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SMART goals: A step-by-step guide (with examples)

a woman with curly long hair knows how to determine smart goals

How successful would you say you are? Do you regularly achieve what you set out to do?

Or do you find that life just gets in the way, and you seem to set goals without following through?

If it’s the latter, you’re not alone.

The sudden solitude during the pandemic for many people left plenty of room for retrospection. If you’re ambitious but frequently anxious and self-doubting, you might have spent some time going over your life choices. What went right? What didn’t go as planned? How could I’ve done that better?

If you find that you’ve tried super hard but haven’t accomplished as much as you’d like recently, you shouldn’t blame it all on yourself. Your ambition and willpower are certainly there; otherwise, you wouldn’t worry about self-development in the first place.

But even though some things are out of your control, you can make achieving your goals much more likely whatever the circumstances.

What you need is a change of strategy. That’s where SMART goals come into play. They’re your ticket to a more focused vision, clearer ideas, increased productivity, and achievable goals. Here’s how SMART goals can massively boost your ability to get things done.

Table of contents
What is a SMART goal?
What are the 5 SMART goals?
What are examples of SMART goals?
How do you write a smart goal?
How to take your SMART goals even further

What is a SMART goal?

A SMART goal is a structured goal you set with five key criteria that make sure it gets done. These qualities, outlined by the SMART framework, are specificity, measurability, achievability, relevance, and timeframe applicability.

The history of SMART goals is quite extensive. But in short: the discussion about the importance of clearly-set goals began in the 1960s. In 1968, Edwin Locke published “Toward a Theory of Task Motivation and Incentives,” showing how clearly defined goals could increase performance and productivity.

Building on Locke’s ideas and propositions, George Doran was the first to use the SMART goals acronym in the November 1981 issue of Management Review. Although he didn’t list all these elements as we know them today (”A” stood for assignable and “R” for realistic), he showed that it’s easier to achieve goals and find success by coming up with detailed SMART plans and sticking to them.

Here are the five SMART goals as they’re generally used today.

What are the 5 SMART goals?

SMART is an acronym commonly found in business settings. It stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Goals that stick to these elements pretty much always yield better results.

1. Specific

Goals and vagueness don’t go well together. If you want to conserve your energy and feel as motivated as possible, you need to get specific first of all.

Make more money” isn’t a good goal—it’s not well defined. “Make an extra $10,000 next year” is better, and “make an extra $10,000, so I can finally pay off my mortgage and help my son with college“ is even better.

There are a few things to consider when you make a goal ‘specific’. In his book, Attitude is Everything, Paul J. Meyer claims that all specific goals should answer the following “W” Questions:

  • What do I want to accomplish?
  • Why do I want to achieve this goal? Why is it important?
  • Who is involved?
  • Where is it taking place?
  • Which requirements and constraints do I have to consider?

Now, compare the three similar goals mentioned above, and you’ll see that the last one answers more of these questions than the previous two.

2. Measurable

The second term is all about setting concrete criteria that can help you measure progress and success. If a goal isn’t measurable, then you can’t know whether you’re nearing completion or if you’re still lagging behind.

Why is it important that goals be measurable?

A measurable goal will help you stay on track, reach target goals, and provide you with enough motivation to keep moving. When drafting your goal, make sure it can answer questions such as:

  • How much?
  • How many?
  • How will I know when it is accomplished?

Let’s use the same example as above (a mom who wants to make more money because she wants to pay off her mortgage and help her son with college). Since we’re dealing with money here, this goal is already measurable by default. She can easily measure progress by tracking her savings as she goes.

Or, if you were a student and wanted to get into a good university, you could measure progress by keeping track of grades and test scores. However you’re defining your goals, you must include a way of figuring out for sure whether you’ve been successful or not.

3. Achievable

Goals also need to be realistic and achievable. Extreme goals that are out of touch with reality will only bring you frustration and disappointment. On the other hand, goals that don’t stretch your abilities might not have as much importance to you, and don’t give you a feeling of satisfaction when you work on them.

So ask yourself these questions to figure out whether your goal is achievable:

  • How can I accomplish this goal?
  • Is my goal realistic? Is it within my abilities?

To get that $10,000, our working mother will have to carefully assess the situation. Can she save enough to reach her target? Does this mean working more hours during the week or maybe even picking up an extra part-time job on the side? It won’t be easy if she’s only making 3,000$/month while also keeping up with rent, paying bills, and stocking up on groceries.

But it’s not just about money. She will also have to think about the huge time investment and the effects this extra work may have on her health & wellbeing. Maybe she needs to delegate some of this work to her son, or figure out a different way of doing things.

4. Relevant

Most of the time, important life goals will be relevant by default. Who can question the relevance of a goal regarding the wellbeing of someone’s family? Some things are just inherently relevant to your needs and don’t need to be questioned.

In business settings, though, that won’t always be the case. Think of a bookstore manager who wants to finish reading the last chapter of Lord of the Rings by 5:00 pm. His goal may be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, and Time-bound, but it sure lacks Relevance to his business goals.

Relevant goals can answer these questions:

  • Is this the right time?
  • Is this worthwhile?
  • Does it make sense?
  • Am I the right person?
  • Does this match our team’s needs?

5. Time-Bound

If you want to achieve important goals more often, you need to set strict deadlines. A sense of urgency is necessary if you want to complete your tasks on time.

