It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.
— Leonardo da Vinci
A well-known method of turning ambiguous aspirations into actionable goals is the “SMART” method. SMART defines five characteristics that a goal must have to be actionable:
Measurable (to track progress)
Achievable/Ambitious (given your resources, abilities, etc.)
Reasonable (given your other goals, obligations, etc. Note: this is termed ‘Realistic’ or ‘Relevant’ in most descriptions of the SMART method)
Time-bound (not open-ended — there’s a scheduled or estimated endgame)
…and there’s SMARTEST.
The “SMARTEST” method, as the name implies, improves upon SMART.
The ‘-EST’ is:
Epictetus/“Entirely in your control” (not subject to other people or circumstances)
Synergy (when contemporaneous pursuance of goals has more benefits than pursuance separately)
Tractable (“Movable” guideposts, informed by learning-by-doing, are preferable to hard and fast due dates.)
Epictetus (or Entirely in your control”)
According to the Greek philosopher Epictetus and other Stoics, there are three types of “things” in this world:
- those entirely in our control;
- those outside our control; and
- those we have some control over.
It does us no good to define goals that can only be accomplished if other people and events happen to go our way.
Instead, define your goals based on what you have control over — the first type described above.
For example, consider the aspiration of “winning a poker tournament.” Poker, like life and everything in it, is affected by other people’s actions and general uncertainty.
You may or may not get the cards you need; you have little control over other players’ actions, etc. You could play the best poker of your life and still lose the tournament — it happens to poker professionals all the time.
If, instead, you turn this aspiration into the goal of “play the best poker of my life in the tournament,” then this goal can be accomplished. It is entirely within your control.
Other examples: “Be a professional writer” is an aspiration because it requires other people to buy your book. “Self — publish a book” however, is entirely within your control.
Similarly, “get a promotion” is a fine aspiration, but it depends upon your supervisors, company profits, HR procedures, etc.
“Make 1,000 sales calls” is a goal because it is in your control. It puts you in position to receive a promotion, but the goal is achieved whether you receive the promotion or not.
Define your goals so they are in your control.
Synergy — when two or more things (in this case, the pursuance of goals) has an effect greater than the sum of their parts.
Two for the price of one: This might be because pursuing one helps with the other. For example, as I wrote an academic article, I learned about my productivity habits, which informed the writing of my book and this article.
Skills transfer goal-to-goal: Pursuing one goal can also help you develop skills for future goals. If you become organized in your pursuit of a high GPA, you can transfer your organizational skills to the workplace. As a salesperson, you might draw important lessons that help you down the road when you open your own business. Examples are too numerous to list.
Playing favorites: Synergy also occurs when we use one goal to motivate action towards another goal. Many times we have one goal we enjoy pursuing more than another. We are likely to procrastinate on the latter. By alternating sessions of each, we motivate ourselves to push through what we don’t enjoy to get to the actions we do enjoy.
Beware conflicting goals: The reverse of synergy is also possible. For numerous reasons, goals can conflict with each other. Sometimes they draw on the same resources, taxing our productivity system. Other times, one simply precludes the other. If we pursue conflicting goals, we risk spreading ourselves too thin, weakening our chances of achieving favorable outcomes.
Goals are clay, not concrete. Setting arbitrary due dates is good insofar as it might motivate us forward, but it waters down the importance of real due dates.
More importantly, if accomplishing a goal takes a few more days than planned, that is infinitely better than not achieving the goal at all.
In addition to goals taking longer to accomplish than we envisioned, the goals themselves can change. You may learn something during the process that changes your intention. Or maybe something unexpected happens, and you decide to change your entire trajectory.
For these reasons, I think “guideposts” are more helpful than the strict boundaries implied by the SMART method. Guideposts are estimated, imaginary markers between where we are and where we want to go.
When you begin working towards a goal, create guideposts at monthly and weekly intervals, then review your progress periodically. The difference between intentions and outcomes will be telling.
Of course, if guideposts become too loosey-goosey, we risk losing the benefit of SMARTEST goals, but if we are mindful of that possibility, the risk is worth it.
The better-defined a goal is, the better the chances of its achievement. Taking just a few more minutes up-front will pay dividends in the long term.
And long term should be the goal.
This was primarily sourced from How to be a Long Term Person in a Short Term World, available on Amazon.