Keep failing to achieve your SMART goals? Try this better technique instead

It’s a rare person that hasn’t been advised to use SMART goals when trying to make changes in their life.

Goals have to be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. Or so we’ve been told.

But SMART goals are only a part of the road to success when it comes to helping us get fit, lose weight or sort out our spending.

Researchers from the University of Bern in Switzerland have come up with a new, more effective way of setting goals you might actually achieve this time. It’s based around a pyramid of different types of goal. Because not all goals are created equal, and each type has a role to play in helping you get what you want.

The pyramid is made up of three types of goal: your big general super-goal at the top, then some more concrete, intermediate goals and finally your foundation goals at the bottom.

So how does this work?

Choose your super-goal

You start with your one big goal – what do you actually want? What is important to you?

This is a chance to reflect and think about what you want to be and who you’re trying to become. It’s worth spending a bit of time on this as you might find that what you thought was a super-goal is actually just an intermediate one.

‘Lose weight’ is a prime example of that – if that is your goal, think about why you want to do this. Is it to look better? Be more confident?

The researchers say that a good super-goal is about the kind of person you want to be. You probably don’t want to be smaller just for the sake of being smaller – but maybe you want to be healthier?

Work out your intermediate goals

Once you’ve got a good, general, super-goal, your next step is to break that goal down into some concrete things you could do to work towards it.

So if your super goal is ‘be healthier’ your intermediate goals could include drink more water, eat a balanced diet, get more sleep, exercise, lose weight, avoid stress… anything that you think would help you achieve your super-goal can go here.

Get specific with your foundation goals

When you’ve got a picture of the kind of things you need to do to achieve your super-goal, it’s time to get specific and work out your foundation goals. These set out precisely what you’re going to do to achieve your intermediate goals and how you’re going to do it.

You can go back to your SMART outlines and be as specific and detailed as you like. Taking a 30-minute walk at lunchtime on Monday, Wednesday and Friday or keeping your mobile phone out of the bedroom at night are good examples of foundation goals.

Each intermediate goal can have several foundation goals holding it up.

So an intermediate goal of eating a balanced diet might be supported by foundation goals such as eat a piece of fruit at breakfast and two portions of vegetables at lunch and dinner, track your meals, limit sweets to weekends, and drink six glasses of water per day.

How the goals work together

So you’ve worked out your goal pyramid, but how does this help you get to where you want to be? The research shows that having a combination of a general overarching super-goal alongside specific, detailed foundation goals is better than either of these strategies on their own.

If you have your super-goal but don’t have a plan to achieve it means that days – and months – can easily pass by without you doing anything to move towards becoming the person you want to be.

Meanwhile, having lots of specific SMART-type goals without a super-goal to give you a ‘why’ can lead to a loss of motivation and a lack of lasting change. Zooming in on the fine details can make you lose sight of why you decided you’d go to the gym at 6.30am three times a week for 45 minutes. And without a ‘why’, it’s just too easy to hit snooze and snuggle under the duvet for another blissful hour of sleep.

Revisit your super-goal often to remind yourself what you’re working towards and why it’s important to you. And take time to keep your intermediate and foundation goals relevant and helpful.

If that 30-minute lunchtime walk is causing more stress than it relieves, maybe an after-work yoga class would be better.

What happens when your motivation falters?

Having several different goals that are all working together to achieve your big dream goal means you have a range of different ways of getting there, and a whole lot of extra motivation to help you on your way.

One great thing about foundation and intermediate goals is that one foundation goal might hit multiple intermediate goals.

For example, when you’re offered a glass of wine at a friend’s house your motivation to cut down alcohol might be weak but then you remember how much better you sleep when you’re sober, how much easier it is to get up in the morning for your workout or how your decision to drink more water has improved your skin. More goals achieved means more motivation.

Having several intermediate goals that work towards your super-goal also means that if you fall down on one goal, you can still put energy into achieving other intermediate goals.

You might accept the glass of wine but, remembering that your super-goal is to be healthier, you stop after one drink, you say no thanks to the big bowl of crisps and you make sure not to stay out too late so you still get a good night’s sleep. Meaning you get to enjoy your indulgence and still stay on track.

Now I’ll drink to that.

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