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I hope you’re snuggled up on a couch somewhere, or maybe still in bed with a cup of steaming coffee (I’m a tea girl myself). This is my third post with Psych Central and I hope to get your neurons firing and thoughts buzzing, I’ve decided to post on one of my favourite topics.

Goal Achievement.

Does that make me boring? Probably. However, when I start seeing a client the first thing I do is gauge how likely they are to commit to the goals they set in therapy. Why? Because therapy is not a passive activity, it’s an active one that takes work, dedication and commitment. There’s a common saying that anything worth having, takes work, and boy do I believe it!

Think of a time in the past when you had a goal set, you were working towards it and then it seemed to become less important and before long it faded into the background behind all the other things in life. One day you realize that you failed to achieve the goal you set and you berate yourself for not being more dedicated.

You begin to make conclusions about yourself and have thoughts such as:

‘I don’t’ have what it takes.’

‘I can’t do this.’

‘I’m a failure.’

‘I’m hopeless at sticking with a goal.’

You might even look at the people around you who were succeeding in their goal setting and you wondered why you didn’t have that secret formula. It’s true that some people are more motivated, ambitious and conscientious, but that doesn’t mean that they use some magic formula to achieve their goals, it just means they have traits that are more conducive to achieving them.

And trust me, if they don’t plan to achieve their goals, they won’t achieve them either.

Luckily, I can give you the formula that those magically gifted people are most likely using.

Your goals need to be SMART.

Why the capitalization? Because SMART is an acronym for: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Based.  The criteria for ensuring that any goal set is achieved.

Using SMART goals means that you’ll avoid traps such as; only fantasizing about your goal, not committing to your goal, not starting your goal, focusing on the outcome rather than the process, giving up after a setback, procrastinating, getting distracted, forgetting about the goal, spending too much time on unhelpful aspects of the goal and focusing on ways it could go wrong (fear).

So here is a further explanation of the SMART goal formula.


Any Specific goal must be clear. It makes sense that you would then employ the common ‘W’ questions. What, Why, Who, Where and Which.

What is your goal? Why do you want to achieve this goal? Who will be involved? Where will achieving this goal take place? Which things are most relevant to achieving the goal?


Any Measurable goal needs to have sub-goals. You need to break your main goal into smaller, achievable goals that are measurable. How much? How many? When will you know each sub-goal is achieved? In counselling, clients must be able to tell me how they would know when a goal has been achieved. Often we operationalize ambiguous phenomena.

As an example, we might get a person to rate their stress levels out of ten (let’s say they report eight). And then aim to reduce those stress levels by four to five notches during the course of therapy (which brings their stress down to a four or three).


Your Attainable goal(s) have to be realistic, right? You also have to be able to achieve them. If your goal is to be able to climb to the peak of Mt Everest within the next two months, and you haven’t already been doing the necessary training, you might need to look at how likely you are to attain this goal. Your goal shouldn’t be extreme.

Often in counselling clients look at all the things they want to achieve at the one time and think, ‘it’s too hard’ or ‘it’s too much.’ This is why the goals need to be broken down. When a client has a goal that is unachievable, a therapists job is to help that client think of more achievable ones.

So in the attainable section of SMART goals you need to figure out how you’re going to achieve your realistic and attainable goal. What are the skills, thinking, and resources you need to attain them?


Relevant goals are goals that are in alignment or in support of other goals you have in mind. What is your ultimate objective? If you just want to get fitter, then climbing Mt Everest isn’t really relevant to getting fit. There are many other ways to achieve fitness which don’t require you putting your life at risk.

Is this goal worthwhile to you in the end? Is it right for you? Are there better goals, or ways to achieve your goals?


And finally Time-Based goals are all about the ‘when’ of goals. When will you achieve your first sub-goal? You need to ground your goals in a time-frame, if you leave them ‘up in the air’ it’s easier for procrastination to get it’s ugly claws on all your hard work and good intent. When you commit to a deadline you are more likely to focus on the day that goal is due. This helps for productivity and planning. It also helps you to stay focused on the current goal and not the ‘overall goal’ — that big ‘mountain’ you want to climb.

Soon I will do a post on SMARTER goals, which have an extra component of E and R (Evaluate and Reevaluate).

Be SMART. Set SMART goals.


Rubin, R. S. (2002). Will the real SMART goals please stand up? The Industrial-Organisational Psychologist, 39(4), 26-27.

Image by Stuart Miles


Kylie Coulter

Kylie Coulter is and has been an online therapist for six years. She has an Honours Degree in Psychological Science and a Professional Diploma of Counselling. She writes psychology articles for magazines and is currently publishing an academic paper on Expressing Emotion via the Internet.

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APA Reference
Coulter, K. (2012). Be SMART: Set SMART Goals. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 25, 2020, from


Last updated: 31 Jul 2012
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