PT on the Net Research

Take Goal Setting to a New Level by First Changing Your Identity

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand the type of client that may benefit from S.M.A.R.T. goals
  2. Differentiate between outcome-based goals and identity-based goals
  3. Identify the type of client that may benefit from identity-based goals
  4. Understand the importance of small wins in developing a new identity

Are S.M.A.R.T. goals the best way to successfully change habits or achieve a new goal? For clients with goals that are already in line with their current lifestyle and habits, this may be exactly what they need. However, S.M.A.R.T. goals may not be the most effective tool for clients who want to make a major life change. One may need to take a different approach that focuses on their identity when setting goals.

S.M.A.R.T Goals

S.M.A.R.T. goals are:

S - Specific

M - Measurable

A - Action oriented

R - Realistic/Relevant

T - Time-bound

S.M.A.R.T. goals are great for clients who want to improve their athletic performance, increase the amount they lift, or lose a couple of pounds for an event. They are already active, and perhaps even successful in the endeavor that they are pursuing. More importantly, their goal aligns with their current self-identity, as an athlete, competitor, or someone living an active lifestyle, and they just need some accountability to get to the next level. Their focus is on the outcome.

Sometimes S.M.A.R.T Goals Just Don’t Cut It

A large majority of clients, however, want to make a major life change. They may want a specific outcome, but they must significantly alter their daily habits and how they perceive themselves. These are clients who want to give up smoking, go from being obese to a healthy level of body fat, or go from being inactive to having a healthy, active lifestyle. They are not looking to make a small change in their habits. In order to be successful in their goals, they first need to see themselves differently.

Why an Identity Change is Necessary

A self-identified smoker will be tempted to smoke every single day. A "couch potato" is going to struggle to embrace an active lifestyle. Their daily habits and choices are based on their identity. When setting a goal and attempting to change those habits, clients struggle to avoid what they call "self-sabotaging" behaviors.  They give in to smoking. They skip their workout and eat too much food. These behaviors are not self-sabotage at all. They are simply choices or habits that are in line with the person's current identity. These behaviors will need to be continuously monitored as long as that identity remains, as their goal directly conflicts with how they view themselves.

For these clients, identity goals might be a better solution. If they can change how they seem themselves, it will be easier to make different lifestyle choices, and overtime, their habits will align with their new identity. This does not happen overnight, but embracing a new identity is the most important first step.

What is more exciting and empowering?

With outcome-based goals, like losing 20 pounds, the focus is on the outcome. Did you lose the 20 pounds or not? Ultimately, you can't control what the scale says, but you can control the daily activities that will affect the scale, like working out and eating fewer calories. By focusing on the new identity, being healthy and fit, you are likely to lose weight. Even more importantly though, as you embrace this new identity, it becomes easier to make the choices of a healthy and fit person.

Taking the First Step

The first step involves your client asking themselves,

“Who do I want to be?”

Have your client picture what their life is like and what choices they are making day-to-day.

At this point, it is helpful for your client to focus more on their qualities (“being fit” for example) and less on specifics (like how much they weigh). Remember, the outcome of losing weight will be a by-product of this process, but the outcome is not the focus.

Set an Identity-Based Goal

Here are a few examples to help you.

Outcome-Based Goal: I will stop smoking by the end of the month.

Identity-Based Goal: I am the type of person who chooses healthy ways to relax.

As your client views themselves as a person who chooses healthy ways to relax, it will become harder and harder to continue smoking. Smoking is no longer in line with their new identity.

Outcome-Based Goal: I will lose 20 pounds in the next 3 months.

Identity-Based Goal: I am the type of person who always makes time for my workouts.

As your client views themselves as a person who exercises regularly, it will be hard not to workout. Skipping a workout goes against their new identity.

Where’s the Proof?

Embracing a new identity is not enough, especially in overriding an identity that may have been in place for decades. This is where proof is important. Clients need to see that this new identity is a possibility for them.

Step two is to devise small “wins” for your clients to increase their self-efficacy. For the second example above, you could have the client start exercising 4 times a week. They might do 2 minutes of activity on day #1 and increase it by one minute each workout. It may seem too “easy” or too small of a step to be effective, but remember, you are looking for the long-term identity change.

For a client who never exercises, this is more than they have been doing before, so it is movement in the right direction. And for most people, once they get started, they won’t want to stop at 2 minutes. Their motivation will increase by taking action, and they might get a full 30-minute workout in.

These small wins will increase their belief in themselves and their new identity.

S.M.A.R.T. goals are effective for some clients, especially those with a goal already tied to their current view of themselves. However, if your client is making a major change in their lifestyle and habits, you will likely be more successful in the change process by using identity-based goals and their associated habits. As your client sees their repeated successes, their belief in their new identity will continue to grow. This internal belief has more power and provides more motivation to your client than any external source of motivation you could provide.


Clear, J. (2018) Identity-Based Habits: How to Actually Stick to Your Goals This Year. [Web Blog Post]. Retrieved from

Keummerlin, J. (2018). The leap process: The side hustler’s guide to getting the life of your dreams and creating a life you love! Michael Grace Publishing LLC.

Moore, M., Jackson, E., & Tschannen-Moran, B. (2016). Coaching psychology manual (2nd ed). Baltimore, MD: Wolters Kluwer.