How to Set Truly Smart Goals

There is contradictory advice about goals that has been around a while.  While SMART goal setting is pretty well-known, you need to be on your toes to notice whether this is actually smart advice or just a slick acronym.

Goal-setting works, and it has been proven that people who set goals out-perform those who don’t. 

Picture of man sitting looking at laptop thinking about smart goal setting
Are your goals smart?

So how do we set goals that really move us forward?  In 1981 George Doran wrote an article in Management Review about the S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives.  The smart acronym according to the inventor stood for Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic and Time-Related.  Assignable according to Doran meant “specifying who will do it”.  Since 1981, SMART has been tweaked endlessly by different “experts” with the following results.

S – Specific has tended to stay the same.

M – usually Measurable is used, but occasionally Motivating pops up.

A – originally it meant Assignable.  Most often it is either Achievable or Attainable (but other options have been used, such as Agreed, Action-oriented, Ambitious, or Aligned with corporate goals)

R – originally Realistic (and still common), but more often Relevant.  Other options include Reasonable, Results-based, Resourced and Resonant)

T – usually something related to Time like Time-related, Time-bound, Time-limited, Timely, Timetable, Time-sensitive, but the un-timely but practical “Trackable” is also used.

What is the point of this?  Doran’s original S.M.A.R.T. was both clever and also attempted to be scientific.  The acronym is flexible but the variety of terms (and even contradictory concepts) raises the question of whether it is really scientific. 

Are SMART goals really “Smart”?

From a practical perspective, I’ve also seen people struggle with remembering the elements of SMART goal setting and also question whether their own goals met the criteria of being SMART.  Five elements are manageable for most people, but applying all five as criteria for their goals introduces some complexity.  In my own experience, it is also worth asking whether important items are missing from SMART.

Specific, Measurable and Time-related are clear and important criteria that belong with any goal.  Achievable and Realistic are virtually synonyms, and besides considerable research has questioned whether easily achievable or realistic goals are motivating enough for most people.  Aspirational or difficult goals that are linked to a deeply personal purpose tend to focus energy and commitment even better than realistic or achievable goals. 

I recommend setting Specific, Measurable and Time-related goals after identifying what is aspirational or ambitious for yourself. 

In fact, we need to think a little harder about the proper steps that go into smart goal-setting. 

1.  Start with why (or purpose).  Why does this matter to you?  If it’s not ambitious or aspirational, do you think it will really hold your attention?

2.  Get practical with SMT:  specific, measurable and time-related.  What will happen by when. 

3.  Get ruthless and effective with another set of criteria.

A Better SET of Criteria for Creating Goals

A.  Sequence – pick a habit or action that you do almost without thinking and plan how to incorporate your new goal either just before or after this unconscious habit.  Example: 

B.  Exclude – in many ways, we struggle with too many competing priorities.  I think the hardest part of goal-setting is deciding what NOT to do.  In order to accomplish your goals, you have to exclude or eliminate other things, including some good and worthy items.  This is hard, but I have found it is absolutely necessary to keep from diluting my efforts and putting all of my efforts at risk. 

C.  Think Top and Bottom – if you reflect on it, usually we set goals based on the minimum acceptable outcome.  “I will make at least X sales calls by the end of the day.”  “I will finish 5 customer designs this week.”  I call this aiming for the bottom.  The thinking is that everything beyond is upside (which is true).  What if instead you keep your minimum accepted standard or outcome but add a higher aspirational number to it.  “I will make at least X and no more than Y sales calls by the end of the day.”  “I will finish 5-7 customer designs this week.” 

The value of this is that you have a wider range to shoot for that is also a stretch, but it allows your brain to think more creatively and not stick to minimums.  I know some of you are going to say “Why limit yourself on the top end?”  Two very good reasons:  First, you need to avoid burnout and really strive for long-term sustainability, so setting an upper limit tells the workaholic in you when you need to stop.  Second, psychologically the upper bound is reassuring and specific.  You cannot focus on unlimited upside, and setting open-ended goals works against all of the science and research that has been done on the subject. 

My “ruthless and effective”  criteria give us another acronym:  SET.  Sequence, Exclude and Top out your goals in order to focus and set yourself up for real success.

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