How To Make a SMART Goal

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Goal setting is deceptively easy. A goal might take seconds to create, but it can be annoyingly difficult to follow through with. I’m sure every person has had a goal that they didn’t achieve and they have probably felt like rubbish for it.

The conversation about success and goals has been shifting toward SMART goals and causing people to think about goal setting in a more realistic way. I think this is a positive shift because there is so much focus on pushing ourselves to do it all that we get caught up in what we aren’t doing rather than what we are doing. I am guilty of this as well whenever I look at my never-ending to-do list. I’ve caught myself on a number of occasions forgetting about what I did in a day and obsessing over what I haven’t accomplished. This is certainly not a lifestyle or mentality I aim to have. 

So, while life is in one of its “down moments” and a lot of people are probably reflecting on their life goals, this post will cover the art of making a SMART goal so that you can master it. 

What is a SMART goal?

A SMART goal is: 

Specific

Measurable

Achievable

Realistic

Time Bound

How to Make a SMART Goal 

The idea of having SMART goals has been thrown around for some time, but we also live in a society that encourages people to “do the impossible”. Another hurdle is that people’s goals can often be set for them through work expectations, milestones in their life or other social pressures. This means that setting SMART goals isn’t a skill that people may get to practice that often. Setting SMART goals is a bit like time management: people talk about how important it is, but then our schedules get overloaded with so many tasks and time almost manages itself unless we stop to actively practice this skill.

So how do we set SMART goals?

1. Write a specific detail into your goal. 

Your goal should be specific in order to identify exactly what you’re trying to achieve. 

For example:

I want to cycle more. 

I want to be able to cycle 10km. 

Which one of these is a more specific goal? The second one of course, but why does that specific detail of cycling 10km set us up for success more than the first?

By including that detail of 10km, I definitively know what the goal is. “Cycling more” could mean anything from increasing the distance to the frequency that I cycle. But once I write “cycle 10km”, I know precisely what my target is.

2. Determine how you measure your goal.

I think specific and measurable go hand in hand because if you make a specific goal, you will also know how to measure the goal.

In my cycling goal, I’m using distance as my tool of measurement and I will be able to clearly see whether I can cycle 10km or not. 

My goal could also be cycle 1km every day. Here I am measuring my goal with both distance and frequency of activity. 

Once you determine how you are measuring your goal,  you can ask yourself: Can I cycle this distance of 10km or not?

Am I cycling 1km every day? 

The answer will be either yes or no; I either can cycle 10km or I can’t. I am cycling 1km every day or I am not. 

Going back to what I mentioned above about tracking progress, I can see my progress when I have a specific and measurable goal. I might not be able to cycle 10km after 2 weeks, but I’ll see my endurance increasing and I’ll be able to gradually cycle longer distances. 

3. Decide if this goal is achievable and how you can achieve it. 

This doesn’t just include thinking about if you can do it or not, but taking it a step further and recognizing whether you have the opportunities and resources to apply toward reaching your goal. 

A fully-written detailed plan isn’t necessary all of the time, but you should have a fairly good idea about how you’re going to work toward your goal. 

This is where building systems comes into mind. Having systems, the way you intend to approach reaching your goal is useful because building a habit takes on average 60 days. That is 2 months of reinforcing new behaviors. And the more drastic a change that you’re making, the longer it takes to make the change. So having an action plan sets you up for success in meeting your SMART objective because you have both a target you’re working towards as well as methods that you know will get you there. 

A good example of this is getting fit as a goal. In the spirit of making SMART goals, get fit by increasing muscle mass and reducing total body fat is a better, more specific and measurable goal. 🙂

This goal is achievable if one does both a) workout and b) make dietary changes in order to have a healthy, balanced diet. 

Setting up systems would look like planning to workout 3 times a week and planning meals and shopping for groceries on Sunday. 

I have heard that it’s better to have systems rather than goals because systems are more sustainable, but I think the idea of having a goal makes people feel accomplished and gives them the opportunity to feel proud about themselves and what they’ve done. 

Someone wise once asked me why I didn’t feel proud of myself when I decided to start using a timer when I blog to motivate me. I replied by saying that once I made it into a habit, I would feel proud of myself because I would be doing it consistently. 

