How to make your goals smart (with step-by-step examples)

Most people want to be an Astronaut. Or at lest that’s what I thought when I was 5 years old.
I remember I was in the car with my dad, looking at all the other cars parked along the side of the road. I can still feel the warm, stuffy air of that day.
My dad looked at me and asked me “what would you like to do when you grow up?”
I looked at him with a big smile and said “I want to be an astronaut one day.”

That goal didn’t last very long. My dad replied saying that the world doesn’t need that many astronauts, to which I replied “I want to be a bricklayer then. They play with mud all day.”

All it took was a few seconds and a simple observation to make me abandon my dreams of exploring outer space. Not a great start, little Matt, but you’re not alone. Most New Year’s Resolutions are abandoned by January 24th, and over 80% are dropped eventually.
And that’s just New Year’s goals. If I think about all the accomplishments that will never be, it’s very sad: so many people give up on creating a better life for themselves, and in the meantime deprive the world of the fruits of their personal accomplishments. If one of us settles, we all settle.

SMART goals: make language your best friend

When you set a goal, you are essentially writing down a map that will set a clear direction for you. It’s the exact description of what you’re aiming for.
This is why it’s important to be specific and write it down: as days go by, circumstances will change, your mood will change, you may encounter a few obstacles and a few quick wins. And just like a map, having clear goals will help you keep your direction when the landscape around you has changed.

 

Think about it as an IKEA manual: you know exactly what the final result will look like.
If you buy shelves (and look at the picture on the front), you’re not gonna end up with a futuristic toilet seat.
But that’s exactly why such a high percentage of goals fail so quickly: the manual was faulty from the start.

smart goals vs dumb goals

Here’s where SMART principles come in handy. They provide a framework to make sure you give your goals the right structure to allow you to be successful.
This will help you keep motivated, stay on course and avoid later misinterpretations, as well as tracking progress and making sure you accomplish your objective by a certain date.

What does S.M.A.R.T. stand for?


  • Specific: This tells exactly what you want to accomplish.
  • Measurable: You can measure progress without having to wait for the final deadline.
  • Assignable: Who is the person responsible for the success or failure of the goal?
  • Realistic: Have a look at your current situation, your available resources (including time), and examples of a similar goal to find a benchmark. Then brainstorm ways to achieve your goal to see whether it’s realistic.
  • Time-bound: How much time are you giving to yourself? Be precise.

Confusingly, there are many interpretations of the A and R in SMART goals. Above is the one I like to use, which was first mentioned in 1981: I find it’s still the easiest to understand and apply, and because of this very effective.

Now let’s have a look at how to put these 5 principles into practice.

Good goals vs sloppy goals

Let’s use an example. I’m going to pick something from a list of the most common New Year’s Resolutions (I’m mean like that).

(Not so) SMART New Year's Resolutions

Get fitter? More me time? Man, this is gonna be fun. Let’s pick this one: drink less.
Let’s take this sloppy goal, put it through the SMART machine, and see what happens.

Example: how to make a goal SMART

SPECIFIC: not very specific at all. I’m going to assume our inebriated friend was referring to any kind of alcoholic beverage. This still leaves us with many questions: how often and how much do they currently drink? What would be a good example of “less”? If you drink 10 pints but leave the final inch in the glass, does it count as less?
So many questions, not enough answers.

A much more specific version could have been: Drink (alcohol) on Fridays only.
Or Have no more than 3 drinks a week.
Or Only drink once a week.
Or Do not drink on Tuesdays.

They’re all good, but I’m going to choose Only drink once a week to continue with our example.


MEASURABLE: well, it is now. Say you’re used to having a cheeky pint four days a week, now you can slowly reduce your intake and measure how you’re doing. You can start by drinking twice a week (hey that’s a 50% reduction, high five!), and then once you’re comfortable move to your final target of once a week.

The important thing here is that you’ll be able to see whether you’re making progress or just sticking to your old drinking habits.


ASSIGNABLE: ouch. Who’s going to drink less?
Don’t be sloppy on your goals, and always include the subject that will carry out that action. In this case, I will only drink once a week.

It may sound like a trivial point, but making sure the goals is assignable will give you a sense of ownership and responsibility that will keep you motivated to achieve your goal.

Plus, if other people are involved in your goal, whether they’re friends or your team, making the goal assignable will make clear who shares the responsibility (and the final win!).


REALISTIC: it’s pretty realistic, though we will only know once we’ve gone through the final letter T.

I definitely feel like I can do it. I can reduce my drinking down to once a week. At some point. (Which brings me to…)


TIME BOUND: at some point isn’t good enough. When will I know it’s time to celebrate? Is this a temporary change? If I reduce to twice a week in the beginning, is it progress or is it a failure?
Once again, lots of unanswered questions.

Today it’s 4th of August, so I’m going to say I will only drink once a week for the month of August.
A-ha! Now I know my objective starts from right now and will continue for the next four weeks.

But I could have also said: I will only drink once a week from 1st September, making it a lifestyle choice rather than a temporary break, but also giving me some time to get used to it.


…and that’s our first SMART goal done!

celebrate

One of the great advantages of using SMART goals is that you can measure progress over time. This allows you to set BIG goals, and then chunk them up so that you can make daily, weekly, and monthly progress. It will also help you stay focused as working on random tasks won’t help you move forward. You’ll be able to spot the problem right away.

Time to get to work: review at your existing goals, and make sure they follow the 5 SMART principles. Then send me an email and let me know what changes you made.

— Matt

 


Other articles you’ll enjoy:
Life balance: 3 areas your goals cannot ignore
4 ways to celebrate your wins and make your goals stick


set the right goals