The SMART goal is a regular feature in the "in the toolbox" of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). 

The acronym SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. SMART goals are more than just CBT. They are a regular feature in business and management. Whilst they can be enormously helpful they also have their limitations.

For which goals are SMART goals helpful? 

I am a keen runner and, in running, I can set myself goals which are SMART. This is only possible because I have a degree of control over the goals I set myself in running in that I know how fast I can run, how far I can run, and how much rest I need.

The environment for someone with depression is different. There is less control, and coming up with goals which are, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timed is more difficult. The reasons for this is because SMART goals will conflict with the wide number of goals are part of people’s lives.

A conflict of goals

People are always working on goals. For many people, I see that their most immediate goal is about reducing any anxiety they may be experiencing. However, they are also depressed and have the goal of wanting to recover from depression. This is when it starts to get complicated because recovering from depression will mean taking risks which will lead to an increase in anxiety. We can try as much as we want to set SMART goals but they will not succeed if there are hidden conflicting goals. Therefore, we need to understand the nature of this conflict.

We all exist in a network of relationships. Our goals will, at times, overlap with the goals of the people with know. Goal conflict can arise if I am unclear about the goals I share with those people, the goals which might be imposed on me, and my own “freely chosen” goals. Often I have found out that the stated goals of the people I work with are in fact “not” their goals at all; they are the goals of someone else such as their partner or their parents.

The outcome of any goal we set also raises conflict. When we enact a goal there will be an outcome. If the outcome is not the one we want, what do we do?

When there is a mismatch between the desired outcome of the goals we set ourselves and what actually happens, there is a conflict. Say, for example, that Paul had set himself the goal moving away from home, and he also had the less obvious goal of feeling it was his duty to look after his aging parents. Each time he set himself the goal of living independently, he failed. When he reflected upon this, he realised that he was still vulnerable to his parents’ emotional blackmail; they did not want him to leave home. His second more hidden goal of feeling he needed to do his duty continued to trump the SMART goal of independent living he had set himself.

Being able to talk about this conflict is a first step in beginning to resolve depression. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said that “he who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

We need to ask ourselves “why” exactly a particular goal is meaningful to us and more meaningful than other goals. Once we know this, then “how” we go about it - using the SMART formula - becomes a little easier​.