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Setting And Achieving Goals The SMART Way

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.

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.

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.

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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