Normally I am not a fan of acronyms. By themselves they mean nothing. SMART goals? Sounds like the slogan of a self proclaimed self-help guru giving talks in a dirty hotel conference room. However, digging down into the meaning of SMART goals made me re-think the entire process of goal setting. So, while the acronym itself may sound cheesy, the idea behind it is timeless.
SMART stands for:
Learning how to set the right goals, at the right time, in the right way, is critical to succeeding. This is not a new idea. Lucius Annaeus Seneca, a Roman philosopher famous for his collection of essays Letters From A Stoic, wrote roughly 2,000 years ago: “When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind.” Without a destination, or clear goal, it is easy to get lost. Many of us have vague goals to be in better shape or get rich, yet we wallow along many undefined paths and become lost or distracted along the way. One way to overcome this is to create SMART goals. It should be said that there are many effective goal setting techniques, but to me the simplicity of SMART goals makes it easy to understand and follow.
Make your goals specific. This means overcoming a certain level of fear, because when you make a specific goal that means you have the ability to “fail.” Keeping a goal in the fog means that when you don’t meet it, it’s not such a big deal. If you never define exactly what your goal is, it becomes easier to make yourself feel better about not reaching it. But if your goal is something that really matters to you, make it specific. Instead of saying you want to read more, say you want to read one book per month or 20 books per year. If you want to lose weight, say you want to lose ten pounds in the next three months. If you want to run, sign up for a half marathon that gives a specific distance you need to be able to run.
With a specific goal, you have a clear starting point and end point. You will actually know whether or not you are moving in the right direction. And you will know if you succeed or fail. And if you fail? So what. Hopefully you learned and grew. And most likely, you did better than you would have if your goal was undefined. At the very least you will actually know what to do differently next time.
Having a specific goal means you have something to measure. When goals are measurable, it is easier to track progress and identify areas for improvement. Make goals with clear success and fail points. Not only will his help keep you on track, but it can help break down a large goal into bite sized pieces. So while running 13 miles for a half marathon seems like a big goal at the end, maybe just measuring the 3 miles you have to run today will help you take the first step.
Just like on a ruler, the twelve inch stick can be broken down into individual inches, individual inches into half and quarter inches, and then even further into sixteenth inches. Going from 1/16 of one inch to 12 inches might seem like a huge leap, and that fear or anxiety might overwhelm and inhibit you from getting started in the first place. But if you can figure out how to get from 1/16 to 2/16, then you will be moving forward towards the goal without experiencing as much overwhelm. You will know exactly where you are in relation to the end point and that means you can adjust, modify, plan, and calculate to help increase the likelihood you will reach your goal.
Without a measurable goal giving you a clear start point and clear end point, you will be unsure of where you are and where you are going. Create that baseline to measure against, and that end line to move towards. If your goal is in the fog, measurable steps can be the light house guiding you toward your destination.
Goals have to be realistic. I am not saying you shouldn’t dream big and shoot for the stars, but real goals have to be achievable. They might be hard, it might take a long time, but with the right amount of effort and planning a goal should be able to be completed at some point. What might be a good goal for someone else may not be a good goal for you. Or, perhaps you just need to break that goal down into more manageable pieces. But if you constantly set goals for yourself that are impossible to reach, it can be very defeating. I know how good it feels to check an item off of my to-do list. And if you are going big with your goal, create smaller more attainable steps along the way. Like rather than saying you are going to read 50 books this year, after only reading 10 the year before, maybe say you are going to read 12 books. It is more than 10 and is a step in the right direction to 50. But you aren’t setting yourself up for failure.
All of that being said, it is still important to get out of your comfort zone. True growth only comes on the edge of that comfort zone, and if you keep your goals too small and easy you will stay in the nice, safe, soft, middle. Maybe you will make yourself feel good about reaching some goals, but in the end you are never really moving forward. Be bold. Be big. But also be realistic.
Does your goal align with the master plan for your life? Is achieving this goal going to help you move forward in a way that actually matters? If your big vague goal is to be rich, create smaller goals relevant to that end goal. Like “I am going to invest ‘X’ amount of dollars each month” or “I am going to cut down on y and z to save more.” It can be easy to walk down the path of many goals, where each split in the trail takes you in a different direction. Your goals should eventually get you closer to your final destination, rather than leading you in opposite directions. You will lose focus and can actually interfere with your own success by being pulled in too many directions. When you are making your goals specific, make sure they are specific to what you want. Not what society wants, not what your parents want, not what some book says you should do. Make your goals relevant to you. Your life and the dreams you have for yourself.
This goal is going to take me one year. In that year, I will need to do ‘X’ number of things per month which equals “Y” number per day. Make your goals time sensitive. “I’ll get around to that sometime” is not an effective goal making strategy. Create a goal that is not only measurable in distance, but in time. Create check points along the way and make your measurable components match up with time components. Time can keep you focused. Having a real deadline will light a little fire behind you and keep you going. Similar to having measurable outputs, having a timetable will show you where you are in comparison to where you want to be. Knowing where you are in space will help you focus effort on the best direction. Instead of putting everything off until later, you will have a real timeline you follow. Every mark on the ruler should correspond to a time. In two weeks you will be at half an inch, and so on. Give yourself a light at the end of the tunnel. Something to shoot for. Be honest with yourself whether the decisions you are making each day are moving you forwards or backwards on your timeline. And when you hit your time goals, celebrate them! Make it feel so good that you want to do it again. Then do it again. And keep that watch wound.
Knowing how to set good goals can be the difference between getting where you want to go and falling into the pit of envy, desire, and remorse. Successful people figure out what they want, how to get it, when to get it, the right time to start it, and then make it happen. Explore within yourself what goals you have for your life. It is okay to start big, vague, and foggy. Have a few goals like running more and saving more and eating less ice cream and finishing your degree. Then make small, daily, incremental goals that are specific and measurable to move you towards your desired destination. Make your goals SMART, actually start, and then keep going. Repeat.