A common human regret among people approaching the end of life is that they wish they had invested more time pursuing qualitative goals, such as being kinder, more adventurous, more forgiving, more mindful or more humble, says life coach Pamela J. Hobart. Alas, people tend to realize their shortcomings too late in life to repair the damage. Fortunately, with insights from Hobart, you can avoid such regrets by setting better goals. Learn why the SMART goal framework doesn’t always work when it comes to qualitative goal-setting, and discern how to use goal-setting to shift your self-perception.
- The SMART goal framework isn’t an appropriate approach if you’re striving to meet qualitative goals.
- Four brain structures work with – or against – one another when you endeavor to achieve a goal.
- Set “SMART-ish” goals by regularly taking small actions that affirm your desired identity.
- Maintain momentum by noticing your progress and savoring small wins.
The SMART goal framework isn’t an appropriate approach if you’re striving to meet qualitative goals.
According to prevailing wisdom, the secret to achieving your goals is to make them SMART. The SMART goal framework holds that goals should be “specific” with a known desired outcome; “measurable” with quantifiable targets; “achievable,” in that they’re challenging but not impossible; “relevant” to your life’s purposes and values; and “time-based” with clear deadlines.
“Goals without scope, measure, feasibility, meaning and timescale are mentally more like dreams, hopes or mere thoughts than approachable targets of action.”
Indeed, aiming for SMART goals, rather than vague targets, increases your chances of success. Yet setting SMART qualitative goals often seems absurd. For example, if you aim to become more generous, donating, say, $500 to a charitable cause annually isn’t valid proof that your character has improved.
Four brain structures work with – or against – one another when you endeavor to achieve a goal.
If you’re struggling to reach a lofty qualitative goal – such as increasing your generosity, patience or calmness, for example – neuroscience can explain why you might be floundering. Andrew Huberman, a Stanford neuroscientist, explains that – regardless of whether your goal is big, like losing weight, or small, like emptying the dishwasher – all goal-oriented behavior relies on a single brain circuit and activates four brain structures, which can work with or against one another as you strive to reach your goal: Your amygdala assesses potential threats or rewards; your basal ganglia send motor control signals to your body, prompting or stopping action; your bilateral prefrontal cortex designs and executes your plan by overriding habitual behaviors; and your orbitofrontal cortex helps you grasp the connection between your present behaviors and future results. These brain functions vie to control your behavior.
“If you can learn to work with and not against your internal goal machinery, you can expect to reap significant recurring rewards.”
When you set a vague qualitative goal, such as to earn more money, your amygdala and basal ganglia will act to prevent you from asking for a raise if they sense a threat. But if you thoughtfully consider how much more money you want to earn, and for what purpose, you’ll inspire the planning parts of your brain – the bilateral prefrontal cortex and orbitofrontal cortex – overriding the parts that detect danger.
Set “SMART-ish” goals by regularly taking small actions that affirm your desired identity.
To set better qualitative goals, reject the binary notion that goals are either SMART or poorly formulated. Instead, view goal-setting as occurring on a spectrum: You’ll increase your likelihood of achieving your goals when you make them more closely resemble SMART goals, but accept that you can’t neatly quantify everything. Aspire to set SMART-ish qualitative goals by committing to take regular action toward your goal. For example, if you want to become more generous, you can set specific, achievable and relevant goals. Start by, say, buying a present for a sick friend or sending thank-you notes. Keep track of these mini-actions in your journal, or talk to a friend about your efforts to change. The more you practice, the stronger your generosity muscle will become. Repetition is the secret to success.
“As your self-concept shifts to incorporate a new positive trait, having that new identity gives the behavioral process additional momentum.”
“To change your behavior for good,” explains Atomic Habits author James Clear, “you need to start believing new things about yourself. You need to build identity-based habits.” Initially, taking small, robust and meaningful actions will help you embody a new identity in which you possess your desired trait. These actions eventually will become habits and won’t require so much effort.
Maintain momentum by noticing your progress and savoring small wins.
Without hard metrics, how can you know whether you’ve achieved your goal? You might fear becoming delusional, believing yourself to have reached your goal when you haven’t. How can you ensure that you’re becoming a better person, as opposed to simply convincing yourself that you’ve improved?
“Energy spent effectively pursuing goals serves as a renewable psychological resource to fuel you through life’s pursuits, whether neat and discrete or self-consciously messy in an all-too-human way.”
In practice, due to negativity bias whereby individuals recall failures more readily than successes, people are as likely to underestimate as to overestimate their progress toward their qualitative goals. But when you celebrate your small victories, your brain releases dopamine, which gives you the energy, momentum and motivation you need to keep working toward your goals. So if you’re trying to trigger positive growth, invest energy in enjoying your small wins.
About the Author
Pamela J. Hobart is a philosophical life coach who specializes in solving complicated problems.