Every course I have been on has told me I need to use SMART goals. Every fitness professional I come across talks about goal setting in some form or another. And yet, I have never been able to get fully on board with systematic goal setting.
I completely understand the need for goals in general; they give us direction, purpose, and a sense of achievement. I'm never going to tell anyone not to set goals, but as someone who thrives off not having specific long-term goals, I'm also never going to tell anyone they need to identify specific, measurable goals to work towards.
If you're new to SMART goals, they refer to goals that are:
- and Time-bound (or any word beginning with T that means you are supposed to achieve this goal in a specified time-frame - I've seen a number of different variations)
On paper, this all sounds great. Obviously your goal needs to be realistic, and achievable, otherwise what's the point... although, some people advocate for the setting of a BHAG: a "Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal" which you then divide into stepping-stone goals on the path to what could be considered an unrealistic goal, the idea being that even if you fall short of your BHAG, you're possibly a lot further along the path than if you had stuck to more modest goals.
As always, I believe there's a middle ground, and that maybe that's where we could orient ourselves. Identifying small, achievable goals runs the risk of us underestimating our actual capacities; setting a BHAG could be far too overwhelming, and the smaller milestones could seem pointless. How do you define the middle ground? Frankly, I don't know - that's why I don't set goals!
It also sounds pretty obvious that a goal should be specific - otherwise, how do you know what direction to go in? It would be like setting your SatNav to take you to a city, but not to the specific address you're actually trying to get to. But then again... haven't we all been tourists in a city, maybe with a specific location to stay at or visit, but generally happy to park up wherever we find a spot, and then meander around and take it in? And I hope we have all had the experience of changing out plans when we stumble upon a restaurant that looks better than the one we had set out to find, or a series of side-roads more interesting than the museum we had on our list. That's the beauty of not setting a specific goal, sometimes.
Again, I can't argue that if you can't measure your goal or progress towards it, you don't know when you have reached it. And again, I can see how that could be problematic in many circumstances... but also, for most of us who aren't aiming for peak performance at one-off events in our lifetimes, don't we just want to keep going and going, getting better and better? I know the idea is to set a measurable goal, get to it, then set the next goal... but if we already know we're going to do that, why can't we just say that the goal is to keep trying to progress week after week, month after month, year after year? Why must we sit and identify SMART goals in order for our process to be valid?
Similarly, does a goal have to be achieved in a specific time-frame to be motivating? I understand that without the time-frame, we run the risk of constantly putting off starting the process. But if we find ourselves doing that, maybe we aren't actually committed to our goals, and need to rethink the nature of the goals themselves?
It will take some unpacking of long-held beliefs to renounce goal-setting. My simple solution is to just do the things we love, and then we will want to do them day after day, but our lives aren't currently set up that way: we are expected to give the majority of our time and energy to our jobs, maybe some to our families and social lives, and although in theory we are all supposed to be on a constant journey of self-improvement, we're not rewarded for actually spending much time on it. So exercise and other hobbies are forced into a tiny window, when we are already exhausted physically and/or mentally, and we need a reason to do them.
This attitude has become self-perpetuating: we need to justify the time and effort we spend on our self-development, so we need definable outcomes. We demand those outcomes and guarantees from our coaches and teachers, so they derive their worth from those measurable outcomes. They then reinforce the need for specific, measurable outcomes so that they can prove how much impact they have had (although nobody talks about the fact that there is no control group, so you can't know that you wouldn't have made that progress without the coach's help).
I can't give you a recipe for the alternative. I've been doing it for years... but frankly, I don't know how. Mostly, I built a habit around the things that made me feel good at a certain time (i.e. training, in my late teens), and then I just started doing them over and over again because I'd always done them. In some ways, this has been good and admirable - I think many would have envied my discipline and possibly even my fitness or strength or physique - but in other ways, it lacked flexibility and my life was trapped within the confines of this habit. Over time, I learnt more about myself, and about what makes me thrive as a person - yes, I need movement, yes, I value being in shape, but I also need my sleep and my friends, and I value music and art and culture, and I don't want to look back on any phase of my life and only remember my gym routines.
The nature of balance is that it requires constant micro-adjustment. If one side of the scales gets tipped slightly, you need to add some weight to the other side of the scales. Clinging to SMART goals doesn't make the recalibration particularly easy, and these days I value a balanced life more than I value being able to do a particular skill or hit a particular benchmark. But that might not always be the case: there may be a time when, for one reason or another, I genuinely need to achieve a certain thing at a certain time. If and when that happens, I'll report back.
In the meantime, I would love to hear more people's views on goal-setting, and the strategies (or non-strategies, in my case) that have and haven't worked for you. We are all so different in so many ways, and therein lies the beauty of being a coach!