Setting And Achieving Goals The SMART Way


August 24, 2009   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

Whether you’re trying to advance your career or achieve something significant in your personal life, at some stage you will need to set yourself some goals and work towards achieving them. But, just being able to set a goal is not enough. Promising yourself that you’ll do something is easy, actually doing it can be a lot harder.

Most of us tend to have many goals at any one time, we want to be happy and rich, we want to lose weight, we want to drink less and quit smoking. While those are all great things to work towards, they are not really very well defined, they are more of an ambition, a statement of intent rather than a concrete objective.

How will you measure your level of happiness? How rich do you actually want to be? Do actually NEED to lose weight? How much less do you want to drink and by what stage do you want to be cigarette free? How will you even begin to do any of this?
Goals need focus and context, and this is where many people struggle and so their ambitions remain forever out of reach.

The SMART System

When I first learned about the SMART system, I was very excited. It crystallized something in my mind, something I believe I always knew, but could never put my finger on. Having learned about it I was almost immediately able to pinpoint where I went wrong (or right) with some of my recent personal successes and failures. Let me share with you what SMART is all about.

SMART is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-Boxed. You apply the SMART criteria to any goal you wish to achieve and if it does not meet any of the five characteristics you clarify and adjust it until it does.

    • Specific
      You jeopardize your chances of success from the very start when you make a goal too general. There is no point just saying you want to run faster. You need to make it more concrete, i.e. “I want to be able to improve my average time for a 5 mile run by 1 minute”, is much better and is something that you can really work towards. 
  • Measurable
    You need a way to be able to tell that you have achieved what you set out to achieve. Making a goal measurable is directly related to making it specific. The more specific your objective is the easier it becomes to measure it and gauge your progress. If you can’t find a way to measure your progress towards your goal, then you most likely need to make it more specific. 

One of the best things about having a measurable objective is having the ability to set yourself milestones. It is much easier to achieve a tough objective when you can break the journey up into smaller increments. It’s a psychological thing, by giving yourself a series of successes along the way, through meeting a set of milestones, you give yourself positive reinforcement and working towards your goal becomes a much more pleasurable experience.

  • Achievable
    It is one of the most frustrating things in the world when something you’re really passionate about is simply beyond your power or control. Don’t put yourself in that situation. You may really want to make 1 billion dollars by tomorrow or solve world hunger by the end of the month, but realistically you have no chance of achieving either of those. You need to be realistic about your goal-setting. Some things may simply be beyond your influence, like becoming a Formula 1 driver in your 40s or being close personal friends with the Queen of England. 

Be reasonable and make sure your goals are something you can actually accomplish. Don’t get me wrong, it is fine to have ‘stretch goals’ (forgive the management terminology), but when it is physically impossible for you to stretch that far, you need to set your sights a little lower.

  • Relevant
    If you don’t believe in something, when you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, it is not only extremely difficult to keep doing it, but you also get very little personal satisfaction from achieving milestones or even attaining the final objective itself. Don’t waste your time; make sure your goal is something that really matters to you. This one is perhaps the most difficult of the five as it can require a bit of soul searching to figure out what is really important to you. Do invest the time, zero-in on the things that are truly important to you, don’t set goals arbitrarily. 
  • Time-Boxed
    We tend to work best when we are working towards a deadline. If we know that we need to achieve our objectives by a certain date we tend to have more focus and prioritize. Without a concrete deadline our goals are at best fuzzy and will tend to always be superseded by ‘more pressing’ concerns. Time-box your goals , more than that, time-box the milestones on the way to your goal it will give you extra motivation and encourage you to push on towards the next milestone on the way to your objective. 

Finally remember that you can never set your goals in isolation. Your objectives must make sense in the context of your environment. You may want to backpack around Europe for 6 months, but if you have a wife and 3 young children, is that goal really achievable or even relevant in the grand scheme of things? And even if you did push on with achieving this goal would you be prepared to pay the price (alienating or losing your family)?

As for me, I first learned about SMART from a great book I read earlier this year – “Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware” by Andy Hunt – which by the way is an excellent read if you want to learn more about how your brain works and tap the potential of your mind more fully.

What really got my attention was the fact that Andy mentions that using SMART objectives is “an old favorite from the consultant’s bag of tricks”. I had never heard of it in almost 4 years of doing software consulting, so my curiosity was piqued. Since learning about SMART I have tried to apply it not only in my personal life but also in my work and it has made a noticeable difference. Not only am I more productive, but I am also happier since I am a lot better able to achieve the objectives I set for myself (primarily because I set my goals in such a way as to meet all the SMART characteristics). It just feels like I am getting a lot more done these days possibly because I tend to focus on bite-sized goals that are most important and relevant to me (which is what SMART is all about). Try it yourself, you’re bound to notice the difference.

Written on 8/24/2009 by Alan Skorkin. Alan shares his thoughts about software development, people and teamwork on his blog Photo Credit: TFDuesing

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