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Dec 19, 2022

Smarter than SMART: How therapists can improve goal-setting with clients

Curt and Katie chat about setting goals. We look at why goals are important to therapists, SMART goals (what they are, what works and what doesn’t), and how to move beyond SMART goals to more robust goal setting and behavior design.

This is a continuing education podcourse.

Transcripts for this episode will be available at!

In this podcast episode we talk about how to strengthen your goal-setting skills

Many therapists learn SMART Goals and objectives as the primary tools for creating treatment plans. Oftentimes, goal setting can be a check box for insurance or a frustrating activity that doesn’t seem to support clinical progress. We dig deeper into how to make SMART goals better (SMARTer goals?), and we uncover and address the limitations of SMART goals. The current research on how to move past SMART goals to more effective and strategic planning for change also helps to make our clients dig deeper into the process of achieving their goals. We also explore additional goal-setting models to inform and create a more robust goal setting strategy…and we do it all with a demonstration on how to put it into action!

Why is goal-setting important to therapists?

  • Therapeutic benefit
  • Ethical responsibility
  • Ability to achieve goals

What are SMART Goals? Do they work?

  • A goal-setting style that leads to concrete behavioral goals
  • Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timebound
  • There are challenges that do not lead to goal attainment
  • The benefits of effort or progress goals versus outcome goals
  • May need to add steps to create a more robust plan

How can you improve SMART goals?

“Even though it's a lot easier for clinicians to have goals that will span a number of treatment plan periods, it's actually not effective for our clients.” – Katie Vernoy, LMFT

  • Using the Grip on Life model
  • Understanding the challenge and making sure that the SMART goal addressed the challenge
  • Digging deeper into the elements of SMART goals
  • Identifying the barriers to following through with goals set
  • Finding life skills that help to reach the goal
  • Exploring values, planning, attention
  • Looking at what is actually more motivating
  • Is motivation sufficient to make the goal happen?

“[Make] sure that you're testing your own assumptions, because we want to meet the client where they are, in their timeframe of making the change. Because if we push them too hard, it becomes not realistic, or it doesn't become attuned to them.” – Katie Vernoy, LMFT

What is the key difference between setting goals and behavior design?

  • Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg
  • Motivation is fickle
  • Finding the smallest behavior change that can move you toward the goal
  • Create a habit, put it into something you’re already doing, and celebrate the accomplishment

Our Generous Sponsor for this episode of the Modern Therapist’s Survival Guide:


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Receive Continuing Education for this Episode of the Modern Therapist’s Survival Guide

Hey modern therapists, we’re so excited to offer the opportunity for 1 unit of continuing education for this podcast episode – Therapy Reimagined is bringing you the Modern Therapist Learning Community!

 Once you’ve listened to this episode, to get CE credit you just need to go to, register for your free profile, purchase this course, pass the post-test, and complete the evaluation! Once that’s all completed - you’ll get a CE certificate in your profile or you can download it for your records. For our current list of CE approvals, check out

You can find this full course (including handouts and resources) here:

Continuing Education Approvals:

When we are airing this podcast episode, we have the following CE approval. Please check back as we add other approval bodies: Continuing Education Information

CAMFT CEPA: Therapy Reimagined is approved by the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists to sponsor continuing education for LMFTs, LPCCs, LCSWs, and LEPs (CAMFT CEPA provider #132270). Therapy Reimagined maintains responsibility for this program and its content. Courses meet the qualifications for the listed hours of continuing education credit for LMFTs, LCSWs, LPCCs, and/or LEPs as required by the California Board of Behavioral Sciences. We are working on additional provider approvals, but solely are able to provide CAMFT CEs at this time. Please check with your licensing body to ensure that they will accept this as an equivalent learning credit.

Resources for Modern Therapists mentioned in this Podcast Episode:

We’ve pulled together resources mentioned in this episode and put together some handy-dandy links. Please note that some of the links below may be affiliate links, so if you purchase after clicking below, we may get a little bit of cash in our pockets. We thank you in advance!

