From high level management training to personal training guidelines and everywhere in between success is desired one theme pops up repeatedly (and somewhat relentlessly): Goal Setting. We’re all familiar with setting some goals: I want to lose 60 lbs in a week, I want to be able to bench press a truck, I want to make 100K a year for googling myself on the Internet…. Except these aren’t goals, they’re unrealistic dreams that can actually inhibit your ability to reach a goal. Dreaming is great, I am one hell of a day dreamer but when it comes to goals it cann be a hindrance.
If you’ve ever been to any sort of corporate get together designed to improve efficiency and morale (by removing you from your desk and boring you half to death) then you’ve likely heard of the goal setting mnemonic “SMART” which stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound .
I learned about this type of goal setting method when I was teaching and, like for most of us, it took a long time for it to really sink in. Over the course of this article I am going to dive into each aspect of the SMART goal setting method (and a few bonus ones).
Specificity is the overarching theme throughout the rest of the apsects of the SMART method. Take the goal of “I want to be thinner,” this sounds more like a loose notion than it does an actual goal. Becoming specific about our goals changes the way we think about them and how we behave towards realistically accomplishing them.
Consider interviewing three recent college graduates about their post-collegiate plans. Student A says he wants to be successful, student B says he wants to be a successful personal finance advisor and student C says he wants to be a successful startup CEO based in creating personal electronics for health and fitness. Chances are that you’d rank these in the order C, B, A when it comes to likelihood of success, all because the more specific each student got about their goals the more likely their reaching those goals seemed.
“What gets measured gets managed” – Peter Drucker
I love this quote, it’s simple, effective and really really hard to ever disprove. It’s really hard not to measure the progress of accomplishing goals actually; even lofty goals have the occasional reminder to think about how close/far we are from that goal even if we haven’t actually taken any steps towards completing it.
This part of the SMART mnemonic isn’t just simply “having a method of measurement” but “having an EFFETIVE method of measurement.” If you’re goal is to save up a specific amount of money it is good to check the balance of your savings whenever you make a desposit, if you’re trying to lose weight it’s smart to regularly weigh yourself (usually at the same time every day and take the average over many days) and if you’re trying to increase your deadlift to 600 lbs then it’s necessary to log the weight and rep scheme of your workouts regularly.
Setting attainable goals vs. lofty ones is relatively simple and at most may require a bit of research. For instance saying “I’m going to lose 4 lbs this month!” is realistic while “I’m going to lose 50 lbs this month!” is only realistic if you’re planning on having something amputated.
Additionally attainable goals tend to be smaller goals whose completion can accumulate into larger goal completion. Success begets success and in this aspect we want to ensure success as much as possible, this is easily done by setting small easily attainable goals.
Any lofty air-headed goal can be considered relevant: “It’s what I want to accomplish, therefore….” But that’s not necessarily what we mean here. For a goal to be truly relevant it also needs to carry some level of motivation for you.
Consider trying to lose weight because you want to look sexy vs. because the doctor told you that you should. Not surprisingly most people would stick with wanting to look sexy more than just for their health. It’s because it’s directly relevant to their interests. However, consider a man unmotivated by his doctor but has a worried wife: he may stick with trying to lose weight out of wanting to alleviate his wife’s stress, thus making it more relevant to his interests.
From my own personal experience I’ve learned one major thing regarding the relevance of a goal: the factor that can make any goal relevant tends to be on the more selfish side. This isn’t a bad thing, quite the opposite, you’re only going to be motivated to work out for your health or to look better if one of those things has some level of relevance to your desires.
It’s easy to think “I can do anything if I have the time to do it” and this is actually a logical fallacy. There’s an old adage known as Parkinson’s Law which states that the perceived complexity of a task matches the amount of time given to complete that task. We’ve all experienced waiting to the last minute to accomplish some assignment and only needing that minute to do it. On the other side we’re likely to observe someone spend a ridiculous amount of time on a simple project simply because they have the time.
It is smart to have larger goals, such as lose 36 lbs in a year, broken into smaller time frames. The year could be considered a macrocycle which will contain smaller mesocycles, such as months, and even smaller cycles within those, such as weeks. In the previous example this can be engineered using a bottom-up technique:
- Weekly goal: Lose 1 lb per week
- Monthly goal: lose 3 lbs per month
- Yearly goal: lose 36 lbs
Now if you do the math on these cycles you may notice they don’t quite add up: if you aim to lose 1 lb per week for a year you would lose 52 lbs not 36. Well this plays into making the year-long goal attainable: this gives you 16 weeks of the year that you may not meet your weekly goal but are still on track towards your yearly goal. The strength to using smaller cycles within a macrocycle is to ensure that a single failed attempt does not lead to failure of the overall goal.
Lastly on the subject of time-bound, it can be useful to have something at stake at the end of the macrocycle: a competition, bet with a friend or even a looming donation to an anti-charity (look it up).
If you read my article on forming habits then you already know that one of the most important factors to setting new habits is low behavioral complexity, or just: it needs to be simple. This applies to goal setting as well: simple goals may be viewed as a kind of pass/fail, yes/no, 0/1 etc… kind of duality. If we’re motivated to reach a goal but things increase in difficulty as we progress we may settle for some sort of “half-credit” type of mentality. This isn’t bad for the overall goal (macrocycle) but smaller goals should be viewed on a black/white grading scale.
The SMART method is a great goal setting strategy. It requires that goals be specific in their exposition, measurable in execution, attainable in their scale, relevant in their motivation and time-bound in their span, additionally we introduced that goals should ideally be simplified as much as possible. The most effective aspect of the SMART method in my opinion is the “Time-Bound” factor. Placing a time frame on trying to accomplish a specific goal can activate the positive apsects of the human stress response, additionally the use of a macrocycle, mesocycles and smaller cycles with accounting for error in the short term can make the likelihood of reaching the overall goal more likely.
 Doran, G. T. (1981). “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives”. Management Review (AMA FORUM) 70 (11): 35–36.