People who are depressed often hear advice from their family and peers such as “go do something active – like jogging”, “do meditation”, or “spend some more time with friends”.

Although these recommendations seem like simple and reasonable advice, what is not recognized is how much of a hurdle these suggestions can become when depression is a part of the picture. For many, depression can even make getting out of bed a mountain of a task.

When people are depressed, they often experience both anhedonia (loss of pleasure in things they used to enjoy) and amotivation (loss of motivation). This reduces the positive reinforcement they get from engaging in activities, which is already hard enough to do from the loss in motivation. Unfortunately, this creates a very vicious cycle because the lack of motivation makes it hard for a person do anything, which further reduces motivation and reinforcement.

Consequently, the well-intentioned advice of friends, family, and even some mental health professionals can end up being somewhat invalidating when a person who is depressed feels that they should be able to do something because of how easy others make it sound even though depression makes it feel like the 12 Labours of Hercules.  

A SMART Approach to Goal Setting

For people struggling with depression and getting started to move towards where they want to be, SMART goal-setting can be a great way to generate momentum and success at a pace that works well for them.

SMART goals are: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-Sensitive). Let’s go into each of these components that make SMART goals so smart.

S – Specific. SMART goals are specific, meaning that they clearly outline what you need to do to achieve the goal. Although a goal like “I want to be more physically active” is a fantastic goal, it can certainly be made more specific. What type of physical activity would you want to engage in? How often? These are questions that you can ask to make a goal more specific.

M – Measurable. The way that I view measurable is that you can evaluate something before and after completing your goal. For example, you might measure your mood on a scale between 1 and 10 before and after spending time with a friend. Measurable goals allow us to know whether engaging in an activity was helpful in moving us towards where we want to be (in this case, our mood levels).

A – Achievable. We want to make sure that our goal is achievable based on where we currently are in our own journey. As we talked about earlier, for some people even getting up in the morning might be challenging in its own right. When we are engaging in SMART goal setting, it’s important to start with a task that is well-tailored to the unique individual.

R – Relevant. The activity you choose should be consistent with your overall goal. For example, spending 30 minutes reading everyday would be a great activity if your goal is to learn more, but perhaps less relevant if your goal is to be more physically active.

T – Time-Sensitive. Finally, we want to put a timer on our goals so they don’t end up in the back burner forever! An example might be: cleaning up the house for at least 5 minutes over the next 24 hours.

smart doggo
If I practice SMART goals enough, I might one day be as smart as this dog
Photo by charlesdeluvio on Unsplash

Making SMART Goals Smart

As we discussed, there are some goals that are great as regular goals but don’t fit well into SMART goals. Here are a couple examples:

Goal 1: I want to enjoy life more.

Critique for Goal 1: This is a fantastic general goal. However, the goal is somewhat vague and may be different for each person. 50 people might give 50 different responses for what an enjoyable life looks like. A few questions that are important to know is: what does “enjoying life” look like for you? What would you be doing more/less of? How often would you be engaging in these activities? In this case, a SMART goal might be :“My idea of an enjoyable life is an active social life. SMART Goal: I am going to call up my best friend and have lunch with them at least once this week”.

Goal 2. I am going to run a marathon next month.

Critique for Goal 2: Unlikely Goal 1, this goal is much more specific and time-sensitive. However, let’s say this person is still in the middle of a depressive episode and has not had time to train up his endurance to properly support this goal. In this case, the goal may be somewhat less realistic – at least in the present moment. To support his long-term success, a more realistic goal might be “I am going to jog for 15 minutes around my neighbourhood at least 3 times this week”.  

Example of SMART goal

Setting yourself up for success

As a clinician, I believe that the specific goals should always come from the patients. For myself, I think of my goal as to navigate potential barriers to achieving the goal in order to set the patient up for success. Here’s a few specific suggestions that may be helpful to set yourself up for success as you begin your SMART Goal journey.

1. Start small. Small things add up to big things. And successfully succeeding in small goals gives us the confidence and momentum to take on bigger and bigger challenges! When setting SMART goals, pick something that is reasonably challenging but that you feel like you can take on.

2. Be as specific as possible. It’s easy to procrastinate when we leave things ambiguous or unclear. To combat this, be as specific as possible on how you are going to go about your task. For example, if the goal is to set up a lunch with a friend, you might jot down what time you are going to call, which friend you are going to reach out to, where you two might go, and how you might reach them.

3. Note barriers and plan out how to tackle them. What if your friend doesn’t pick up the phone? What if they say they are not available? What if certain negative thoughts (e.g., “they won’t want to hang out with me”) creep in to insidiously destroy your best laid plans? To set yourself up for success, it’s important to recognize what potential barriers might come to up and have a solution. For example, you might send that person a text if they don’t pick up; or have a plan to choose another time/place if they are not available (or have another friend in mind!). By considering what might be potential pitfalls early in our planning, we drastically increase our chances of success. We can also support ourselves using clinical tools. For example, if anxiety or negative thoughts (i.e., “thinking errors‘”) are potential barriers, you can try out some evidence-based strategies, such as relaxation strategies or thought records.

And that’s it. I hope this post was helpful in giving you a concrete strategy to getting you towards your goals!

Best wishes,


Featured photo credit: Smart goals photo created by Waewkidja –