Tiny Habits: The small changes that change everything by BJ Fogg, PhD

References mentioned in this continuing education podcast:

Bertelsen, P. & Ozer, S. (2021). Grip on life as a possible antecedent for self-control beliefs interacts with well-being and perceived stress. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 62, 185–192.

Fogg, B. J. (2020). Tiny habits: the small changes that change everything. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Gano-Overway, Lori & Sackett, Sarah. (2021). Let’s Get Smart and Set Goals to ASPIRE. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action. 1-15. 10.1080/21520704.2021.2007192.

Geurtzen, N., Keijsers, G. P. J., Karremans, J. C., Tiemens, B. G., & Hutschemaekers, G. J. M. (2020). Patients’ perceived lack of goal clarity in psychological treatments: Scale development and negative correlates. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 27(6), 915–924.

Müller, A. A., & Kotte, S. (2020). Of SMART, GROW and goals gone wild - A systematic literature review on the relevance of goal activities in workplace coaching. International Coaching Psychology Review, 15(2), 69–97.

Parish, T. S. (2020). IMPROVING OUR CHOICES THROUGH EFFECTIVE GOAL SETTING and PLAN-MAKING. International Journal of Choice Theory & Reality Therapy, 15(1), 41–44.

Preben Bertelsen, Simon Ozer, Peter Faber, Anne Sofie Jacobsen & Toke Lund-Laursen (2020) High school students’ grip on life and education, Nordic Psychology, 72:4, 265-291, DOI: 10.1080/19012276.2019.1690557

Starreveld, A. (2021). MAGIC: A Proposed Model Based on Common Factors. Integrative Psychological & Behavioral Science, 55(3), 582–592.

Weintraub, J., Cassell, D., & DePatie, T. P. (2021). Nudging flow through “SMART” goal setting to decrease stress, increase engagement, and increase performance at work. Journal of Occupational & Organizational Psychology, 94(2), 230–258.

Zarate, M., Miltenberger, R., & Valbuena, D. (2019). Evaluating the effectiveness of goal setting and textual feedback for increasing moderate‐intensity physical activity in adults. Behavioral Interventions, 34(4), 553–563.


*The full reference list can be found in the course on our learning platform.


Relevant Episodes of MTSG Podcast:

Structuring Self-Care

All Kinds of Burned Out

Thriving Over Surviving – Growing a Practice Without Burnout: An interview with Megan Gunnell, LMSW

Why You Shouldn’t Just Do It All Yourself: An interview with Bibi Goldstein

Therapists Are Not Robots: How we can show humanity in the room

Whole Person Therapist Episodes

Therapy for Executives and Emerging Leaders


Who we are:

Curt Widhalm, LMFT

Curt Widhalm is in private practice in the Los Angeles area. He is the cofounder of the Therapy Reimagined conference, an Adjunct Professor at Pepperdine University and CSUN, a former Subject Matter Expert for the California Board of Behavioral Sciences, former CFO of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, and a loving husband and father. He is 1/2 great person, 1/2 provocateur, and 1/2 geek, in that order. He dabbles in the dark art of making "dad jokes" and usually has a half-empty cup of coffee somewhere nearby. Learn more at:

Katie Vernoy, LMFT

Katie Vernoy is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, coach, and consultant supporting leaders, visionaries, executives, and helping professionals to create sustainable careers. Katie, with Curt, has developed workshops and a conference, Therapy Reimagined, to support therapists navigating through the modern challenges of this profession. Katie is also a former President of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists. In her spare time, Katie is secretly siphoning off Curt's youthful energy, so that she can take over the world. Learn more at:

A Quick Note:

Our opinions are our own. We are only speaking for ourselves – except when we speak for each other, or over each other. We’re working on it.

Our guests are also only speaking for themselves and have their own opinions. We aren’t trying to take their voice, and no one speaks for us either. Mostly because they don’t want to, but hey.

Stay in Touch with Curt, Katie, and the whole Therapy Reimagined #TherapyMovement:


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Modern Therapist’s Survival Guide Creative Credits:

Voice Over by DW McCann

Music by Crystal Grooms Mangano