Stop Setting Stupid SMART Goals


Many of the lessons we were taught when learning our trade are well and truly outdated. The way we’re taught to set goals with clients is one of those strange relics that somehow missed the spring clean.

One of the essential parts of working with a new client is getting to the core of what they want to achieve. The textbooks all say that you should set SMART goals. Specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-based goals, right?

The problem with goal setting is that too much focus is placed on the outcome, instead of the process, or habits, needed to get there.

The trap many fall into is comparing wherever our client is right now, with their end goal—using that as a yardstick to track progress. The reality is though, unless they follow the correct habits along the way, they’ll never achieve their goal.

Picture this: you meet with a prospective client named Wendy. Yesterday, she asked your receptionist about who would be the best trainer to guide her in her training, and they kindly put your name forward. You meet Wendy at reception the following day and sit down to chat about her training goals. She explains the reason she wants to hire a personal trainer is because she wants to lose weight, but doesn’t know where to start.

You ask a few open-ended questions and you soon discover she wants to lose 8kg by Christmas time. It’s the middle of June now. You ask how much available time she has to put into a training plan, and she says she’s shuffled her work commitments around to be able to make it into the gym three times a week, in the morning before work.

If we’re using the SMART goal framework, Wendy’s goal sounds rock-solid right?

  1. She wants to lose 8kg, so her goal is specific.

  2. You can track weight-loss using a scale, so it’s measurable.

  3. Dropping 8kg in around six months can be done. Tick it off as achievable.

  4. Losing weight, especially this much, isn’t out of this world, so it’s realistic.

  5. She mentioned that Christmas is the deadline, so it’s also time-based.

Many trainers would be ecstatic that a prospective new client is so clear on what they want to achieve, and would be ready to move onto testing, movement screening and setting up a training program.

Wendy’s goals are important. They do have value because we need to know the direction she wants to go, but apart from that, they’re a poor yardstick to judge progress. Many trainers would simply track Wendy’s progress by having her stand on the scales to see whether she’s making progress. If the weight’s down, she’s doing well. If it’s not, she’s off course.

There are many moving parts involved with a goal like losing weight, so using weight as the primary yardstick in tracking progress encourages a binary way of thinking, which can damage your client’s confidence. A smarter approach would be to break your client’s goal down into the various elements that drive the most progress and set behaviour-based goals based on those habits that have the most significant influence on the outcome.

Think about it for a second. Your client wants to achieve their goal, but without ticking off certain habits, they have any success. A better strategy would be to shift your client’s focus to habits and behaviours that influence their desired outcome.

The difference between outcome and process-based goals

An outcome-based goal would be your client’s desired endpoint. Losing 8kg, running a half marathon and being able to do a 2.5x bodyweight back-squat are all outcome-based goals.

Habit based goals involve reverse engineering the outcome into the daily, weekly or monthly tasks needed that need to be fulfilled. If we use Wendy as an example again, we need to break her goal down into the daily habits that ultimately have the greatest impact on her progress.

Here are a few examples of habit-based goals that would contribute towards Wendy’s weight-loss strategy:

  • Get to the gym three times a week

  • Follow a calorie-controlled meal plan

  • Clock 10,000 steps every day as a minimum

  • Get eight hours of sleep a night by being in bed by 10:30 pm the night before.

The habits that would best suit your clients will come down to what their goal is, their starting point and personal circumstances.

Final Thoughts

Getting clear on what your client wants to achieve is essential, but beyond that, it’s far more impactful to focus your attention on the specific habits that will dictate their success. Make the switch to habit, rather than outcome-based goals and you’ll notice your clients will be happier and more successful in their quest for better fitness.


James McDonald

James is the founder of PT Blogger. He helps personal trainers grow their client-bases, earn more money and thrive in the industry.
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