How to Set SMART Goals

Are your goals concrete enough to be useful?

Take a quick look at some of the goals you’ve made for yourself. A goal could be as broad as your bucket list or as narrow as your daily To-Do list. Are you setting yourself up for success with smart goals?

One of the things that trips many of us up is that the way we’re writing our lists and plans isn’t as effective as it could be. I’ve written a good bit about writing effective To-Do lists, but today I’d like to share the SMART framework that I use and help others implement.

Before I begin, though, I want to be clear that this framework floats around all over the place and different SMART-goal advocates attach different meanings to each letter. The way I use it is focused on creative types — though our challenges aren’t that unique, the way we approach our work often is. So, even if you’ve seen another discussion of making SMART goals, there might be something here to think about.

SMART is an acronym that helps you evaluate whether your goals or action items have enough information in them to actually be useful. Here’s the framework I use:

Thinking about your goals using this framework has two major benefits: 1) it ensures that you’re thinking in a considered way about the commitments you’re making to yourself, and 2) it helps you express your goals in a way that makes it more likely that you’ll complete them.

I’ll discuss each component in turn.

Is Your Goal Simple?

Something being simple doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s easy, but simply stated goals help you look at a list and know exactly what you need to do. If you look at a specific item and have to think about what you need to do to check that item off the list, your goal isn’t simple.

One thing we often don’t remember is that we’ll set goals for the future, but it’s easy to forget what some complicated task item or goal means once we’ve gotten some distance from it. Furthermore, making a list or setting a goal when you’re in the zone may make it harder to understand that item when you’re not — if you’re sick or looking at the list first thing in the morning, the last thing you want to do is figure out what you’re supposed to be doing. Simple goals and tasks help you set your future self up for success.

As we’ll see, Simple and Actionable are often related; if you make your goal actionable, you’ll have a tendency to make it simple. That said, one way to make a goal simple is to make sure that you’re not using your To-Do list as a planner, that is, listing a project when you’re trying to make a task list or vice versa. If it’s not clear what the item relates to — or that it doesn’t relate to anything — that item isn’t simple.

A goal is simple when you can look at it without its bringing up a bunch of other thoughts about what you need to do to complete that item.

Is Your Goal Meaningful?

This one trips some people up because they equate meaning and desire, but that’s an unnecessary relationship: you might not want to do something, yet it still might be meaningful to do. For instance, you may not want to do your taxes, but it still has meaning in the broader context of your life.

However, it can be supportive to have action items that you want to do, as no one wants their list to be full of frogs. The more you’re motivated to do an item on your list, the more likely you are to do the item on the list. Remember, how you feel about a goal can sometimes be more important than what you think about a goal.

A goal is meaningful, then, when you can look at it and quickly understand the importance of completing that item.

Is Your Goal Actionable?

If there’s nothing you can do to bring your goal about, it’s not a goal — it’s a wish. Not only that, but it’s a wish that you’ll need some other source to grant, so why is it on your To-Do list?

Making a goal actionable is perhaps the simplest criterion to meet because it’s just a matter of thinking of the actions that will bring that goal about. A simple way to make items actionable is to begin the phrase with a verb. Instead of “Chapter 1,” make the item “Write Chapter 1.”

Here’s where Simple and Actionable sit nicely together. “Write Chapter 1,” for instance, is overly complex for many people because they’ll start thinking about the different pieces of the chapter they’ll need to write. Instead of letting those pieces roll around, name them by listing the individual pieces of the chapter as sections. Then your goal could be to begin by writing one of those sections.

A goal is actionable when it is immediately clear what action needs to be taken to accomplish the goal.

Is Your Goal Realistic?

Creative people have a distinct hatred for this one, as we have that peculiar ability to change the world in important ways. To be creative is often to see reality as tentative.

However, just because we can change the way things are doesn’t mean we can do it all at once or do so without regard to the basic constraints of reality. Try as you might, you can’t change the fact that it takes time to do things well or that you need sleep. You also can’t change social reality overnight.

Rather than put your head in the sand and try to deny the way things are, asking whether your goals are realistic helps you figure out ways to make it more likely that you’ll succeed. Identifying drag points, for instance, allows you to make sure they don’t put up and stall your momentum. As much as you may resist it, planning based on the way the world is allows you to alter the way the world is.

Realistic and Trackable are often heavily interrelated, especially when the way you track your goals is based on time. If you change your expectations of how long you want something to take, you can often change something from being unrealistic to being realistic and doable.

A goal is realistic when the endpoint is achievable with the resources you have available.

Is Your Goal Trackable?

Most SMART-goal advocates use the “T” for time-specific, but I prefer to leave it open. Some goals don’t fit into a temporal framework as easily as others, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t actively do things to bring about those goals.

For instance, consider the broad goal of being a better friend. Setting a goal to become a better friend by June 1st doesn’t quite fit — in that sense, it’s not meaningful. However, it can be a recurring broad goal that you can check in about every once in a while by asking yourself what you’re doing to be a better friend to specific people. Understanding our goals in this way makes plenty of room for metacognition, intuition, and mindfulness in ways that setting rigid timeframes leaves out.

Of course, there are other goals that greatly benefit by having a time attached to them, and in that case, they’re trackable by time. If you want your website launched by July 1st, then that needs to be explicit. If you want to make $6,000 on a venture, then state that goal.

Aside: it’s easy to stay focused on quantitative tracking to the exclusion of qualitative tracking. Common signs of this are people who make more money but aren’t any happier, are physically stronger without feeling any better about themselves, or are spending a lot of time doing a bunch of activities without enjoying the experiences.

A goal is trackable when it’s clear what progress means, whether progress is tracked quantitatively or qualitatively.

Keep Things at the Appropriate Level of Perspective

Throughout this post, I’ve used goals at different levels of perspective to illustrate that items at different levels might have different presentations. Though this is obvious, many people start wheel-spinning precisely because they’ve made a list that has items at different levels of perspective and it’s blurring the clarity they might otherwise have.

Take a daily To-Do list, for instance. On such a list, you don’t necessarily have to have a time specified for each item if every item needs to be done today — it’s implied from its being a daily To-Do list. However, what many people do is place a bunch of items that don’t need to be done today on that list, and because it’s not clear what’s what, every time they look at the list, they have to evaluate whether that thing actually needs to be done today.

Even worse is when they put projects on a daily task list, because then they’re trying to evaluate each related task of that project at the same time that they’re scanning the rest of the list. That’s a lot of mental gears turning just to see what you need to be doing right now.

If you’ve ever wondered why I have a place for Projects and Tasks on our planners, now you know why. By separating the different levels of perspective, you can have some clarity for each one, as well as having some idea of why those tasks are important; in that sense, the SMART framework is baked right into the design of the planners.

I mention lists and levels of perspective here because many of us look at goals in the context of plans and lists rather than one at a time, or in other cases, as soon as we start thinking about a given goal, we start thinking about the lower-level actions required to complete it or the higher-level domains that give that particular goal a context. So, for many of us, asking whether our goals are SMART is effectively asking us whether our lists are SMART, too.

The next time you’re planning, ask yourself two questions:

  1. Are these goals or action items SMART?
  2. Would this process be easier if the items were split out and grouped according to the appropriate level of perspective required to process them?

Charlie Gilkey is an author, business advisor, and podcaster who teaches people how to start finishing what matters most. Click here to get more tools that’ll help you be a productive, flourishing co-creator of a better tomorrow.


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