Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D
Life is better with goals. They give you a direction and a purpose. They can help motivate you to achieve things that take months or even years to attain…things with long-deferred reinforcers that would otherwise have no effect on your behavior. And goals can help give you that extra “boost” when times are tough and you want to quit.
Goal setting is one of the most heavily researched topics in the social sciences. Within behavior analysis, simply searching “goal” brings up 490 articles in the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management alone. Depending on the situation, goals can even be paired with performance feedback, prompts, values clarification exercises, and incentives to produce meaningful outcomes in a variety of settings.
A very popular framework for goal setting is known as SMART Goals, which is an easy-to-remember acronym that provides a simple structure for designing goals that work. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.
Specific – For “specific” read “behavioral.” Goals tend to work better if they can be stated in terms of concrete actions rather than goals that aren’t explicitly tied to behavior. For example, “I will read three chapters.” is much more specific than “I will read more.”
Measurable – As behavior analysts, having goals that are measurable is a given. If you can’t measure your goals, you never know for sure if you are meeting them. Moreover, you may think you aren’t meeting your goals when your data may suggest otherwise. And the more specific your goal, the easier it is to measure. For example “I will read three chapters” immediately brings to light a quantifiable unit of analysis – book chapters read.
Achievable – An achievable goal is one that you can meet with a little extra effort. Technically, we might say that achievable goals are those that are reasonably within the capabilities of your behavioral repertoire or skillset. For example, “I will read three chapters” may or may not be achievable depending on the type of book and the person doing the reading.
Relevant – Relevant goals are those that are meaningful to you. The more meaningful your goals, the more likely you are to achieve them. For example, if you have a larger goal of building a business, then subsequent goals related to forming a mission statement, developing products and services, and setting up a business account are directly relevant. “Reading three chapters” might become relevant if the chapters are in a business book, and less relevant if the chapters are from a sci-fi novel.
Time-Bound – Open-ended goals are easily put off, particularly if they are challenging. It is easy to make up excuses and prioritize other things that may not be as productive. And usually they just function to help you avoid doing something difficult that will pay off in the future. To help remedy this, attach a target date to your goal. For example, “I will read three chapters by tomorrow” makes our reading goal much more evocative than simply “I will read three chapters.”
In the Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) world, one place goal-setting is encouraged is at Verbal Beginnings. Their mentorship program, organized by Jenny Rodriguez, presents staff with the question “What’s the big hairy audacious goal that you don’t know how to reach?”. The “big hairy audacious goal” is a long-term outcome that stokes your passions, but whose steps along the way are unclear.
Their road-mapping sessions walk staff through a planning process with SMART goals at the core. In my talk with the team, they noted “we want to be a part of the process of helping individuals climb their Everest, whatever their passion may be.”
What’s your Everest? Let us know in the comments below.
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