For the last several years I’ve had varying levels of success with goal making. On one hand, I’ve definitely learned how to take a look at where I am and where I would like to be, and turn that into actionable items. On the other, I’ve struggled at times with actually meeting the goals I’ve set for myself. The reasons for these can be quite varied, but over time I’ve come to better understand a more proper method of creating goals that I’m actually motivated to keep.
It all starts with SMART goals.
The idea of SMART goals is not a new one, in fact I’ve been hearing variations of this for years. I’ve seen the used in reference to not only personal development, but also in managing employee performance and project management. Most recently when I mentioned the idea to my girlfriend, she immediately recognized the system as the one that she uses to create goals for children, as a special education teacher. It is used so heavily because it is such an easy system to use to evaluate whether a goal is going to be an effective one.
The term SMART is itself mnemonic and standards for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. More specifically, they mean:
The goal should not be vague. There should be no room for interpretation on how to meet your goal. In fact, the more specific you can make your goal, the better it will be. If you’re looking to purchase a house, then: When are you looking to purchase it by? Where are you looking to buy it? Why are you looking to buy vs rent? What are your needs in a house?
Maybe not all of the are answerable, however being able to give as many details about your goal will help you evaluate how you’re going to meet it.
If your goal is a question, then can it ever be answered? An example of this would be: I want to save money for retirement vs I want to save $X dollars per month toward retirement. The latter is a better goal, because it gives you a quantifiable result. Without this, there is no way to know what your progress toward meeting the goal is.
Is it possible for you to meet your goal?
Sure you could say: “I want to lose 50 lbs by October 1st, because I want to be healthier.” However, if it is September 1st when you set you goal, how realistic is it that you’ll ever get there? In this case, without some very drastic measures, I doubt you’ll pull it off. In fact, it is more likely that you’ll compromise your statement “because I want to be healthier,” even if you do meet your goal. It is better to set yourself up for success. In fact, keeping your goals small and incremental is the best way for you to make sure that you’ll succeed more often than not.
Every goal should match up with the narrative of your ongoing life story. Sure you have a goal to photograph every piece of food you eat and post it to Pinterest, but what is this helping you with? Sure, there are a few specific circumstances where this might be a helpful goal, but you should be able to identify that without thinking. Otherwise, why set such a goal? If it doesn’t matter to you in the long run, whether you succeed at it or fail, then just skip it. Instead focus your efforts on things that help you move forward.
Goals should have a target date. If you don’t give an end date, then you’ll never get it done. Instead find a date that is realistic and set it. Make sure you don’t violate the attainable rule with this one, as it is very easy to do, but also make sure that it is in the near enough term that it maintains some level of importance. If it isn’t important enough to put a date to, then it isn’t important enough to set as a goal.
How to make long-term goals SMARTer.
Not ever goal is going to be so simple to fit within the SMART criteria. It can be difficult to follow some of the above principles when it comes to longer term goals. Some examples of these might be:
I want to retire at 45, and live with a comfortable income.
I want to lose 100 lbs by the end of next year.
I want to go back to school next year and get a master’s degree.
I want to run a marathon by next year.
There are plenty of other examples, but what these all have in common is that they fail many of the above tests and in most cases the worst is that they are not very timely. This means that they are difficult to measure as time goes on and thus, difficult to attain.
One way that I like to solve this is through the use of complementary short-term goals. These are SMART goals themselves, whose purpose is to get you to your longer term goals, while also accomplishing something specific at the same time. The reason these are important, is that they help you to measure along the way what your progress is going to be toward your longer term goal.
Using the marathon as an example, here might be some examples of some good short-term smart goals:
Find a marathon and sign up for it by X date.
Run a 5k by X date
Run a 10k by X date
Run a half-marathon by X date
Run a 30k by X date
Run a marathon by X date
Each of these show a progression toward the finally and make the larger goal at the end more attainable by making it more measurable and guaranteeing progress, by completing the smaller goals along the way. Sure, there are other considerations toward meeting these goals, like finding a training plan, or finding a training partner, however while those may be goals as well, they are more tailored to how you personally wish to complete your goal. With that said, both of these may be needed to make the overall goal more specific, and should be part of your initial goal planning.
In the end, what is most important is that you set a goal and try for it. The worst thing in the world is to look back and say, “I wish I had started X last year.” Not to say there won’t be reasons to not pursue your goals now, but perhaps some of your smaller incremental goals simply need to be ways to remove the blockers in your life. Because if you simply accept a reason why you cannot do the thing that you want, then you will always on some level be left unfilled. So do yourself a favor and start working toward your goals now.