Why SMART goals aren't really helpful for changing your body or getting healthier
No less than a dozen times today alone, I've seen someone on social media telling people if they want to crush their goals this year, they need to set SMART goals.
And to that I say:
As usual, here I am again about to disagree completely with what just about everyone else says but hear me out on why I say SMART goals aren't the answer you're looking for if you want to change your body or get healthier this year.
What are they?
Let's start here. What the heck are SMART goals, anyway?
I first learned about them in 2010 when I took the personal training and nutrition and wellness courses. It wasn't long before my ideas about them began to change and now I think they're garbage.
Anyway, SMART is an acronym that stands for: SPECIFIC, MEASURABLE, ACTIONABLE, REALISTIC, TIMELY.
So the idea is that if you set goals that met all those criteria, you're going to reach them.
This method of goal setting is one of the most popular, widely used strategies around - and in my opinion, it’s outdated and ineffective - at least when it comes to using them for our health and well-being.
Since it’s the New Year and goals and resolutions are all anyone talks about let's dive into why I say all that.
Are Goals Really Even Working?
I've set and achieved a lot of really, really tough goals in the past and I want to share my experience with that for some context because I think we have to change our definition of success.
Like most people, I spent many years trying to lose weight because I wanted to feel better- in general, in my skin, and in my clothes.
But unlike most people, eventually, I did hit my weight loss goal.
But then what? It didn't solve my fight with food or the scale because then I just got obsessed with not only desperately trying to keep it off, but get even smaller, and change my body even more.
Eventually, I even started competing in figure (a women's division of bodybuilding competitions).
I was trying to prove that my body was good enough, that my willpower was strong enough, that I had the heart and the drive to not ever quit no matter how hard it got.
I was trying to prove that I was worth something.
And the core reason when I look back and break it down was that I needed validation to feel like I was good enough.
I had spent my whole life feeling worthless.
I never really knew that was bubbling under the surface, nor did I know why or how to fix it.
So like most people, I spent my life chasing external validation.
First I thought it would come from weight loss but then I lost weight and still didn't like myself or my body.
Then I thought it would come from changing my body even more so I started lifting.
My body changed but the way I felt about it didn't so the next goal needed to be competing.. and winning.
So I set that goal and reached it.
But again, within a very short time of reaching that goal, off walking off stage with my trophies, I still felt the exact same way that I did before I won.
So I had to set the next bigger goal, a pro card, that would be the thing that finally made me feel the way I wanted to feel, right.
That didn't work out. My body had other plans, it had had enough of my abuse and started fighting back with a bunch of injuries.
Thank God, it was smarter than me because that's what helped me learn freedom. But I digress.
The point is two-fold.
Every goal I ever set was because I had been attaching some meaning, some feeling to achieving that goal.
And none of them ever really made my life healthier or happier.
In fact, things got worse.
My body was injured and in pain all the time from all the training.
The weight loss did nothing to solve my food issues, it didn't even solve my "weight issues" because no matter how much weight I lost, I was still always thinking about weight.
Thoughts like, "Do I need to lose more?" and "What if I put it back on?" were intrusive, obsessive and ever-present.
I ended up in (ineffective) therapy for bulimia, depression and an anxiety disorder. My mental, emotional and physical health, completely trashed.
And as I always say, I share my story because it's not unique. I may have gone to extremes with competing and an eating disorder but the never-ending obsessions, and most of the rest of my experience are all things I've seen repeated in other people to varying degrees, over and over and over again.
It's practically commonplace.
Most people never even reach the goals they set and these things are true whether they do or not.
And most people who actually do reach their weight loss or body goals, end up putting all the weight right back on and even more.
Being obsessed with reaching goals, especially weight and health-related goals is not helping and not at all what we should be focusing on.
I think there's a much better way to have what we ultimately want.
So stay with me while I explain.
Why Do You Set Goals In The First Place?
As you start thinking about your New Year's goals consider this…
Almost every single goal that we want to achieve is because of how we think will feel when we achieve it. Right?
The income, the weight loss, the car, the job, the competition, the game, we want to win whenever we want those things because of how they're going to make us feel.
I'll be so happy when…
I'll feel so good about myself when…
So if the underlying reason we want to achieve anything is because of how it's going to make us feel what if we stopped setting and focusing on achieving goals outside of ourselves that we believe will give us that very fleeting, external validation and instead just focused on how we want to feel and what we need to do to create those?
