As the year ends, many of us begin to think about our goals for the new year and beyond. Many of us will also fail to keep some of our resolutions and achieve our goals.
Do not fear, this is perfectly normal. Psychologists use several approaches to help you in changing and sustaining a new behaviour. One such approach is the use of SMART goals. SMART goals are said to be achievable because they are
- S – Specific
- M – Measurable
- A – Achievable
- R – Relevant
- T – Time-bound (or Trackable).
For example, if you don’t get any exercise and would like to improve your fitness, instead of setting “become more fit” as a goal, try to use the SMART goal of “walk 7000 steps at least 3 times a week” as your initial aim – of course it needs to be achievable considering your current level of fitness, and you can adjust it as your fitness improves.
However, no matter how SMART our goals are, some of us fail to achieve them. Part of the problem may be that we have too many different goals that end up overwhelming us, so we soon give up. Another, deeper problem may be that the goals we set do not align with our authentic values; we pursue them without questioning whether this is really what we want to do with our lives.
Indeed, one important (and sometimes ignored) aspect of SMART goal setting is “Relevance”.
Is this goal relevant to how I want to live my life? Is it aligned with my authentic values? Considering our values are also important when we have many different goals, and we need to prioritise and direct our attention to the most important ones.
How do we know if our goals are aligned with our authentic values?
Psychology Professor Steven Hayes, the creator of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) suggests that there is an important difference between goals and values. Goals are things we want to achieve. We may want to run a marathon, get married by a certain age, have 3 children, earn a certain amount of money, have a house in a certain suburb, etc.
Goals can be seen as signposts on a certain path we travel in life.
However, what is the direction of that path? The direction is given by our values. When we set goals that are consistent with our values, their purpose is meaningful to us.
Keeping our values in mind helps even when, for whatever reason, we do not achieve our goals. For example, we might say that having loving, loyal, kind relationships is an important value to us. Our goals may never materialise: maybe we won’t get married, maybe we won’t have children, either by choice or because of reasons outside of our control. But we can still have loving relationships in our lives. We can choose to act in a loving way right now with our friends or with our family of origin. We can choose to be patient and kind to the stranger who slows us down in traffic. We can live consistent with our values, irrespective of whether we meet our set goals or not.
Keeping our values in mind helps us travel the path we chose without the pressure and stress that sometimes can result from living our lives from one goal to another. It frees us from defining our lives in terms of a series of successes and failures and helps us keep the ‘big picture’ of who we want to be in mind.
Dr Marianna Szabo is a Clinical Psychologist, a leading expert in Mindfulness and a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Sydney.