The Path to Big Achievements Is Paved with SMART Goals

Sep 19, 2022
SMART goals

It can feel really frustrating or defeating to fail to reach your goals. Sadly, this is something we’ve all run into at one point or another. Behavior change is hard…especially if you don’t have the right skills and know how. Fortunately, there are some strategies you can use to maximize your chances of successfully reaching your goals, even the really lofty ones!


Start by Setting SMART Goals

One of the biggest reasons people miss their mark is that they set themselves up to fail before they even start. It's all about the goals you actually set. They need to be smart.

SMART goals are specifically formatted goals that make it really clear where your target is and how you’re going to hit it. They essentially lay out a clear path to success.

Contrast these goals and see which ones seem more doable.

 - I’m going to get fit.  Vs. I’m going to walk for 30 minutes 4 days a week for the next 2 months.

 - I’m going to learn Spanish.  Vs. I am going to practice Spanish with Duolingo (a free app) for 15 minutes a day before I watch TV at night.

 - I won't yell at my kids anymore.  Vs. I’m going to take a deep breath when I feel myself starting to get irritated.

The first goal in each set is often what people set out to accomplish…and don’t. They are too vague or too lofty. SMART goals, on the other hand are:

S = Specific. Specific goals are clear. They are specific and detailed about what you are going to do as well as when and where you are going to do it.

M = Measurable. Lofty goals like getting in shape, making more money, or being happier sound great in theory, but how do you know when you’ve reached them? How do you know if you're even on the right track? Set a goal that can be defined and measures. Measurable goals are not only more reachable, but there’s a motivation boost that happens when you see clear progress. 

A = Attainable. Of course, you won’t reach your goal if it's not actually attainable, either in general (e.g., I’ll never be anxious is not a SMART goal because it’s not humanly possible) or for you (e.g., I’ll learn to drive a race car is not feasible for me no matter how specific or measurable I get with it because of my visual impairment that prevents me from driving.)

R = Relevant. If the goal doesn’t actually matter to you, it’s not relevant. We often half-heartedly pursue goals because we think we should, feel pressured to, or out of a sense of obligation. Tie the goal to your values or find a way to make it worthwhile.

T = Time bound. Set a time frame for your goal, either how long you’re going to do whatever or a deadline for when you will reach it. It’s too easy to procrastinate on things that we want to happen at some vague point in the future.


Strategies for Boosting Motivation

With a SMART goal in front of you, you’re already more likely to succeed. Here are a few additional strategies to help even more.


1. Track your progress.

Self-monitoring means formally keeping track of some aspect of your behavior, and it’s a powerful tool! The simple act of monitoring a behavior changes it, so using this tool naturally enhances your chances of success. For example, if you know you’re going to log each time you yell at your kids, you may be more likely to take that deep breath and respond more calmly. If you cross off days on the calendar when you go for a walk, you may be more likely to get outside to keep your streak going.

Tracking can be incredibly helpful, but it does take some commitment and effort. Find a way to make it easy for you because the faster and easier it is to track, the more likely you are to do it. If you’re techie, use a habit tracker app (there are tons of free ones). If you’re more old school, use a bullet journal or notebook, create a tracking worksheet, or mark it on a calendar. If you’re visual and it fits with your SMART goal, put a marble in a jar each time you do your target behavior. Whatever you do, find a way to keep track of your progress.


2. Accountability.

It’s so easy to give into our mind’s excuses and let ourselves off the hook, especially when it comes to doing things that take effort or energy or things that are hard or uncomfortable. Sharing your goal with someone else can increase a sense of pressure, which translates to higher motivation, to follow through with it. An accountability buddy can also provide some encouragement when you’re losing steam.


3. Connect with your why.

Goals clearly tied to your deeply held values are going to be more meaningful and important to you. If you can find a way to up the “worth it factor,” you’ll find more motivation to move forward, especially when it gets tough.

A quick and easy way to harness the power of your why is called a Values Write. To do it, set a timer for 5 minutes and write about why it truly matters to you to reach this goal. Some research shows that this little intervention made a noticeable positive impact on behavior for months afterwards. That's a great return on investment!


4. Make it worth your while with contingency management.

When internal motivation is lacking, for whatever reason, using extrinsic rewards can help. Extrinsic rewards are external things that we find reinforcing or desirable. Think of it like using dessert to “bribe” your kids to eat their vegetables (you say “bribe,” I say “reinforcing desired behaviors”). Set up a reward for yourself to help motivate you to reach your goal. You could do this by using the veggies/dessert set up (that’s called the Premack principle, do the undesired thing first, then you can do the desired thing), or let yourself earn something you really want when you accomplish your SMART goal.

You can also use some sort of consequence to help boost your motivation. While I prefer rewards over consequences, sometimes the stick is more effective than the carrot. Set up a “Do this or else” kind of plan. Perhaps you have to make a donation to a charity or organization you HATE (it has to be one that makes your skin crawl so you’ll be motivated to avoid it), do an activity you despise (e.g., cleaning the gutters or dusting or, in my case, listening to Hootie and the Blowfish), or make something you do like off limits (e.g, no TV or Instagram for a period of time).

You could also get social by making bets or deals with someone else who is either involved in the same goal or helping hold you accountable. For example, you could make a deal that if you reach your SMART goal, your best friend will make you that amazing recipe you love so much. Or, you could make a wager that whoever reaches the goal first wins some money. Get creative here and have some fun with rewards and consequences.

Armed with SMART goals and motivation-boosting tricks, you might be surprised just how far you go! 


"A goal properly set is halfway reached."
 - Zig Ziglar


Written by Dr. Ashley Smith

Peak Mind Co-founder

Build psychological strength right from your inbox!

Get actionable information and tools to build psychological strength at home and at work.

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.

Recent Posts

Peak Mind Pro: The Fundamental Attribution Error

Sep 20, 2023

The Social Experiment to Feel More Connected

Sep 19, 2023

When Help Isn't So Helpful: How to Really Show Up for People

Sep 10, 2023

Back to Podcast & Blog