Setting goals is the foundation of many forms of success or accomplishment. Listen to any success story, and you’ll hear

Setting goals is the foundation of many forms of success or accomplishment. Listen to any success story, and you’ll hear about the power of outlining your dreams and ambitions. On the other hand, you only have to look at New Year’s resolutions to see that setting goals is only part of the challenge — accomplishing them is another story.

However, smart goal setting isn’t beyond reach. While poor goal-setting approaches run the risk of causing procrastination, overwhelming you, or creating a sense of perceived failure, finding ways to create smart goals is actually a practical skill that can be supported by utilizing the right tools and practices.

This article will provide a complete guide to one of the most widely used and effective approaches to building a smart goal framework that works for you. If you’ve been struggling to achieve meaningful goals, or find you lack the clarity on what you want from life, then SMART goals will be a smart starting point. Let’s jump in.

Why is a SMART goal important? 

Before getting into exactly what smart goals are, let’s talk about why they’re important. 

Setting smart objectives helps to create clarity about what you want from life, and what makes life meaningful to you. Along the way, setting and attaining an achievable goal boosts confidence and self-esteem. 

New York Times bestselling author, Harvey Mackay, sums the power of goal setting perfectly: “A dream is just a dream. A goal is a dream with a plan and a deadline.” Whether you write smart goals down on paper or keep them in your head, having a measurable goal attached to a target date can make your dreams a reality.

A 2014 study by Dr. Gail Matthews, a clinical psychologist at the Dominican University of California, explored different types of goal setting and their effectiveness. Her results backed up the reason SMART goals are so popular — providing empirical evidence that writing well-defined goals, action steps, and accountability boost the chances of success.

Matthews broke down participants into five groups: the first had unwritten goals, the second wrote their goals down, the third (after writing smart goals) added action commitments, the fourth wrote goals and actions and gave them to a friend, and the fifth group added all these steps plus updated a friend on their progress each week.

76 percent of participants in the fifth group were successful in achieving their goals. In contrast, those with unwritten goals had a success rate of 43 percent. Now, imagine how a success-rate increase of 33 percent could change your life over six months, or a year, or a decade…

What are SMART goals (and some SMART goal examples)?

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” — Henry David Thoreau.

SMART goals originated from a 1981 paper published in Management Review and written by George Doran, titled There’s a S.M.A.R.T. Way to Write Management’s Goals and Objectives. The SMART framework has since moved beyond the world of business and has become one of the most popular goal-setting systems for self-development.

SMART is an acronym that lives up to its name. It’s an intelligent and structured approach to goal setting that is optimized to achieve results in an attainable way, without having to sacrifice ambition. Doing this can be hard work, and without guidance around setting goals, it’s easy to get lost in the dark, setting goals arbitrarily without much follow-up. 

SMART goals add direction to the goal-setting process, explained in the acronym itself: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-Bound.

Specific

When building castles in the air it’s tempting to mistake goals for outcomes, such as earning a million dollars, publishing a bestselling book, or becoming an Oscar-winning actor. SMART goals, however, are specific. They aren’t based on outcomes but actionable steps and objectives, built upon a foundation of smaller individual tasks and habits.

The more refined your goals are, the better. Specific goals provide clarity about what you’re looking to achieve. For example, “becoming a millionaire” is vague. How do you know where to begin? A more concrete and specific goal is “to improve my finances” — under which will be smaller goals, such as “clear debt,” “boost income,” or “reduce expenses.” You might call these sub-tasks key performance indicators. 

Research has shown specific goals are more achievable than vague goals, even if they’re more difficult! To assist in the process of getting specific with your goals, ask yourself the Five W’s:

  • What do I want to accomplish?
  • Why is it important?
  • Who is involved?
  • Where is it located?
  • What resources do I need?

In answering these questions, you’ll begin to get a clearer idea of what smaller actions you’ll need to take. For example, if you want to get along better with your team members at work, it might require some deeper thought about how you can go about it.

what are smart goals
(Thomas Barwick / Getty)

Or, if accomplishing financial security for greater peace of mind and stability is your goal, then it might require improving your financial literacy by learning about budgeting and responsible spending. 

Measurable

The next step is identifying a way to measure progress. Like Sisyphus pushing a boulder endlessly up a hill without signs of progress, it’s easy to lose motivation and give up without signs of forward motion. Creating an understanding of how you’ll track progress sets you up for success in the long run.

How do you know you’re moving in the right direction, or that you’re doing it within the right time frame? Start with brainstorming a few ideas. How will you quantify the progress you’re making? How often will you step back, look at the bigger picture, and re-adjust if necessary? Are your goals relevant and time bound? The way you measure progress will be as unique as the goal itself.

I wish to note it’s much, much easier to quantify progress when your goal is outcome-based, such as improving your finances, than inner work, such as working on gratitude or self-compassion. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible — for example, you might keep track of your mood once you begin a gratitude practice, journaling insights around how your appreciation has changed. 

Attainable

Why is it important to set realistic goals? Because realistic goals have a huge impact on the chances of success and building of momentum. Psychologist Jonathan Rottenburg specializes in researching the link between goal setting and mood. He discovered that unattainable goals can be a precursor for depressive disorder, highlighting how significant goal setting is for our wellbeing. He writes:

“A key hypothesis from mood science is that our cultural epidemic of low mood results from people becoming fixated in the pursuit of unattainable goals. How many people chase low-probability outcomes, such as becoming a bestselling author or a famous actress? Yet an extraordinarily deep-rooted ethos in our culture shames and discourages people from ever giving up on a goal. Many people’s default response is therefore to double down, often locking themselves into depression for weeks, months, and years. Psychotherapists often succeed in their work because they understand that the right goals are a cornerstone of psychological well-being.”

