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.
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.
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.