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Get SMART about setting goals

Question

I know that it’s important to set goals for optimal performance, but I’m not sure how to go about it. Any suggestions?

HPRC's Answer

Goal setting can be a useful tool in many arenas. Experts say that 90% of the time, setting specific and challenging goals leads to better performance than “do your best” goals or none at all. Goals can direct attention, mobilize effort, increase persistence, and help you form good strategies. Famous sports figures such as Olympian Michael Phelps have achieved great things in part by setting their sights on lofty goals (such as winning eight gold medals at an Olympics).

Writing down your goals can help you to achieve them. In addition, setting goals using a practical and standardized method (such as the one described here), can help with adherence and feelings of “I can.”

In fact, a popular goal-setting technique is to set “SMART” goals, that is, ones that meet the criteria of being:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable or Action-oriented
  • Relevant
  • Time-sensitive

SPECIFIC goals leave no room for doubt; you know exactly what the aim is. For example, maybe you want to do better in your fitness tests, but that’s a large, somewhat vague goal. Instead, break it up into more narrowly focused aims within that target such as “I want to improve my APFT run time.”

MEASURABLE Next, decide how you are going to measure whether you have met a specific goal. For instance, you may want to shave 40 seconds off your APFT two-mile run time (five seconds off each quarter mile). Achievable goals serve as great milestones because they fuel motivation to set high goals and commit to goals, through a sense of “I can do it!”

ACTION-ORIENTED. Setting action-oriented goals means paying attention to the language you use, capitalizing on a positive self-fulfilling prophecy. Rather than using words such as “I’ll try to shave 40 seconds” (you may or may not) or even “I will shave 40 seconds” (at some point in the future), say to yourself “I am shaving 40 seconds” (that is, right now).

RELEVANT. Set goals that are relevant for you. 40 seconds could be impossible if you are already in tip-top shape or not practical for now if you are in really poor condition, but it could be just right if you are reasonably fit yet with room still to improve. It will be easier to stay engaged and feel rewarded in the process when you set goals that fit what is both important and possible for you at the current time.

TIME-SENSITIVE. Last but not least, set goals that are time oriented both for your overall goal and for the important sub-goals that help you reach your larger goal.

  • Overall goal: Some improvements, especially ones related to long-term physical fitness, are dependent on individual factors, so the exact timeline is going to vary from person to person. For example, you might set a time frame to improve your run time by 40 seconds in about eight weeks, whereas your buddy might set the same goal over a 12-week time frame.  Quantifying a time frame for the process can allow you to set a realistic schedule around your desired performance goals.
  • Sub-goals: Both performance goals and process goals can serve as sub-goals that function as benchmarks for monitoring progress toward your larger goals. Performance goals, such as shaving five seconds per week, allow you to compare your own performances between past and present rather than focus on your rank compared to others. Process goals are the important steps you can take to accomplish your desired performance; they can be a bit more subjective but can still be quantified. For example, you might say, “I am going to stick to my training schedule over the next two weeks, running at the designated time each day and following through with recovery, with only one day that I can reschedule (unless something big pops up).” By breaking down a larger goal into specific, smaller goals that can be accomplished at a time in the near future, you are more likely to sensibly move towards that larger goal step by step.

Just one word of caution with SMART goals: Do not let them stifle innovation! Setting your goals too rigidly could work to keep you “in the box” rather than allowing you to take the risks required for big new ideas to develop.

The examples here are about achieving optimal physical performance, but these tips will help you set SMART-er goals across all your pursuits! HPRC has a postcard and a worksheet you can download, print, and use to help set your own SMART goals.

For more information on enhancing your mental performance to achieve total fitness, check out the rest of HPRC’s Mind Tactics section.