The promise of “fresh start” at the beginning of a new year is very alluring. We make resolutions and self-improvement goals with renewed motivation and the best of intentions. Typically, our goals tend to center on achievements that provide tangible benchmarks for our success. Quitting smoking or learning a new skill, for example, are two things that can be observed fairly objectively. These types of accomplishments are important and beneficial. In fact, setting goals that are measurable and have concrete milestones are a critical factor to achieving success because it enables us to evaluate our progress and make any necessary adjustments to our plan.
Yet this also makes it easy for us to inadvertently neglect or forget about the mental health aspect of self-improvement. Let’s face it—goals to “be happier” or to “stress less” sound way too vague and unattainable. But here’s the thing: our mental health can directly influence our ability to succeed in all areas of life. It helps us control our thoughts, feelings and behaviors so we can better cope with challenges. Being mentally and emotionally healthy also helps us to keep setbacks in perspective and decrease negative self-talk. The good news is that we prioritize our emotional wellbeing by applying the techniques used to create SMART goals (goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-based). Read on to learn ways to take a SMART approach to mental health.
- Begin by writing down the objective you wish to achieve and the action steps you need to take, as specifically as possible.
- If you want to “reduce stress”, think about how that can translate to one particular area of your life. For instance, your goal might be “I will reduce stress by doing yoga for 30 minutes day, three days per week”
- As you can see, identifying a specific activity and incorporating instructions quickly turns a vague intention into a concrete objective
- As mentioned earlier, making sure your action steps can be measured will allow you to evaluate progress as you work towards achieving your goal. “I will reduce stress by doing yoga for 30 minutes day, 3 days per week” can be easily measured by keeping an activity log.
- Tracking your progress in this way can serve as a source of both motivation and accountability. It will also help you to identify potential patterns. In this case, you could observe correlations between stress levels and the amount of time spent doing yoga.
- Keep your expectations realistic. Even the most motivated person will set themselves up for failure if they select goals that are unattainable. For instance, setting a goal to become a master yogi by practicing for three hours every single day is difficult, unhealthy and will likely cause more stress.
- “Ambitious but not impossible”. Choose a goal that will challenge you but you feel confident that you can achieve. A good way to do this is by breaking down your goal into smaller steps and determining whether you are able to follow through with the smaller action steps required to achieve it.
- Make sure the goal you select is relevant to your current mental health needs. Somebody else may have a great action plan for “reducing anger”, but that does not necessarily mean it is something that you need to work on as well.
- Each action step should also make sense in terms of your lifestyle. If you hate yoga, for instance, then you should think carefully about what activity would be more logical.
T: Time Based
- Set a timeline for when you hope to achieve milestones. Again, this is more difficult when the goal is based on mental health and cannot be physically observed. The key here is to just make sure your expectations are realistic so you will not feel discouraged and give up if you do not see any results right away.
- One way to keep it concrete is to jot down your physical symptoms of stress. For instance, lack of sleep, low energy or changes in appetite. Use a journal to monitor and observe any correlations between these warning signs and the time spent doing yoga.
- After a specified amount of time, review your progress and evaluate whether any of these physical symptoms have improved.
Remember, you do not have to wait until New Years to set a SMART goal. It is beneficial to apply this approach to any objective you wish to achieve during your day-to-day life, whether big or small. In any given situation, simply being mindful of the process, rather than the outcome, can go a long way in improving mental well-being.
– Carolyn Moriarty, LPC