The acronym SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time Constrained. Goals are intended to direct all of one’s attention and resources on that which is most important so they can be successful in their role. Therefore goals should be “SMART” because it makes them go beyond the realm of fuzziness into an actionable plan for real results. Each letter of SMART represents criteria that should be detectable in your goals. Here is the breakdown:
S is for Specific
Make your goal as clear as possible. The more narrow your goal is, the more recognizable are the steps necessary to achieve it.
- Also known as strategic
- Targets a specific area for development
- The person receiving the goal can see an unambiguous path to success
The reasoning behind setting “specific” goals is that we perform better when we know what to do. Think about your to do list. Which are the items that get done quickly and which are the ones that seem to stay on your list forever? If you are like me, something like “Buy a dozen eggs” will get done quickly while “Buy a chicken” might stay on my list for weeks. I have lots of experience buying eggs and can get right on it without much thought. I have never bought a chicken and having lived in the city most of my life I’m clueless about where to start. When making your goal specific, remember not to be so rigid that you feel incuriously automatic. Pick something that pushes you slightly beyond your existing skill set so that you continue to grow.
M is for Measurable
Your goal must produce evidence that proves you are making progress.
- You can set your goal first and then figure out how to make it measurable.
- Measuring can occur through milestones. If you reach them along the way, there will be opportunities to course correct as needed.
It is important to separate the goal and how we measure it because when we focus only on hitting certain metrics it can create perverse incentives. For example, maybe as a way to run that 5k race in under 30 minutes we drink a ton of caffeine and take a dangerous supplement. Yes we hit our metric, but we did not achieve the original spirit of the goal, which was to be healthier. Set your goals first and let them be unencumbered by how easy or hard they are to measure, because you don’t want to compromise on what matters just to have an easier time measuring.
A is for Achievable
A goal you can reasonably accomplish within a certain timeframe that will keep you engaged and motivated.
- Also known as attainable
- Think “realistically”
- Although it must remain possible, do not forget to challenge yourself
Before you begin your work towards a goal, analyze first if it will be something you can achieve now or if there are additional preliminary steps you must take. While an achievable goal must be a possible one, it should also be the most difficult goal that is achievable. If our goals are not challenging, it will not propel improvements in performance, nor keep our focus long enough to make a difference.
R is for Relevant
Question why the goal is important, and to whom it is important. How will achieving it will help you in the current moment? How will achieving it contribute toward your long term goals?
- In line with the bigger picture and complete vision
- When things get hard, will you doubt if the goal matters? If it is relevant, it will be difficult to give up.
- Must be able to continuously maintain your commitment to the goal
Completing an algebra assignment could be relevant for one child because understanding math is important in its own right, while the same assignment for another student might only be completed because they seek the approval of their parents, a third student may only do it because they’ve been threatened with expulsion if their grades don’t improve. Therefore, it is important to remember when creating goals that relevance is not intrinsic to the goal itself. The person setting the goals often needs to help find relevance.
T is for Time Constrained
Within what time frame should your goal be met? Set an end date so that you can prioritize and stay on track.
- Also known as time-oriented or time-sensitive
- It is trackable
- It specifies by when the achievement can be made.
A time-constraint is just a deadline. It could be one deadline, or it could be a recurring deadline, such as completing a certain task weekly versus once. Goals without deadlines aren’t clear enough. In order to make your goal more precise, it should have a time frame because it helps you to place your energy and attention on action. If a goal is unclear it can be very disorienting. Imagine you set a goal for yourself to complete a painting and sell it. On the surface that is an obvious goal, but if you don’t set a deadline, it might begin to take a different course; Should you practice for 1 month or 6 months before starting the painting? How often should you practice? How good should the painting be before you try to sell it? Save yourself the headache and add deadlines and rhythm to your goals.