Neurofeedback and SMART Goals

When asked to create a goal for neurofeedback treatment, people will often reply with “I want to feel better.” While this goal makes sense, it is extremely difficult to work with for many reasons. The goal is difficult to measure as many people don’t know what “feeling better” means. Are they trying to get rid of anxiety? Are they trying to be happy all the time? For many people suffering from mental health symptoms, it can be difficult knowing what “better” feels like. All they know for sure is that they want to stop thinking, feeling, and/or behaving they way they are currently. This is where a technique called the SMART method can be helpful.

SMART Method

            The SMART method was discussed briefly in the blog on Neurofeedback and Performance Psychology. Many researchers have struggled to pinpoint the origin of the SMART method. It appears that the researcher Doran developed a method for setting effective goals in the workplace in 1981, but it’s possible that the method was developed even earlier. Despite having an unknown origin, the SMART method has become an effective way of setting goals that have the best chance for success. Goals need to be Specific, Measurable, Adjustable/Acceptable/Attainable, Realistic, and Timed. 

Non-SMART goal: “I want to feel better.”

SMART Goal: “I want to reduce the number of panic attacks from 5 per month to 1-2 per month by the end of the year.”

            The “feel better” goal violates all aspects of the SMART method. Therefore, lets utilize the SMART method to make a better goal with a drastic increase in chance of success.

            Specific: “Feel better” is not specific enough as the clinician does not know what “feel better” means. A more specific goal would involve “reducing the number of panic attacks to X amount.” This way a clinician and the person know they are specifically trying to reduce experiences with anxiety.

            Measurable: “Feel better” is difficult to measure. How much better is the person? How long can a person stay feeling better? Is it possible for the person to feel even better than this? One can see how easy it would be to lose motivation or think you’ve reached your goal when you cannot measure progress. A more measurable goal would involve “reducing the number of panic attacks to X number of times per month.”

            Attainable/Acceptable: Sometimes people are unable to “feel better” for numerous reasons. Maybe they are unable to leave a difficult environment, or maybe they are struggling with chronic pain that contributes to mental health struggles. It is important for a clinician and person to recognize whether its possible to “feel better.” This discussion can be a tough one to have given the hopelessness it can promote, but it is worse to set someone up for failure by creating an unattainable goal. So instead of “feeling better,” it is best to make sure that a person has the capability of reducing their panic attacks before creating this goal. 

            Adjustable: People tend to think that flexible goals cause people to take shortcuts or give minimal effort. For example, if someone has a weight loss goal of 20 pounds but is “happy with losing at least 10,” then people may think that the person will only work hard enough to lose ten pounds. However, personal experience with goal setting has shown that people stay motivated and continue to build off adjustable goals rather than rigid goals. For example, the SMART goal involving “reducing panic attacks from 5 times per month to 1-2 times per month” allows a person to be ambitious by trying to almost eliminate panic attacks, but also realistic in that reducing panic attacks to twice a month is still an accomplishment. This way the person can feel pride for reducing panic attacks, which may increase motivation, and a motivated person will continue to set more goals and continue improving. Therefore, it’s best practice when setting a goal to know the minimum amount of success you would be happy with as well as the maximum amount of success you hope to achieve. You still shoot for the sun but are perfectly happy with landing on the moon.

            Realistic: Again, it is important to know if “feeling better” is realistic. Sometimes people in difficult situations just need support until the situations are resolved. Also, people tend to be very ambitious when setting goals, which can drastically lower the chance of success. As a clinician, it is difficult working with ambitious goals as they tend to put pressure on the individual and the clinician. This pressure can contribute to regression and possibly premature termination of services. Therefore, it is important to set realistic goals. Maybe its possible for a person to reduce panic attacks to 1-2 times per month. On the other hand, it may be more realistic for that person to try and reduce panic attacks to 3-4 times per month first.

            Timed: The last aspect of the SMART method involves a goal being timed. Having a deadline on a goal allows one to measure progress. If the person wants to reduce panic attacks to 1-2 times per month by the end of the year, then the person can set markers leading up to the deadline to help measure progress. Say the person has 3 months remaining in the year. The person can try and reduce panic attacks from 5 per month to 4 per month in the first month, then 3 in the second month, and then 1-2 times per month by the end of the year. Timed goals also help to keep the person motivated. One can see how a person would lose motivation on a goal with no deadline as assignments without deadlines make it easier to procrastinate.   

            When setting goals, it is highly recommended that a person sets a specific goal that can be measured. The goal should be realistic, attainable, and adjustable to increase the chance of success. The goal should also be timed so a person avoids procrastination.


Doran, G. T. (1981). There’s a SMART way to write management goals and objectives. Management Review, 70(11), 35-36.

Weinberg, R., & Gould, D. (2011). Foundations of sport and exercise psychology (5th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Williams, J. (2014). Applied Sport Psychology: Personal Growth to Peak Performance. Boston, MA:  McGraw-Hill Publisher.

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