posted in: ACT, CBT | 0

Following on from my last post, here’s a look at how to set goals. Goals are useful for everybody, and they needn’t be big goals such as publish a book, buy a bigger house, lose 5 stone or become a millionaire. Sure, these might be goals, but are they enough to keep us going? No, probably not, because the reward comes a long time down the line if at all, and can lead to feelings of failure or despondence as time goes on.

Take Brenda, a thirty-something woman who wants to lose weight. Brenda’s weight has fluctuated over the last 10 years or so, and she tends to yo-yo diet. Her weight has now risen to the point it is affecting her life, she is unhappy, has low self-confidence and anxiety. She wants to lose 5 stone to get back to where she was just after college when she was happy with her weight.

She started off well (again) on her weight loss journey, but after a few weeks her weight loss plateaued. (This happens with weight loss for several reasons.) One week she lost 1 pound which crushed her confidence as she felt so far removed from her 5 stone goal. She got disheartened, felt very low and reverted back to previous habit of eating to make herself feel better. Lo and behold she put on weight the following week and her goal seemed impossible. She gave up, and the weight piled back on.

What Brenda didn’t take into account was the amazing results she had already accomplished. She had put in a great effort and it had paid off. But because her goal was to lose 5 stone and not 1, she only saw herself as a failure. In her mind she went from being unhappy, to being a failure which contributed to more unhappiness.

Where Brenda had gone wrong was that her initial goal, while a good goal, could have been broken down into smaller steps. No one is going to lose 5 stone in a short space of time. Realistically 2 pounds a week is good, so what we could do with Brenda is a give an initial goal of 7 pounds and a realistic time frame to do it in. Then we work on the next 7 pounds. And then another. That way after her 1 stone loss, she would have accomplished two goals, two successes/triumphs on her way to her main goal. Unhappy to Success to feeling slightly happier (more motivation) to more success.

To help set a good goal, we use the acronym SMART. A SMART goal is:

S – Specific. Be specific about what you want to achieve. I want to lose weight isn’t specific. I want to lose 7 pounds is.
M – Measurable. Having a way of measuring your success is motivational. If after 6 pounds Brenda thought she hadn’t lost any weight because she threw out the scales, she may not be motivated to carry on, but knowing you’ve lost 6 pounds and only having 1 pound to go can help with the next push.
A – Achievable. In order to lose weight, Brenda tried to eat healthier, the trouble was she was still making poor food choices so was consuming too many calories AND was still hungry. What’s more, she was missing some vital nutrients in her diet which contributed to her feeling tired. Brenda had made a good choice in exercising more, making sure she got out for a daily walk, but for her goal to be achievable, she needed better education around her diet and food choices. She doesn’t need to gain a degree in nutrition before she starts, but knowing you can learn more, and how you can learn more, will help make the goal achievable.
R – Relevant. Is this goal relevant to me? Brenda’s goal to lose 7 pounds is relevant to her goal to lose 5 stone, which is also relevant to her feeling better, more confident, happy and healthy. An initial goal to gain a degree in nutrition before changing your diet might be related, but it would not be relevant.
T – Time-Bound. When am I looking to achieve my goal by? If Brenda gives herself two years to lose those first 7 pounds, she won’t be very motivated to make a start. Likewise if she gives herself two weeks, she will be despondent when she doesn’t achieve her goal. So setting a realistic time frame will help motivate her.

How do you go about setting a goal? Do you use an app? A template? scrap of paper? Diary? It really doesn’t matter, but it goes without saying, don’t download an app if your goal is to spend less time on your phone. There are online templates you can download and print, but you might find it easier to write it out in a notepad, diary or journal you can refer back to easily and that won’t get thrown out with the recycling.

Brenda of course is not alone in her struggles. If we want to lose 7 pounds, why isn’t it easy just to lose 7 pounds? Because everything we experience is filtered through our cognitive processor (Brain) and our brain is hardwired for negativity (for good reason – survival). No matter what the goal, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) can help with the setting of and achievement of goals. We often lie to ourselves about being a failure, or telling ourselves that something is impossible, you can’t do it or, it will be too hard. Common thinking errors such as discounting positives, comparing, black and white thinking, labelling, mental filtering and emotional reasoning can all be motivation destroyers. Understanding our thoughts around what we want for the future and weighing up short-term costs against long-term gains can also help if you’re struggling for motivation and willpower, helping to make our goals more achievable. Other integrated therapies like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) can also help you identify what is important to you to help set a relevant goal as well as accepting the tough times for what they are.

So why not set a goal or goals today. Whether it’s to write a list of characters for your first book, set up a savings account, tighten the purse strings, read a chapter, learn a foreign phrase, lose a stone or gain a skill. Be SMART!