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.

Keeping Your Eye on the Prize

For most of my adult life, walking has been my “go to” exercise – whether it be walking with family and friends outside or taking advantage of my treadmill and/or various walk at home DVDs when the weather isn’t conducive to exercising outdoors. Like many walking enthusiasts, I jumped on the pedometer bandwagon in the early 2000s. After all, I needed to know if I was achieving the recommended 10,000 steps a day to help maintain good health. As an added incentive, the company I worked for offered a walking challenge as part of the employee wellness program and I could earn prizes based on my steps.

I recall becoming frustrated with the pedometer over time. I had the simple kind that just hooked on to your pants, but this posed a problem if I wore a dress or some other outfit without a place to attach the pedometer. Even if I wore pants, the pedometer often slipped off. And there was always the question of what to do with it when needing to use the rest room so as not to lose said pedometer down the toilet. Eventually, I gave up and stopped wearing one altogether.

Wearable fitness trackers: friend or foe?

Fast forward about a decade to the introduction of wearable fitness trackers. I recall a friend owning one of the earliest products, which was technically still a clip-on device, but it did more than just measure steps. These new products could also track and monitor calories burned, sleep activity, and floors climbed. I’ve never really been an early adopter when it comes to technology, so I took a wait and see approach. As the technology and design improved, I finally jumped in a few years ago and purchased one of the more popular band-style fitness trackers. (Note: I am not going to name which brand I use as I am not endorsing or criticizing any particular device or company.)

At first, I was enamored by the wealth of data this device could supply. The accompanying app was user-friendly and the dashboard was customizable, so I could set it up to include as much or as little information as I wanted. My primary interest was in steps taken, minutes of exercise, calories burned and sleep. I have to admit it was fun at first, monitoring my progress and hoping to see green icons at the end of the day, meaning I had met my goals. I invited friends to participate in step challenges, so that we could hold each other accountable with a little friendly competition.

Wearing the device has definitely made me more aware of my level of activity and it has helped me achieve some health goals. But recently, I have started to question whether the fitness tracker is as beneficial as I first believed it to be. For example, I aim to get 10,000 steps per day. On average, my normal daily activity typically adds up to about 5,000 steps and then with at least 30 minutes of exercise, I can usually make it to my goal. However, I sometimes find myself “gaming the system,” if you will. I use the feature that reminds me to get up and move each hour if I have been inactive…except more and more lately, I find myself ignoring the notification and staying put in my seat. Then, later in the day when I realize I am behind on steps, I may find myself pacing the halls to get to 10,000 steps before bed. This is not helping me sit less during the day, and it often drives my husband crazy when I pace the bedroom trying to get in those last 500 steps or so.

The other feature that I have started to second guess is the sleep tracker. At first, I was excited to have this information at hand to get a better sense of the quality and quantity of my sleep. I typically aim to get about seven and a half hours of sleep per night during the week and maybe a little more on weekends. I have never really had a problem with sleep. I usually fall asleep quickly and often wake up before my alarm even goes off. I am an early riser as I meditate and exercise in the morning before going to work. Because of my schedule, it’s important for me to get to bed at a decent hour. So, I aim to have lights out no later than 10pm and wake up around 5:15am, giving me between seven and seven and a half hours of sleep.

When I started looking at the sleep data, I was surprised to find that I was often getting less than that according to the tracker. Most days I was lucky to be getting six to six and half hours per night, and sometimes it was even less. In looking at the breakdown of sleep stages, it indicated that I was often awake for an hour or more overnight. I realized over time that seeing these numbers was actually stressing me out about not getting enough sleep…when in reality, nothing had changed about my sleep patterns. For the most part, I was not waking up for significant amounts of time during the night and I usually felt refreshed and alert when I woke up. It took me a while to come to the conclusion that having this sleep data was doing more harm than good, so I recently made the decision to stop wearing the device at night (it was never really comfortable to me anyway) and I removed the sleep data from my dashboard. It is the best decision I have made in a while.

A ha moment

I have been having mixed feelings about my fitness tracker for some time now, but the “a ha” moment happened last weekend when I was in the middle of Nia class. I glanced at the tracker to see how many steps I had and found myself disappointed that it was less than I expected. Then it hit me – I had totally lost sight of my true goal. The bottom line is I exercise to maintain good health so I can enjoy life. The most important thing is that I am active and that I enjoy the activities I engage in. Whether or not I get 10,000 steps a day is really irrelevant. I had taken my eyes off the prize: being active because it feels good and is good for me.

So, does this mean I am tossing out my fitness tracker? No, at least not yet. I do believe there are benefits to wearing it and monitoring the data, but I won’t allow the data to stress me out or dictate how I spend my time. I am also going to take breaks from it now and then so I don’t feel so tethered to this little device on my wrist. Unfortunately, it seems that fitness trackers have become one more piece of technology that we can become addicted to, so it’s good to unplug from them every now and then. Take it off, then go walk, run, swim or play…just for the fun of it.