If you’re a regular reader of Women Who Cycle then you’ll know I’m pretty big on Cycling New Year’s resolutions. In my previous years, I’ve often advocated setting specific goals based on the SMART theory but new research suggests that using open goals is more beneficial.
An example of the sort of goal I’ve advocated in the past is to declare how many kilometres I plan to ride each year. The research suggests that one problem is specific goals are all-or-nothing: you either achieve the goal or you fail.
That’s why you might feel you’ve failed after “only” riding 5,000 kilometres when your goal was 6,000 as in my case. In reality, 5,000 kilometres is an achievement especially considering that the COVID-19 pandemic derailed this year in a big way.
One alternative is to set what’s known as an open goal.
What are open goals?
Open goals are non-specific and exploratory, often phrased as aiming to “see how well I can do”. So in my case, my goal would be “I’m going to see how many kilometres I can ride each week”.
One study found insufficiently active people performed better (in this study that meant they walked further) when pursuing open goals than they did with SMART goals.
Psychological benefits of open goals
Open goals aren’t just good for performance — they’re also much more psychologically beneficial than SMART goals.
Elite athletes who first reported open goals described how they were an important part of experiencing flow — the enjoyable, rewarding state when everything just seems to click into place and we perform well without even needing to think about it.
How do you set your own open goal?
To set your own open goals, think first about what you want to improve. Then identify what you want to measure, such as your weekly amount of riding.
Phrase your goal in an open-ended, exploratory way: “I want to see how many kilometres I can ride each week by the end of the year.”
The experts say that with an open goal, you’re more likely to see progress, enjoy the experience, and stick with it.