For example, every client I've ever worked with over the years wanted to lose weight or change their bodies for about the same reasons. They wanted to be happier, feel better in their clothes, feel like they looked better, or be more confident.
Why? Because of the feelings they were associating with achieving those things. Ask yourself why enough times with your "goals" and you're going to come to an answer that involves how you think that goal is going to make you feel.
But, everything they need to do to achieve those goals causes stress, feelings of failure and shame.
Focusing on external goals to create internal feelings moves you farther from the feelings you're after.
Same with "health" goals. People set health goals because they want to feel better... but health has nothing to do with hitting goals.
Your body doesn't know or care about what goals you set, it only knows what choices you're making for it, how those choices make it feel and what it needs in any given moment.
It wants to feel good right now and it's trying to tell you what it needs to do so but you're so busy trying to make yourself do what you think you need to do to reach your goals, you're not even listening to it.
Goal setting isn't what determines success
Two people can set the exact same goal but have two completely different outcomes. It happens all the time.
The other 20 plus women on the stage with me had also gone into that competition with the goal of winning but I was the only one who actually did that day.
Every person who sets a weight loss goal wants to lose weight. But very few do.
Every person who sets career goals wants to reach them, but not everyone does.
Every athlete who sets sports goals wants to win, but not all of them do.
So if not everybody who sets goals actually reaches them this means it's not the act of having or setting goals that determine success.
It's not the goal itself that determines success or failure.
It comes down to a lot of different factors, not the least of which being our day-to-day choices that determine our results.
And our day-to-day choices are determined almost 100% by our programming. Our thoughts, habits, beliefs, and behaviors, not the goals themselves.
Think about it. If you just want to feel better or be more confident or whatever, what's stopping you already being there? The choices you're making every day.
Most people think the act of setting goals will make them motivated to change their choices but that's not usually true because of how ingrained our daily choices become.
Most of the choices we make every day are done so completely unconsciously. They're the same ones we made the day before, and the day before, and the day before... likely for years. Same with our thoughts and beliefs. They're the same ones we've been repeating for years and they are driving most of our choices.
And those things are all happening almost completely unconsciously - meaning we aren't even really aware of it.
How many times have you set weight loss or "health" goals and within a short time, you found yourself mindlessly wandering the kitchen looking for something sweet and didn't even know why you wanted something when you weren't even hungry?
And how often have you felt unable to stop yourself from eating that something sweet when you knew you didn't even really want it?
That's what I mean. Our thoughts, feelings, beliefs and patterns of behavior drive our choices and those things are what create our results - not how many goals we can set.
For example, very often carrying extra weight becomes our identity or helps us feel safe. We may think we hate it because we're constantly told we're supposed to, but underneath, subconsciously, we feel safer when we have more weight on our bodies (for a number of reasons) and after a while it becomes a big part of our identity.
Who am I if I'm not fighting this war with food and my body? That's a big question that's scary to look at.
Or a smaller body feels unsafe--this is incredibly common, especially for women with a history of sexual violence or abuse.
Our brains determine those fears as threats (without us even being aware of it) and does whatever it needs to do to eliminate the threats--in this case, it would make us think a bunch of self-sabotaging thoughts until we "blew it" and sabotaged.
You can set all the goals in the world but until you actually change your programming, it will continue to be something that you have to battle against to accomplish anything.
What Really Determines Results
Remember those thoughts, habits, beliefs and behaviors that I spoke of... you know the things that actually determine our results.
I want to circle back to those for a minute because not only are they the things that actually determine our results, they're also the things that make us believe the lie that all of the things we want to achieve, to feel the way we want to feel, are outside of ourselves.
I wanted to win a figure competition because I felt worthless and thought it would make me feel like I was worth something.
People want to lose weight or get that job or buy that fancy car or house handbag, whatever usually for very similar reasons.
They think it'll make them more confident, happier, maybe like themselves more, because they don't feel like they're enough exactly as they are.
Or they want to lose weight because they think it'll help them feel better, without even considering what's keeping them from already feeling good. What's keeping them from making choices that help them feel their best? How many ways are their thoughts and emotions contributing to them not feeling their best? Usually a ton.
We get stuck thinking that everything we want, all the feelings we want can only be found outside of ourselves, at some later date, when they get or achieve something or when they control all sorts of external conditions.
We attach conditions to the way we think we're allowed to feel.
But what happens when people don't feel enough or value themselves as they are?
They engage in self-destructive and self-sabotaging behaviors.
