SMART Goals in therapy

Therapy is about a clinician and patient collaborating in a shared and open therapeutic space to get the patient to where they want to be. Particularly in cognitive behavioural therapy, the use of SMART Goals is a very common technique. This is because SMART goals allow a patient and clinician to come together to develop relevant and achievable goals that set the patient up for success.

Although having a therapist facilitate the development of SMART goals can be helpful to make sure the goals are well-tailored to the person, you can absolutely create SMART goals for your own mental health goals (or other goals)!

Below, I provide information on how to develop SMART goals yourself and in a way that addresses potential barriers to best set yourself up for success!

Defining SMART Goals

SMART Goals refer to goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. Let’s go through each term in a bit more detail.

S – Specific. SMART goals are specific because it is clearly defined and understood amongst people. For example, being happy is a good goal, but it is quite vague and may mean different things for different people. On other hand, making tea in the morning would be a lot more specific.

M – Measurable. Measurable indicates that we are able to use numbers to assess how completing a goal affects us. For example, we might take a walk and rate our mood before and after on a scale from 1 (low) to 10 (high). In this case, we have a measurable index of how much taking a walk affected how we feel.

A – Achievable. When we plan to climb Mount Everest, we don’t start by climbing Mount Everest. It’s important for our initial goals to be achievable; slowly and surely, we’ll make our way to the top of the mountain.

R – Relevant. If your goal is to have more friends, then setting a goal to stay at home all day and watch TV may not be very relevant to this goal. On the other hand, setting a goal to call at least one friend to have lunch with every day would be a more relevant goal.

T – Time-bound. Time-bound means that there’s a specific amount of time it should take to complete the goal. For example, taking a walk for 15 minutes at least 3 times over the next week. This keeps us from being uncertain about whether we’ve completed a goal and keeps us from procrastinating!

Examples of SMART Goals and not-so-SMART Goals

Now that we’ve defined SMART goals, I wanted to provide a few examples of SMART Goals and not-so-SMART Goals that sometimes come up in treatment.

For a mood issue, Beth may have a goal that they want to feel happier. A great goal, but it is a little too vague to be a SMART goal. Moreover, what Beth considers happiness may be different from, say, what Andrew considers to be happiness. A SMART goal in this case might be to engage in at least one activity that Beth finds personally enjoyable in the next week (e.g., making a cup of tea, taking a warm bath).

For an anxiety problem, Jorge may have a goal that he wants to be less fearful of dogs. This one is a more specific goal than the previous but could still benefit from greater specificity and creating a time constraint. For example, Jorge could create a SMART goal to pet the neighbour’s dog for 5 seconds without running away.  

For a sleep problem, Annie has the goal of sleeping for at least 8 hours every night. This one is tricky because on the surface it sounds like a very specific SMART goal; however, there a few issues when we look at the sleep science. In this case, Annie’s goal is a little bit unrealistic because 1) everybody has bad nights once in a while and 2) Annie may not be an 8-hour sleeper. Therefore, a more realistic goal would be to find out how many hours Annie’s sleep systems prefer her to have in order to improve the quality of her sleep.

Identifying barriers in achieving SMART Goals

When I work with my patients to develop SMART goals for the week for them to try out, we always consider what might be potential barriers to achieving this goal. For example, Deepika might set the goal of waking up at 7:00am in the morning to feel more productive, but there may be certain barriers that make it harder for her to achieve this goal. For example, what if she had a bad night’s sleep? Or she wasn’t motivated to get up? How would we ensure that we are setting the patient up for success – in this case, to make sure that Deepika sticks to her planned routine?

Similarly, it is important to consider to yourself what might barrier to your own goals. In Deepika’s case, setting an alarm farther away might be helpful to get her out of bed. It may also be planning something enjoyable in the morning, like getting a nice refreshing Frappuccino at her local coffee shop to make waking up an enjoyable process.

Therefore, I encourage you to think if there are certain barriers and how you might tackle them when you are setting up your goals! Think creatively about how you might navigate challenges that come up in achieving your goals.

Setting yourself up for success

Beyond dealing with barriers, here are a few tips to set yourself up for success when starting your SMART goal journey!

1. Determine your values. Asking yourself why is it important to follow through on your goal can be really helpful in making sure you stick to your guns. For example, there may be big benefits to getting over your fear of flying (e.g., being able to see family, travel to exotic and beautiful places, and visiting Disneyland).

2. Take goals one step at a time. It can be easy to get ahead of ourselves and say we’ll go to the gym every day for a month when we get a flash of inspiration at 3:00am in the morning. However, we want make sure that we are setting ourselves for success. In this case, a SMART goal of going just once a week, or doing at least 5 push-ups a day may be a better starting point to build up momentum.

3. Be really specific about the goal. Figure out the time and place of tackling the goal and how you are going to accomplish the goal. Consider ways ahead of time to remind yourself of the goal and make it easy for yourself. For example, setting an alarm on your phone and putting your running gear out in the morning if your goal is to be more active and jog more.

4. Figure out what the goal should be. Sometimes, you may have a general goal of being happier or being more social. However, you’re not quite sure what the SMART goals should be to reach the ultimate goal. In this case, I find that the ‘magic-wand question’ can be really helpful to elucidate these potential goals. Asking yourself: “if I waved a magic wand and all my problems were gone, what would be different in my life?”. Perhaps you might spend more time with friends; be more active in your daily life; or work towards your passion. Within these domains, you may then be able to set some SMART goals for yourself.

I hope this post was helpful in learning how to set SMART goals for your mental health! If you found this article useful, please consider subscribing to the mailing list for more evidence-based information on mental health.

Best wishes,