I was already Familiar with the mechanics of goal setting when I began using Noom, a weight loss app, to prep for my daughter’s wedding. My graduate work in psychology focused on goal setting, so I knew goals should be SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-based).
“Trying to lose weight” isn’t a SMART goal because it isn’t specific or time-based, but “losing 1 pound a week for five weeks” is. But I’d stopped setting specific, attainable goals during the decades-long crush of parenting and career. I didn’t expect to be moved by a weekly text from a virtual coach and was surprised to feel compelled to respond to her goal request. Once my goal was announced, I felt driven to meet it. How did my coach’s simple text help me change?
Effective coaching programs incorporate goal-setting principles with other techniques to help users achieve their targets. Rhonda Gutenberg, a leadership consultant and coach, says, “One reason coaching works is because it holds you accountable.” A primary difference between setting goals and achieving them is “being held accountable by a coach or boss who has expectations” for completion.
Coaching check-in inquiries like “What are the top three things you achieved this week?” or “How are you doing with your goal progress this week?” are important to accountability. I’ve heard anecdotal examples of this, including a writing coach who gets paid to open, but not read, weekly files sent by their clients.
Lesley Hoare, an executive coach with Talent Consulting Group, agrees that accountability is key, and she only accepts affirmative responses to the goal commitment question. If a client says “I’ll try to reach that goal,” she responds with “What needs to happen in order for you to commit?” Sometimes this leads to a conversation about goal importance. That lack of commitment could be because the consequence of not achieving the target isn’t big enough to push her client into action. Depending on your situation, losing 1 pound a week may be less important than reducing screen time by 20 percent in the same week, or adding three weekly cardio workouts. Hoare agrees, and says the rewards must be important enough to warrant change.
I initially found my coach’s generic affirmations and robotic questions frustrating, and I was annoyed to wait a week for her reply. Then I realized her function was to request and hold me accountable to my personal goals, but I had to set meaningful goals. Still, my reaction to her first goal request was “You can’t make me.” After all, my invisible coach held no power and couldn’t check my progress reports. But I didn’t want to admit defeat to a virtual coach, or myself. I wanted change, and the weekly text provided needed accountability.
Gutenberg says an important component of reaching your goals is receiving feedback, whether that’s from a coworker, spouse, or tracking device. Feedback can come from a smart watch for physical goals, but improving social or interpersonal skills requires feedback from others, such as friends or family. Gutenberg says feedback is very helpful to goal achievement, so all programs need to include ways to track and measure progress. Self-report ratings are helpful if more objective measures aren’t available for interpersonal or social skills such as listening, helping, or teamwork.
How to Choose a Goal-Setting or Coaching App
Hoare says reinforcement is important, since a behavior must be repeated for many days to become a habit. She says there are a variety of good apps available to create goals, but hallmarks of a good program include inquiries about goal progress and continuous reinforcement. Additionally, Hoare says, the program should be simple to use and easily fit into your daily life.
Users should decide whether they want coaching from a skilled coach or customized coaching bot. For motivated people with SMART goals, automated coaching responses based on a decision tree may be enough. The importance of having a skilled coach behind the text exchange is apparent when progress stops. A coach can help identify what isn’t working and modify the program to help ensure that users move forward. A coach can assist users in adjusting goals that are too difficult or not important enough.