Week 1: Understanding chronic pain

Week 4: Healthy thinking, healthy self

Week 5: Balancing your activity patterns

Week 6: Maintaining your gains and staying well

Setting ‘SMART’ goals

As we have mentioned, goal setting is an important part of behaviour change. Goal setting is helpful for thinking about your ideal future and motivating you to turn this into a reality. Although many people understand the concept of setting goals, not many know how to set them well. Above, we introduced you to the ‘SMART’ goal acronym. Here, we break this down further using some examples relevant to chronic pain.

How to set ‘SMART’ Goals: 

Firstly, you’ll need to identify a target area to work on. We gave some example target areas in the section above. It is important to pick something that is important to you and which you are motivated to change. Once you have identified your target area, pick one thing you would like to focus on. Next, follow the SMART guide below to create your goal:

Specific: Your goal should be well-defined and specific. 

  • Be specific about what you want to achieve and the steps you will need to take to get there. Avoid using vague language here. For example, instead of saying “I want to be pain free”, you might say “I want to be able to work 2 days a week for at least 3 hours per day”.

Measurable: Your goal should be quantifiable and easily tracked. 

  • How will you know if you’re making progress on your goal? How will you know when you’ve achieved it? What measures will you use? This step helps you make your goal more tangible. For example, instead of saying “I want to feel better”, you might say, “I will record the amount of time I can work and try to increase this over time”. 

Achievable: Your goal should be realistic and attainable.

  • Choose a goal that is challenging but possible. Don’t set your goal too low or too high, as both scenarios can hurt motivation. Consider whether you have the skills and resources necessary to achieve the goal. For example, instead of saying “I want to be symptom free forever”, you could say “I’ll slowly increase the amount of time I spend working by 30 minutes per week”. 

Relevant: Your goal should be interesting and relevant to your life.

  • Your goal should be meaningful and important to you. It should fit within the broader context of your life and what you value. For example, if your pain mainly impacts you at work, but not at home, don’t make it your aim to change things at home. Instead of saying, “I want to improve X”, say something like “I will focus on improving X at work”. 

Timely: Your goal should include a timeframe and deadline.

  • You need to set a realistic timeframe for your goal. When do you want to achieve it? Set a clear deadline that you can work towards. Make sure you are realistic here. For example, instead of saying “I’ll see how long it takes me”, you might say “I will increase my work time to 3 days per week within the next 3 months”. You may also like to review your goal halfway through to check that you are on track. 

Here’s an example of how you can put it all together:

S –  “I want to be able to work 2 days a week for at least 3 hours a day”

M – “I will record the amount of time I can work and gradually increase this”

A – “I’ll increase my work time by 30 minutes each week”

R – “This goal is important, increasing my work means I’ll have more purpose and money”

T – “I will achieve this goal within 3 months from today”

Breaking your goals down:

To give yourself the best chance of success, it can help to break your goals down into manageable steps. This gives you a clear pathway forward and lays out everything you’ll need to do to reach your target. Depending on the size of your goal, you may only need a few steps to get from start to finish. Bigger goals may need to be broken down into several steps to help you achieve your aim. 

Let’s take the example above about wanting to work 3 days a week. Some steps to achieve this target may include:

  • Call employer to discuss return to work
  • Discuss workplace options for support with your employer
  • Plan steps that will prepare you for increased work (e.g., spending some time reading or using the computer each day)
  • Slowly start to engage in these activities at home 
  • Arrange a graded work schedule, starting with work from home and progressing to work at the office. You could start with something like:
    • 30 minutes of work, twice a week (for 2 weeks)
    • 1 hour of work, twice a week (for 2 weeks) 
    • 1.5 hours of work, twice a week (for 2 weeks)
    • 2 hours of work, twice a week (for 2 weeks)
    • 2.5 hours of work, twice a week (for 2 weeks)
    • 3 hours of work, twice a week (for 2 weeks)
  • In each of the steps above, you can further specify how you break down the time spent working. For example, you could do 15 minutes of work, followed by 30 minutes of rest. We discuss this concept more in future weeks when we talk about activity pacing.  

As another example, say you want to be able to socialise more. You set a goal to spend time with friends for up to 2 hours a week. Your goal could be further broken down into the following steps:

  • Make a list of people who you want to spend more time with
  • Plan to phone a friend for 15 minutes, twice a week
  • Have a friend visit for 30 minutes, once a week
  • Meet a friend out at a place nearby for 30 minutes, once a week
  • Meet a friend out at a place nearby for 1 hour, once a week
  • Go out with a group of friends for 1 hour per week
  • Go out with a group of friends for 2 hours per week

Have a think about your SMART goals and how you can break them down into smaller steps. It can be helpful to think about changing the intensity, the location or the time/duration of the activity when creating your steps. Think about ways you can make the task easier (e.g., more breaks, extra support, easier work etc.), and gradually build up in terms of difficulty. The idea is that you find success early on and gain momentum and confidence over time. The way you structure your steps may change, however, as you gain more insight into your pain and the factors that influence it.