We have learnt many things from the science of behaviour change but one of the most consistent findings is possibly also one of the most useful, and it’s something that any of us can use. It’s the principle of being SMART. Making our goals SMART has been shown to lead to greater levels of success and consistency. It helps us implement and sustain change. So how does it work?
Be very specific about your goal. If we are too broad (e.g. “I want to eat healthier”) it doesn’t help us know where or how to start. We have greater success when we are specific (e.g. “I will increase the amount of vegetables I eat at every meal”). Being this clear helps you plan more carefully (e.g. buy more vegetables, plan meals that include more vegetables). You can be specific about what will be done, where it will be done and who will be involved – this can be an opportunity to involve friends or family, bringing in support, accountability and sometimes even an element of fun and comradery!
Making the goals measurable is really important, otherwise how will you know you are making progress? Setting milestones to work towards, or points of reflection can also be really and motivating. For example, setting a milestone to include extra vegetables at every meal for one month. At one month you can re-evaluate, consider how easy that was, or decide if you want more change – for example, by adding in a piece of fruit as a mid-morning snack every day.
Some people find it helpful to have a visual way of measuring their progress – marking in your journal each day that you have meditated or creating a ‘streak’ of meditations on an App may help you achieve your goals of 10 days of meditation.
A common mistake in changing habits and behaviour is setting unrealistic and unachievable goals. Before you begin, consider if this is the right time to be making this specific change? Do you have the support and resources (physical and emotional) that you need? The goals should be achievable with the resources you have available to you.
That’s not to say the goal shouldn’t challenge you or stretch you in some way – otherwise, is it really going to have any impact? It may be that there are preparatory steps you need to take first. For example, it may not be achievable to go plant-based overnight, but there are achievable steps that can be taken towards that end goal – like learning to make cashew cheese, or switching to plant-based milk.
We can of course do things to make our goals easier to complete – integrating new habits into our lives in a way that makes them become a new habit is quite simple. For example, mindful breathing as the kettle boils or taking your vitamin D supplement with your breakfast make it part of a daily routine which over time becomes automatic.
If a goal is not aligned with our values, or our broad objectives then we simply won’t be as motivated. We are less likely to commit, and it will be harder to stay motivated. It is important to take time to consider and reflect upon why the goal is important to you and how it will contribute to your longer-term goals.
Similarly don’t choose goals that you don’t connect to you – if you love the outdoors then making exercising outdoors part of your routine or goal is going to be more appealing than going to a gym.
It can also help to talk to others who share similar values or who may have experiences you can draw on – this can help us remain confident that our goals are worthwhile and stick with it when our motivation may wane. Joining an OMS Circle, and talking to other people who are in a similar position can be really helpful for this.
Finally, making our goals time based-is really important. It doesn’t just keep us focussed on what we are trying to achieve, having an ‘end-date’ or time frame helps to prioritize and can motivate us. If we find we haven’t achieved what we want in that time frame, it may be important to reflect on why. Was the goal unrealistic? Or perhaps the time frame was too short- or too long? Perhaps we weren’t ready to work towards that specific goal. Importantly we should set a clear beginning and date to review progress, and our goals should be specific in their time frame.
It’s less helpful to say, “I will aim to be dairy-free in the next few years” than to say “I will eat dairy free for 30 days”. Committing to a event, such as a sponsored walk is a good way to remain motivated and provides a date to work towards – with the added bonus of a sense of community and contribution!
SMART goals really do help us to achieve successful behaviour change. And what’s really powerful is that once we start to implement small SMART goals and we have success, this helps us to feel more in control of our behaviour and our life. Research has shown that setting goals and working towards them using strategies like this contributes to a greater sense of autonomy, and this in turn leads to increased motivation and success.
So - when we are faced with the challenge of making significant changes to our habits and behaviour, breaking that down into specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-based goals that are aligned with our values is a SMART thing to do.