Goal Setting and Action Steps

Once a client has selected a focus area and together we have determined that they are ready to make a change, we move into the goal setting stage. Setting goals is a critical part of the coaching process and one that deserves to be addressed thoroughly in order to help clients be successful. If this stage is not done thoroughly, the goals and actions the client chooses may not be appropriate for where they are in the change process. This can result in failed action and discouragement.

Goals/Outcomes

Typically, goals are set with a 3-6-month time period in mind. In this case, when we reference goals, we are talking about the desired outcome(s) clients hope to accomplish in that time frame. Research has shown that it typically takes about 3 months to make significant progress in changing behavior. This gives clients enough time to begin forming new and lasting changes in health behaviors yet is a short enough time frame to motivate them to make changes now.

Sometimes clients want to work on more than one goal at a time. It is important to help the client decide when they may be attempting to do too much. Clients may want to focus on one goal at a time in order to experience maximum success.  It is also important to help the client set goals that are a reasonable stretch. If it is too easy, the client may become bored and lose motivation. However, goals that are too difficult may lead to frustration and discouragement at the inability to change. An easy way to assess the right stretch is to gauge the client’s confidence around achieving the goal – ideally we want them to rate it between a 6-8 on a 10-point scale.

Action Steps

Many clients confuse their goals and desired outcomes with a plan or action steps. The goal or outcome is the destination. The plan is a series of specific action steps to help the client reach that destination. Once a client sets a goal, we then work together to identify the smaller steps necessary to achieve the larger goal. Many times, the action steps build from week to week with the client adding new action steps as they experience success and progress toward the goal.

Both the goal and action steps should follow the SMART formula and meet the following criteria:

Specific – the goal and action steps should be clear and concise. If they are too general or vague, it is difficult to know when they have been completed.

Measurable – the goal and action steps should be measurable so clients can track their progress. The client needs to have clear criteria for progress and completion. Monitoring progress on goals and action steps can be inspiring and motivating for many clients to continue with their changes.

Action-oriented (or Achievable) – the goal and action steps should be changes that are within the client’s ability to change and/or control. Otherwise, the client may struggle and become discouraged at the lack of progress.

Realistic – the goal and action steps should be largely within the client’s reach. It is best to work on small behavior or lifestyle changes.

Timed – the goal and action steps should be tied to a timetable for completion.

The best way to illustrate the SMART formula is with an example, such as a client who wants to lose weight. Setting a generic goal of “I want to lose weight” is not going to help the client move forward. There are too many unanswered questions – how much weight? By when? It may also make it harder to identify the action steps that will be necessary to achieve the goal.

A better example of this goal and potential action steps using the SMART formula might be:

Goal/desired outcome: I want to lose 15 pounds in 3 months.

Action step 1: I will schedule an appointment with my physician next week to ensure it is safe to start an exercise program.

Action step 2: I will purchase new sneakers next weekend so I can begin walking.

Action step 3: I will walk for 30 minutes in the morning 3 days a week.

Action step 4: I will drink 48 ounces of water per day.

In this scenario, the client would continue to modify and/or add action steps as they progress toward their goal. For example, if the client is successful at walking three days a week for a month, they may decide to increase that to five days a week and then eventually every day. Or they could choose to increase the duration of their walk to 45-60 minutes. On the other hand, if they have not exercised in some time and they find it difficult to walk for 30 minutes, they may need to cut back to 10 or 20 minutes until they build up their endurance.

The client may identify one or more actions steps to work on as part of their plan. It is up to the client to determine which steps should be done when. They may want to start with one action step that they are excited to take on. Or they may choose the action step that will have the greatest impact on achieving their goal. Some clients may want to start with one action step and achieve an easy “win” to build confidence, whereas others may be willing and able to take on more than one action at a time.

Once a goal and action steps are identified, it is important to help the client prepare for action in order to be as successful as possible. We will explore this critical step next time.

 

goals

 

Being present vs. planning for the future?

I saw an interesting tweet the other day that caught my attention. It was shared by Ram Dass, aka Richard Alpert, an American spiritual teacher, former academic and clinical psychologist, and the author of the book Be Here Now. He received the following question from a student: “How do you have plans and goals and still stay in the present?”

This question came up for me a few years ago when I first embarked on establishing a mindfulness meditation practice. I have also received this question from others when discussing mindfulness. I initially recall feeling like there was a contradiction – and as someone who thrives on planning and setting goals, I wasn’t sure how to reconcile the two. However, as time went by, I realized the two concepts can and do go hand in hand.

Ram Dass’ full response was somewhat abstract, but this quote seems to capture the main idea:

“So, I would say that I plan for the future, and then I live in the present, and when the future becomes the present, I live in it, and this is it and here we are.”

That left me wanting a little more, so I did some web surfing to see what others had to say about this topic. Somewhat surprisingly, I had difficulty finding evidence-based articles about this idea. There were a plethora of articles promoting the benefits of living in the moment, including increased happiness and decreased anxiety, but no mention of how to incorporate future planning and/or goal setting. I did, however, find a number of blogs and websites from individuals similar to me, i.e., coaches or other wellness/lifestyle advocates, who grappled with this idea as well.

In reviewing several of these sites, I thought Heidi Hill, Mindfulness Educator and Coach, and founder of Life in Full Bloom, summed it up nicely. She proposes three ways to be present while still planning for the future:

1) Set goals but let go of your expectations.

It is important to have goals and pursue them, but we must recognize and accept that we have limited control over the exact outcome of the goals we set.  To avoid stress, we must try not to obsess about the exact outcomes.

Lori Deschene, the founder of the website Tiny Buddha, also addressed the importance of balancing the present and the future in this quote:

“I want to accept and appreciate what is, while imagining and creating what could be. As beautiful and freeing as it is to immerse ourselves in the moment, we do ourselves a disservice if we don’t devote at least a little time to shaping the ones to come.”

As she points out, we don’t have to make a choice between being peaceful or being productive – we can be both.

2) Plan for the future, but don’t waste your time worrying about the future.

This was a common theme across several sites I visited – the distinction between planning for the future and worrying about the future. As Heidi states, worrying is not planning. The key difference: Planning is intentional. We decide to plan. Worrying is mindless and unintentional. Planning is done in the present, while worry takes us out of the present.

Marie Forleo, a self-described “Multi-Passionate Entrepreneur,” echoes this concept in a brief video about how to be present and still plan for the future, a question she received from a viewer of her weekly Internet show, MarieTV. When we are planning, we are present. When we are worrying, we are not present. However, it is possible to turn that anxiety about the future into meaningful planning for the future. The key is to be mindful when planning. As she states: “Planning consciously for the future is one of the best tools to stay grounded in the present.”

3) Balance planning with action.

More than one blogger put forth the notion that life satisfaction generally requires a balance of being and planning. The key is finding the right balance.  Heidi noted that “Action in the present is what enables our future.” She uses the example of someone wanting to write a book. You can’t just plan to write the book. You have to start writing the book little by little each day.

And finally, I thought Roberto Santamarina with Morphe Life Fitness did a nice job describing how our actions tie back to our goals:

“Mindfulness means that you focus and engage fully with any act that you are performing at the present moment while understanding the long-term intent that inspires that act. If your goal is to lose 30 pounds in six months, then everything you do in service of that goal is an act that you can enjoy, cherish, celebrate, and reward yourself for, so that you may continue to be inspired to perform that act again repeatedly until your goal has been met. …As you focus intensely on the Present, you are at once manifesting your goals for the Future.”

Simply put, being present in the moment and planning for the future are not mutually exclusive. The key is to be mindfully present when you engage in setting goals and planning for the future.