Be SMART about your goals
Have you ever tried to hit a target and missed? Missing the target can happen with goal setting too. Keep reading to learn a technique that can help.

By: Mind - Being Organized - 11/15/2018

Have you ever tried to hit a target and missed?  The same happens all the time with the goals people set out to accomplish.  If you've ever set goals yourself, you know the goal-setting part is the easy part.  Attaining that goal, or at very least making regular progress toward that goal, is the hard part. Keep reading to learn a technique that can help.

Setting goals can help you determine objectives for discrete performances, such as a physical fitness test, for long- and short-term goals, and for both the personal and professional spheres of your life.  However, setting structured, specific, challenging goals leads to better performance than vague "do your best" goals. When your target is clear, you can devise more effective ways to hit that target.  You can enhance your probability of reaching a goal by using a technique called "SMART" goal-setting.  It stands for "Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Relevant, and Time-sensitive."

Developing carefully thought-out goals can direct your attention, mobilize effort, improve persistence, and form good strategies.  Famous sports figures such as Olympian Michael Phelps have achieved great things in part by setting their sights on very lofty goals.  Setting goals using a practical and standardized method—such as the one described here—can help provide you with direction and motivation to get to your end state.

The "SMART" technique involves setting goals that meet these criteria:

  • Specific

  • Measurable

  • Achievable or Action-Oriented

  • Relevant

  • Time-Sensitive

Specific.  Specificity leaves no room for doubt; you know exactly what you're aiming for.  A large, vague goal such as "I want to improve my level of fitness" can seem daunting.  Breaking it into multiple narrowly focused goals, such as "I want to improve my run time" or "I want to increase my upper body strength," helps make that goal more manageable and leads to more specific action planning.

Measurable.  Next, decide on a metric you can use to measure whether you're making progress toward a specific goal.  For instance, identifying you want to shave 40 seconds off your 2-mile run time (5 seconds off each quarter mile) gives you a metric and fuels your motivation to commit to making further incremental progress toward your end goal.

Action-Oriented.  Language matters when you set goals.  Use positive, action-oriented phrases to help you create a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Rather than using words such as "I'll try to shave 40 seconds" (you might or might not) or even "I will shave 40 seconds" (at some point in the future), say to yourself "I am shaving 40 seconds" (that is, right now).

Relevant.  Your goals must be relevant for you.  If a goal isn't connected to something you value highly or that's important to you, it's likely to fall down your list of priorities.  Goals also should be realistic.  Shaving 40 seconds off your run time might be impossible if you're already in tip-top shape or impractical for now if you're in really poor condition.  But it could be just right if you're reasonably fit with room to improve.  It's easier to stay engaged and feel rewarded when your goals fit both what's important and what's realistic for you now.

Time-Sensitive.  Last but not least, set goals that include time frames, both for your overall goal and for important sub-goals that help you reach your larger goal.

  • Overall goals, especially ones related to long-term physical fitness, depend on individual factors, so timelines vary from person to person.  For example, you might set a time frame to improve your run time by 40 seconds in about 8 weeks, whereas your friend might set the same goal over a 12-week period.  Quantifying a time frame to meet a goal allows you to set a realistic schedule.

  • Sub-goals—both performance and process—can function as benchmarks to monitor your progress toward your larger goals.  Performance goals, such as shaving 5 seconds a week off your time, allow you to compare your past and present performances rather than focus on how you compare to others.  Process goals are the important steps you take to accomplish your end goal.  They can be a bit more subjective.  For example, you might say, "I'm going to stick to my training schedule for 2 weeks and run at a certain time each day, with only one day when I can reschedule (unless something big pops up)."  By breaking down a larger goal into specific, smaller goals that you can accomplish in the near future, you're more likely to move towards that larger goal step by step.

Just one word of caution with SMART goals:  Be flexible. Setting your goals too rigidly can keep you "in the box" rather than allow you to take risks and develop big new ideas.

Goal-setting is an iterative process that requires you to come back and evaluate your progress and strategies from time to time:  Am I hitting the mark?  What behaviors can I sustain?  Am I falling short?  If so, what do I need to change?  The examples here are about physical performance, but these tips can help you set SMART-er goals across all your pursuits! 

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