So it actually makes it even harder to ever reach their goals.
I cannot even tell you how many times I binge and then over-exercise to quote make up for it. I was a self-sabotaging machine back in those days.
It's a miracle I was ever even successful or reached any goals myself because I literally self-destructed and self-sabotaged all the time.
And that's one of the biggest reasons most people struggle with food and their weight.
They're engaged in self-sabotaging and self-destructive behaviors as a result of their thoughts, beliefs about themselves, and habits.
What If Instead...
Chasing goals keeps us trapped, keeps us in that trap of believing that happiness and feeling good or good about ourselves is out there someplace outside of ourselves and far away at a later date.
We'll feel that way, when....
But even if we reach them, reaching goals only really feels good for a short time.
And when it fades, we're left feeling the same way as when we started, or back at square one, and needing to keep setting more goals to chase having those feelings again.
See, because reaching a goal only changes the way we feel for a moment.
So why waste all that time on the external goals? For the potential of a few fleeting moments of approval from judges? From other people?
The same goes for any weight loss goal.
We set the goal, right? That magic number that we want to see on the scale, and then we obsess over hitting it for months before usually, ultimately just quitting and why?
So it'll feel good to see that number on the scale one morning, and then what? We live happily ever after?
No, then the battle of being terrified to put it back on starts.
And hating ourselves for every ounce that it moves back up, starts. Right?
So either way, we stay stuck endlessly chasing new weight loss goals to continue trying to create those feelings.
Or we get stuck in that on-track versus off-track mindset forever.
Because what often happens whether you reach that weight loss goal or not one of two things?
We keep chasing the next goal, or we stop working at it and go back to the same thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and behaviors that cause the weight gain in the first place.
So there's no real support and place to make it last, just this notion of I did what I needed to do to get here and I feel great so now I can stop.
So what if instead of setting external goals outside of ourselves, we thought about why we wanted that thing?
You know, how the weight loss, the competition, the job, whatever was going to make us feel.
And then we focused all of our energy on changing the thoughts, habits, beliefs, and behaviors that were keeping us from feeling that way right now.
The goal in sports is to have the best score, but the athletes who win don't do so because they stand around staring at the scoreboard, they win because they do the daily work to get better every day. And as three times Superbowl winner Bill Walsh says, the score takes care of itself.
The same is true for everything.
Goals can help find direction, but I say stop focusing on them.
Instead, focus on why you want to reach them and put all of your energy into figuring out the underlying thoughts, habits, beliefs and behaviors that are keeping you from feeling that way already and changing those things so that you learn to create those feelings within.
Then you're never at risk of losing them and you won't spend your whole life chasing goals outside yourself for the feelings of worth, and fulfillment you're after - you'll just live.
And you'll create better results.
Because when we believe we're worth more and deserving of goodness, the destructive habits and behaviors that create self-sabotaging and self-destructive behaviors, stop.
So sure a goal may help give a little direction, but put all of your attention and focus into your daily thoughts, beliefs about yourself, behaviors, and habits, and the score will take care of itself.
And that brings me to one simple little daily strategy to start practicing.
So you're going to take one to two minutes every single morning to decide what matters to you that day.
Every morning, ask yourself how do I feel? How do I want to feel? What matters to me today? And what am I willing to do about it?
Then do that.
Maybe it's just a 10-minute nap if you didn't sleep well.
Maybe it's getting one thing done on that business you keep trying to start but finding excuses to not work on.
Maybe it's working on a specific habit that you want to change.
Maybe it's noticing your thoughts and working on changing some of them.
Maybe it's getting outside for a few minutes to get some fresh air and heart rate up.
The point of this exercise is to get you used to taking a minute to connect with what matters to you, you need every morning, and to start focusing on those thoughts, habits and beliefs that we talked about earlier.
This is going to help you connect with what you need what matters to you and give you easily achievable little tasks to complete every day so you go to bed at night feeling proud of yourself for being successful and you start building momentum in the direction you want to go.
E-CET CAN HELP YOU
The Embodied Cognitive Eating Academy is a specialized group coaching course. It combines a wide range of scientifically proven, evidence based modalities into an easy-to-follow step-by-step process that helps you understand why you can't stop eating in ways that don't serve your best interests and how to stop. It has been meticulously crafted and tested for almost three years with one goal in mind - helping you move past all the things that are keeping you stuck repeating the same self-destructive patterns so you can find peace and start living and feeling better.
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