Time-bound goals usually answer these questions:

  • How long do I have?
  • What can I do today?
  • Where should I be in one month / three months / one year from now?

Let’s return to our example.

Assuming the mom has one year to get $10,000, her goal is time-bound by default. It’s also specific and measurable.

Once she’s found a way to reach the target (ensuring achievability), she can set milestones to make sure she’s keeping up. She should have at least $830 in the first month and $5,000 by month six.

Now, all she has to do to check her daily progress is multiply the current day (1-365) by 10,000 and then divide that number by 365. If the total she gets is close to the money she’s collected so far, she’ll be on track to achieve her goal. For example, on day 192, she should have close to $5,260; on day 267, she should have close to $7,315, and so on.

Once the target is hit, her mortgage is paid off and she can comfortably help her son with college, she will have accomplished her goal.

What are examples of SMART goals?

We’ve already mentioned some SMART goals examples, but here are some more for good measure.

Personal goal example

Weak Goal: I need to lose weight.

SMART goal:

  • Specific: I value my health, and I want to feel good in time for my wedding, so I’ll combine exercise with healthy eating to lose 5 kg in time for the big day, so I can look as fresh and healthy as possible in my wedding suit.
  • Measurable: I’ll install a fitness app to make sure I track my steps and calories burned.
  • Achievable: I haven’t been to the gym in years, but I walked a lot during quarantine. I’ll walk 30 minutes every day and hit the gym twice a week. My doctor agrees these things won’t be a problem.
  • Relevant: I’m 33 and want to make sure I stay strong and healthy as I get older, and look good in my wedding photos.
  • Time-Bound: I’m getting married in 8 months, so that’s my deadline.

Business goal example

Weak Goal: I want to be an entrepreneur.

SMART goal:

  • Specific: I want to start my own digital marketing business. My goal is to be making at least $2,000 a month within the first quarter. I’ll keep my desk job until I can ensure my business is profitable.
  • Measurable: I’ll work an hour every day to bring my new business to life.
  • Achievable: I’ve been in digital marketing for 10 years, and I’m good at what I do. I’ve already made a plan and this amount is reachable in the time I’ve allotted.
  • Relevant: My current job doesn’t feel challenging/rewarding anymore. I’d rather be my own boss.
  • Time-Bound: I’ll come up with a name this week. I’ll have my papers ready soon, and I’ll have my business registered by the end of the month. Ideally, this time next year, I’ll be making enough to quit my job and focus all my efforts on growing my business.

Leadership goal example

Weak Goal: I want to improve my team’s productivity.

SMART goal:

  • Specific: I want to instill trust and respect among team members, fostering a greater sense of community and increasing output as a result.
  • Measurable: I want to increase my team’s productivity by at least 10%. I will assess their work weekly and keep track of their progress.
  • Achievable: Individually, all team members perform well, so the potential is there. When asked to work together, there’s room for improvement, so that’s what we’ll focus on.
  • Relevant: Other teams are outperforming ours and we don’t want to get left behind.
  • Time-Bound: We have three months until the next report and crucial investor meeting, so that’s our deadline.

How do you write a smart goal?

Setting SMART goals is easy with a well-laid-out SMART goals template. Here’s one you can use:

Want to take it further? Click here to automatically download a SMART Goals Worksheet where you can fill out and your goals!

How to take your SMART goals even further

Over the decades, the SMART method has proven successful in many industries, fields, and contexts. But how adaptable is the framework today? Does it still work as well as it did forty years ago?

Psychologist Robert S. Rubin of Saint Louis University raises some concerns about the SMART technique. He claims that:

[...] SMART goals have experienced an “acronym drift” of sorts, whereby mass representations of the tool have strayed far from the research on which it was based, much like an old-fashioned game of telephone we played as children.

Rubin found that the acronym had strayed from its scientific roots, often taking different forms and describing slightly different qualities. That’s to be expected. We don’t all share the same hopes, dreams, and aspirations. How can we expect all our goals to fit one mold?

Just because your goal doesn’t neatly fit the SMART pattern, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad goal.

Rubin’s proposition is simple. Instead of using the SMART method religiously, without considering the elements that make every goal unique, we should think of it as a tool designed to help us simplify and communicate important objectives.

Depending on the person and situation, the SMART framework can—and probably should—expand to include alternative elements:

Specific: Simple, sensible, significant.

Measurable: meaningful, motivating.

Achievable: acceptable, action-oriented, accountable, assignable.

Relevant: realistic, reviewable, rewarding, reasonable.

Time-Bound: time-frame, timely, time-sensitive, truthful.

Rubin also notes that SMART goals fail to represent recent scientific research by ignoring the importance of efficacy and feedback (constructive criticism). So the acronym has recently grown to become SMARTER, throwing ‘evaluated’ and ‘reviewed’ into the mix as well.

It’s important to look at SMART goals with an open mind. When George Doran published his paper in 1981, his vision was to provide managers with a practical, problem-solving tool. It’s no surprise then that the SMART method works best in business settings, then.

Since that time, the term has taken on many lives, expanding its sphere of influence and applicability beyond management. In its original form, the SMART goals framework doesn’t have sensible applications in all contexts—and that’s fine.

But the power is in your hands to make it work. Assess your goals, re-evaluate important qualities, and use SMART goal templates that make sense to you. Then you’re on your way to achieving big things.

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