When a New Year begins, by far the most common resolution set by people is to exercise more. In fact, 59% of resolutions have to do with exercise. But, research shows that the way goals around exercise are set don’t really work, which can make it an unrewarding and demotivating experience.
When setting specific goals (also called SMART goals, which stands for specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timebound) or resolutions, it often becomes an all-or-nothing situation, as Christian Swann from Southern Cross University writes for The Conversation: “You either achieve the goal or you fail.” For example, if you set a goal of walking 10,000 steps per day but end up recording 9,000 steps in one day, this can often feel extremely disappointing.
Instead of taking into account that you had a busy day and 9,000 steps was a great effort, it automatically feels like a failure as you have fallen short of a very specific goal. Instead of using this system, Swann suggests using open goals, which are “non-specific and exploratory, often phrased as aiming to ‘see how well I can do'”.
In fact, researchers found that these goals can work for both elite athletes as well as regular folk who want to prioritise exercise. One study from May 2020 found that open goals worked far better for adults who were considered “insufficiently active” compared to overly specific goals and accumulated in the participants walking much further.
Why do open goals work?
The key difference, according to Swann, between SMART goals and open goals is where your focus is. With an open goal, your focus is on the starting point while a SMART goal encourages you to look to where you want to be in the future, which can make you feel like you’re already lagging behind. And should progress feel slow, it can make you unmotivated.
Instead of comparing where you should be, open goals allow you to take it day-by-day without jumping ahead to the endpoint. “If your goal is to ‘see how many steps I can reach today’, then as your step count rises, it will feel like you’re making progress. You may start to think, ‘Oh, I’m already on 2,000 steps… Now it’s 3,000 steps… Let’s see how many I can get to,'” Swann wrote.
This creates a much more positive experience which has benefits for your brain as well. Studies have found that open goals — when compared to SMART goals — make walking more enjoyable, while also helping to make people more confident and this, in turn, helps to boost motivation. According to Swann, this suggests that open goals can also help people stick with exercise routines for longer.
How to set an open goal
Unlike SMART goals, setting an open goal with exercise doesn’t involve any numbers. You don’t need to write down how many steps you want to walk per week or how much you want to bench press. Instead, think of your goal in more open, loose terms like ‘I want to be more active’.
Or, as Swann suggests: “Phrase your goal in an open-ended, exploratory way: ‘I want to see how high I can get my average daily step count by the end of the year’. And then get started! With an open goal, you’re more likely to see progress, enjoy the experience, and stick with it until you’re ready to set — and achieve — more specific goals.”