Be honest with yourself, am I actually able to achieve this with my life as it is in this moment? If no, don’t be ashamed, dial it back to something that is more reachable but still takes effort. We already have Relevance covered; it is a key aspect of how you want to feel better. Last is Time-Based. “I will lose 10 pounds by 2 months from today, so I feel more confident in my body.” 

Now this feels like a solid, achievable, realistic goal. It also feels like it has a much clearer focus. However, there is one last step that I believe often goes un-explored. This is to ask yourself, is your goal so big in its importance to you that you cannot take your eyes of off it? The reason this matters is because it can be so easy to lose hope when all your thinking about is how you are not near your goal yet. That is why sub-goals are so important. The example from above, “I will lose 10 pounds by 2 months from today, so I feel more confident in my body.” While great, can for some, be overwhelming. The thought behind it is I want to feel better. But if you are still many steps away it can feel daunting and hopeless. Break it down into smaller goals. In order to achieve this goal, I have to cook at home more, buy healthier foods, get a gym membership, plan for the best time that I am actually most likely to go to the gym. When you have these smaller goals, you draw your attention from overall where you want to be and instead that specific sub-goal. You can go today and buy healthier food options. That feels great to check that off the list, keep going, and you get noticeably closer and closer to your goal while also not feeling overwhelmed by it.

Goals help us move forward in our own development and can have a profound impact when done well. However, we have to take the time and effort to build it in a way that sets us up for success. It is ok to dial back on your goal, being unrealistic, even if well-intentioned, will set you up for failure. Examine your goals and restructure them if needed and you will be better positioned for success.

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