Don’t put limits on your imagination. Be aware of limited beliefs telling you that you can’t achieve what you desire. But, at the same time, make sure your goals are realistic and attainable for where you’re at, right now. That means taking into consideration any resources you don’t yet have, and factors outside of your control. Dream big, but keep expectations modest, and define your goals using smart criteria. 

This can be as simple as reframing. For example, you might have a goal to write a bestselling book. But that is largely outside of your control. Instead, what if you could reframe the focus to the manuscript? “I will complete a manuscript for my book” is a goal you have complete control over, making success more likely. 

How the book is received, by agents or audiences, is down to consistency, timing, and a healthy dose of luck.

Relevant

SMART goals are fully aligned to what you want. It’s easy to be swayed by peer pressure, cultural expectations, or ideas about the type of life you should live. Without taking time for introspection, or developing self-awareness to know what feels right for you, you might end up setting superficial goals. 

These goals aren’t self-satisfying but an attempt to boost your self-image or social status. Make sure your goals are relevant to you. Take time to reflect and be honest with yourself about what you really want on a heart level. 

smart goals definition
(Daniel de la Hoz / Getty)

SMART goals are relevant to your personal dreams and motivations, and to your current circumstances. You might have a goal you’d love to achieve in life, but the timing isn’t quite right. For example, if you’re coming towards the end of studying for a Ph.D., it might not be the best time to start researching a separate topic for a book.

Time-bound

Even the most specific and actionable goals will fail if they’re always put off for another day. Adding deadlines to your goals will ensure you stay on track and take action to make goals a reality. There’s a skill in setting deadlines. If your deadlines aren’t achievable, you’re more likely to give up. If they’re too far away, it’s unlikely you’ll be motivated to take action in the present.

Working out how to set deadlines and reminders is a process of trial and error. You might get the timing wrong, but as long as you’re reflecting and assessing progress, you will be able to course-correct. 

It often pays to look to the future and work backwards from there. Where would you like to be in a year’s time? Six months? What actions can you take this week, or today, that will move you in that direction? Make your deadlines realistic, too.

When introducing the SMART framework, Doran explained that not all goals will necessarily fit these criteria. However, the closer the goal is to each, the smarter and more achievable it will be. No matter what goals you’re setting, it’s worth attempting to relate them to each of the above steps as best you can.

How to apply the wisdom of SMART goals

I’d recommend putting aside time to list a number of your SMART goals in various life areas — social, professional, financial, spiritual, health, etc. Remember goals are ever-evolving and aren’t static. I’m sure the goals you’d set now are different from 10 years ago and likely different from what they’ll be 10 years from now.

But setting SMART goals will give you clarity and an action plan. Remember to support each goal with smaller objectives that help lead you to your destination, along with working with a friend or a coach for added accountability. 

Here are four additional pointers to enhance your goal setting practice:

1. Take time to reflect

It’s easy to get caught up in the cycle of striving for goals and constantly jogging on the treadmill of day-to-day tasks. Perspective is everything, though, and it’s important to make sure you occasionally check-in and reflect. That includes tracking progress, seeing what’s working and what isn’t, and making sure your goals are still relevant to you.

Reflection allows you to make sure your goals are purposeful. It’s better to have fewer goals that resonate fully, than hundreds of goals you’re unsure about. An outdated and uninspiring set of goals is arguably less motivating than a lack of clarity or direction. The more you can make sure your goals are refined and meaningful, the more likely you are to continue making positive steps towards them. 

2. Align goals with values

One sure way to be inspired and committed to goals is to make sure they align with your values. I would add values to the SMART process by always considering: which values does this goal align with? For example, improving your physical fitness might be about much more than physical health. It could align with deeper values such as dedication, consistency, and commitment.

Goals which aren’t aligned to values and overly focus on results are less likely to inspire long-term dedication. Aligning goals with values is a powerful way of making sure the goals you’re setting aren’t only attainable but add meaning to your life. The intrinsic motivation will allow you to greatly enjoy the process, regardless of results or outcomes.

3. Be aware of the sunk cost fallacy

The sunk cost fallacy is a cognitive bias that encourages people to continue investing time, energy, or money into something which isn’t worthwhile, based on past investment. A classic example of this is a gambler chasing losses. But this fallacy surfaces in many ways, resulting in staying in romantic relationships for longer than would be ideal, or continuing with creative projects out of stubbornness.

Honesty is required if you reach the point where the goal no longer becomes relevant — even if you’ve put a lot of effort into getting to the stage you’re now at. Although we live in a culture of “never give up,” sometimes quitting skilfully is one of the smartest moves you can make.

4. Focus on process over outcome

In sports psychology, there’s a phenomenon known as the post-Olympic blues. It’s common for successful athletes to experience a significant drop in mood, or even depression, after competing. Many goal-winning athletes end up feeling lost and without purpose once they’ve achieved their lifetime aim — something they’ve dedicated their entire lives to.

smart goal definition
(Vyacheslav Dumchev / Getty)

The reason I end with this is as a reminder. In today’s hustle culture, it’s easy to get sidetracked by goals, to focus obsessively on where you’d like to be at the expense of being present to the gifts in front of your very own eyes. 

Yes, goals are important, but they’re an addition to a life well-lived. 

Last thoughts

Goals are no replacement for connection, gratitude, love, and friendship. So it always pays to keep goals themselves in perspective. Learn to enjoy the process, adopt a growth mindset, and let goals be an inspiration for the journey of life, not destinations that make life meaningful only once you’ve arrived.