"A goal without a plan is just a wish." -Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
A new year has just started and like many people, you may have set a few goals for yourself. Maybe your goals sound something like this:
- Lose weight
- Find a better job
- Expand my circle of friends
- Start running again
- Have more fun
- Meditate regularly
Although all these are great things to work towards and could really improve your life, you’re not highly likely to follow through with it unless you take a few more steps when setting your goal and planning how to achieve it. Two useful techniques include SMART goal setting and making Implementation Intentions when setting your goals.
When you set goals, it is extremely helpful if they are: Specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time bound (that’s what the acronym SMART stands for). If goals are SMART, you are more likely to follow through because they are concrete and well thought out.
Let’s take the goal “Lose weight” as an example. This is a goal that’s hard to follow through on because it is not SPECIFIC enough (among other reasons we’ll touch upon shortly). To make it more specific, make sure your goal specifies who will do it, where will it done, when will you work on it, and possibly also why you want to do it (more on the WHY in the bonus tips, below). You will need to make some decisions when making your goal more specific. So it’s important to specify, How much weight do you actually want to lose? Will you be happy with 1kg weight loss? Or are you looking to lose 10?
Next, it’s important to make your goal MEASURABLE. For weight this is easy, as it can be measured in kg’s (or pounds). You’d also need to specify when and where you will measure your progress, and where you’ll record it. Will you weigh yourself daily? Weekly? Monthly? Will you record your weight? And if so, where?
It’s also important for you to consider if your goal is ACHIEVABLE. Let’s say your goal is to lose 12 kg in the next 4 months. You know that in order to do that, you’d need to make some serious changes to your diet and exercise at least three days per week for one hour each time. You also know that you have health issues so need your dietary changes to be monitored by a nutritionist during weekly appointments, have a full time job with very limited time after work hours and three kids who are picky eaters and will only eat specific foods. You could consider from the start giving yourself a little more time. For example, take 6 or even 8 months to reach your 12 kg weight loss goal. Or, you could consider making other changes in your life that will make your goal more achievable for you. Could you get someone else help you with cooking for your kids? Could you prepare meals for the day in the evening before and bring them with you to work? Could you ask for time off work to go to your weekly appointments with your nutritionist?
It sounds obvious that your goals should be RELEVANT for you. However, pause for a moment and consider if what you’re asking yourself to do is the right thing for you. For example, if you would like to lose weight for your wedding, this is quite different than if you want to lose weight for to be able to go on a beach holiday and feel comfortable, or if you want to be able to get your diabetes under control.
So, having considered all of these criteria, here is an example of a SMART goal:
I will lose 8 kg’s by June so I can look good in my wedding dress by eating 300 grams of vegetables every day, tracking my carb intake and eliminating sugar from my diet. I will weigh myself one per week on Monday morning with my bathroom scale and record my weight in a weight loss app.
Implementation intentions are short plans for that describe HOW you will put your intention to pursue your goal into action. The concept was introduced by psychologist Peter Gollwitzer (1999)  and has been backed by ample scientific evidence . To set implementation intentions with your goal you need to answer the questions WHAT you will DO and under what CONDITIONS. In other words, “If situation… arises, I will do….”.
If we take our example above, your goal includes eating 300 grams of vegetables per day. You could set the following implementation intentions, to help make your goal a reality:
- Every morning after I’ve had my coffee, I’ll cut and put aside vegetables for my lunch salad.
- During lunchtime on workdays, I’ll eat a green salad every day which I will prepare myself in advance.
- During dinner on weeknights, I’ll eat steamed vegetables every day next to my protein.
- During my afternoon break from work, I’ll snack on cherry tomatoes, cucumbers or bell peppers which I’ll have ready in my fridge.
- On Saturday afternoons after coming back from the gym, I’ll go to the supermarket to buy enough vegetables for the week.
- Make your goal FUN – if you want to become more fit but hate running, why not try cycling, boxing, or swimming. Pick something you enjoy, or you won’t stick to it.
- Find your WHY, always – As mentioned before, it’s important that you establish the relevance of your goal for you. However, sometimes this is a bit hard, when the goal is coming due to an external reason. But even if the reason you set the goal is, for example, money, specify what will you do with that money and how it will make you feel. For example, I want to make 10,000 euros more this year than I made last year so I can take a long vacation next year and be able to relax in the sun with my loved ones. Then, when the going gets tough and you’re at risk of giving up on your goal, you can remind yourself of the meaning the goal has for you to give yourself an extra boost of motivation.
- Find the way to make yourself ACCOUNTABLE- usually people keep themselves accountable with the help of others. Some examples include a running partner or a weight loss group. However, if you prefer to go solo, you could keep a progress diary, in which you write at a pre-determined time on a regular basis (for example, every week on Friday afternoon) in which you keep track of the progress you made. Apps and fitness devices like watches are also great tools to keep you accountable without having to involve others.
- Plan WHAT TO DO IF YOU GET OFF COURSE – Even if in general you do very well and stick to your goal, you may have some days or weeks that you just didn’t make it. Decide in advance what will you do to get back on track. For example, what will you do first when you restart working towards your goal? What will be the very first step you’ll take?
- CELEBRATE SMALL ACHIEVEMENTS- To make the way towards your goal more enjoyable, find a way to celebrate also the small achievements along the way. For example, buy new clothing when you start seeing some weight come off, or treat yourself to a beauty treatment at the salon.
 Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: strong effects of simple plans. American psychologist, 54(7), 493.
 Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Implementation intentions and goal achievement: A meta‐analysis of effects and processes. Advances in experimental social psychology, 38, 69-119.