Get SMART About Your Goals

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May 26, 2021
letters spelling smart

Think of the last time you failed to achieve a goal. How did it feel? In some cases, you can do everything right, and still not achieve your goal. But more often, something goes wrong early on in the process of pursuing your goal, and not long after, things fall apart.

More than any other factor within your control, the way you craft your goals can be the difference between achievement and frustration. And by craft, I mean putting together the words that make up the goals in question.

After all, a goal is simply a statement about how you want things to be different in the future. Obviously, that’s going to require some consistent work on your part. In order to get you to do that work, your goal needs to motivate you–for a sustained period of time. A goal also needs to provide you with some idea of what work is actually required to make it happen. It’s like directions or a recipe.

And much like directions or recipes, if a goal doesn’t have certain elements to it, it’s not likely to be effective. That’s where the concept of a “S.M.A.R.T.” goal comes in. First coined by management writer George Doran, “S.M.A.R.T.” is an acronym for 5 traits a goal should have in order to maximize your chance of following through on it. An effective goal should be:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

If you can craft your goals with these 5 traits in mind, you’re more likely to be motivated by your goals, rather than intimidated.

Below is an explanation of each of these elements of S.M.A.R.T. goals, as well as some helpful questions to ask yourself as you craft your goals. At the bottom is a link to a Workflowy template that you can use as an outline to craft your own S.M.A.R.T. goals.

Workflowy provides an easy way to craft your goals. Particularly helpful is the ability to nest goals within other goals by simply dragging and dropping–which comes in handy in the very first part of the SMART acronym.

Specific

A good goal should be as specific as possible. It should focus on something particular about what you’d like to accomplish–so you stay focused.

In many ways, setting a goal is like giving yourself directions to a destination. If you’re not specific enough about where you want to end up, you probably won’t reach your destination. After all, how else are you supposed to know where to go–or when you’ve arrived?

Questions to Ask Yourself

  • What will look or feel different once you’ve accomplished your goal?
  • What specific area of your work or life are you looking to change?
  • What aspect of the target area will NOT change

Measurable

Management guru Eli Goldratt once said:

 “Tell me how you will measure me, and then I will tell you how I will behave.”

Measurement drives us to behave differently. And one of the most important things when it comes to goals is being able to see–as simply and precisely as possible–how well you are doing. Without a way to measure yourself, motivation can wane quite easily.

A good goal should be structured so that it’s simple to measure your progress–right up to completion. Much like the analogy of a goal being a destination, a goal should provide you with a way to measure how far you’ve gone toward the destination, and how much farther you have left to go. Without that, it will be difficult to be either excited about your progress, or motivated to keep working.

Questions to Ask Yourself

  • What data will you use to track your progress?
  • Is your goal about accumulation, consistency (streaks), or increasing/decreasing a measurement of something?
  • What changes related to the goal can be measured in numbers?

Achievable

Going hand-in-hand with a goal being measurable is its being achievable. You may have an easily measurable goal. But if that goal is one that’s light-years ahead of where you are now, it’s unlikely to motivate you for very long. Motivation requires belief.

If you don’t believe that you can achieve a goal, you won’t put much effort into it. Furthermore, if you can’t see yourself–in your current situation–achieving that goal, you’re unlikely to be motivated for long.

When you craft your goals, take into account your current problems, weaknesses, and constraints. Given all of those, is this goal something that is within reach–perhaps requiring you to stretch a bit? If so, that’s what makes for a good goal.

Questions to Ask Yourself

  • Is this goal something that you could see your current self doing, with just more effort?
  • Do you see a clear path from where you are now to the end goal?
  • If so, lay out a set of actions that need to be done to accomplish the goal.

Relevant

This may sound like a no-brainer, but a goal should be relevant to the person committed to it. Unfortunately, many of us end up adopting goals that just aren’t relevant to our overarching values. As a result, we don’t fully buy into the goals, and we end up abandoning them in short order.

There are all sorts of reasons for this. Some people adopt goals they see others pursuing–thinking it will make them feel as successful as they perceive others to be. Some people take the suggestions of friends and family or cave into peer pressure, and adopt goals that deep down, they don’t really see as worthy.

Whatever goal you’re looking at pursuing, be sure it’s relevant–meaning that you see the clear value in achieving it for you. Some goals are given to you by your boss; that’s unavoidable. But if you value impressing your boss or doing your job well–and your boss’s goals for you contribute to that–the goal is relevant. Many times, checking the relevance of a goal is just about stepping back and connecting it to your values and longer-term goals.

Make that connection explicit when you formulate your goals. Connect what you’re trying to achieve in the short term to the bigger picture and your deeply held values. If a goal doesn’t connect like that, it may be time to reconsider it.

Questions to Ask Yourself

  • What long-term life goal does this goal contribute to? How?
  • Does this goal serve a value of mine? Does it conflict with any values?
  • Is there something I would have to do to achieve this goal that would conflict with achieving another goal?

Time-bound

The other letters of the S.M.A.R.T acronym cover many of the key questions about what you want to achieve. But one thing that shouldn’t be forgotten is the when of your goal. It’s great to have a goal of lowering your cholesterol by 20 points. But without a deadline, it’s not likely to push you to do anything about it now.

There’s a supposed “law” of productivity called Parkinson’s Law, named after 20th century economics writer C.N. Parkinson. In one of its forms it says work expands or contracts to fit the time allotted. So if you don’t give yourself a deadline to achieve your goal, it could very well drag on forever. And usually, part of the satisfaction of achieving a goal is being able to do it in a relatively short amount of time.

So give yourself a time constraint. Be aggressive, but realistic (see the “A” for “achievable”). You’d be surprised at how much you can get done when you put a timetable in front of yourself.

Questions to Ask Yourself

  • How long do I think this would take me to reach the goal if I went really slowly?
  • How much time could I do this in if I only had to focus on this, and nothing else?
  • What time period is somewhere in the middle of the above two?
  • How long did it take someone else I know to do something similar?

Wrapping up

Whatever your goals are, be sure you take as much thought to craft them properly as you can. Make them specific, so you don’t forget what you’re going after. Make them measurable, so you always know how you’re doing. Make them Achievable, so you don’t set yourself up for failure. Make them Relevant, so achieving them really matters to the bigger picture. Lastly, make them Time-bound, so you push yourself to get to work as soon as possible.

Use this template in Workflowy to help build a S.M.A.R.T goal yourself. Note: You need to activate templates in your Workflowy document. Open ‘Settings’ then scroll down and activate ‘Templates’.

We also turned this post into a handy infographic with the key questions you should ask to craft great S.M.A.R.T. goals.

Infographic of SMART goal setting
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Andrew
Andrew
3 months ago

Whilst agreeing with SMART, it often glides over the issue of Context. That is, ‘Why, in the bigger picture, am I doing this?’. That information should motivate, provide boundaries, completion criteria, etc.
BTW, wfy provides a tool to present that context.

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