Her response was golden. She said that once something becomes a habit, it becomes so normal. Due to this normalcy, we no longer have a feeling of pride for what we are doing because we are so used to it. 

That conversation was enlightening and made me think about children’s behaviors. When a child is learning to use eating utensils, or ride a bike without training wheels, their parents often treat it like an accomplishment. And these are both skills that are worthy of celebration, but how many adults walk around saying riding a bike or using a fork is one of their skills? Probably not many. 

For me, I want to have sustainable systems in place, but it’s not until I’ve reached a goal that I feel the wave of emotion that comes with accomplishment. 

4. Know if your goal is realistic or not. 

If I have never cycled before, cycling across Europe next month is not a realistic goal. I should start with learning how to ride a bike and then building up my ability to cycle long distances. 

It is not uncommon to set a goal that turns out to be unrealistic and it isn’t until we fail at the goal that we realize it wasn’t realistic to begin with. But that isn’t a bad thing because it gives us an opportunity to review the goal and see why it wasn’t realistic. Maybe it was the timeline we set, or the distance, or maybe we didn’t have the environment we needed to reach this goal.

Once we determine what the obstacle is, we can revise our goal. 

Let’s say I tried to cycle 10km and failed miserably. Instead of trashing the whole goal, I can set up sub goals. Perhaps I want to be able to do 10km by the end of 2 months, and I’ll set 5km as a subgoal. I’ll also commit to cycling 3 times a week to ensure I’m working on my endurance. 

When I am able to cycle 5km, I will see that I’m halfway to my goal and feel like I’ve made progress by achieving this sub-aim that is getting me closer to my overarching objective.  If your goal requires a lot of time or effort to reach, having sub aims can help you stay motivated.

Having a realistic goal also means determining if your goal is something you want to invest your time into. Trying something and realizing later that it wasn’t for you is not a waste of time in my opinion. Pushing forward with it once you realize you don’t want to do it or you aren’t really going to use it on the other hand, is a waste of time. 

I think learning a language is a good example of this. At some point while living in China, I thought I would revisit my Spanish skills (which are very poor at the moment) after a trip to Mexico. I think I was feeling an itch to do something different. For anyone who is an expat, you probably understand the love-hate relationship one has with the city or country they live in and somedays you’re just dying to get out. For whatever reason, I was feeling less than willing to stay for an additional year in China, so I thought why not jump start my Spanish so I’d be employable elsewhere. 

Little did I realize at the time that this would be an unrealistic goal because:

  1. I lived in China and needed Mandarin for my daily life.  
  2. My one Spanish speaking friend and I didn’t meet up often and my Spanish needed a lot of work before it was conversational. 
  3. I didn’t have a set plan to be in a place that required Spanish and I wasn’t going to be moving to a Spanish speaking area anytime soon. 

So knowing that, was I going to continue taking time away from studying Mandarin or pursuing the other goals I had in the works? No. The initial motivation I had to pick up Spanish again was gone because I felt like diverting my already limited time into something I wouldn’t use any time soon was just wasting time. 

Motivation is such an important part of reaching a goal and it’s really easy to lose motivation. Even if you have a specific, measurable and achievable goal, if you don’t want to do it, don’t.

5. Figure out how much time you need to achieve your objective. 

You should consider how much time is needed as well as how long it will take you to invest that time. After that, ask yourself if it’s realistic to invest that time and if you’re really willing to invest it.

Using Mandarin as an example, I’d need at least 2500 hours to learn it. If I’m a student in an intensive Mandarin program, I can invest that time in about a year. But if I’m working full time, this time needs to be invested over a few years.

Asking myself to master Mandarin in the same amount of time as someone who is studying it full time is setting myself up for failure, so I might give myself a window of 3 years to learn it. If I haven’t achieved this goal in 3 years, I will want to review this goal and see why I didn’t accomplish it within this time and assess whether I want to keep investing time into it.  

What type of SMART goals can I make?

SMART goals can be applied to anything from work and school to hobbies, and it doesn’t matter how small or big these goals are because you’re working toward the goals that are important to you. I personally believe that making SMART goals is also good practice in recognizing and validating one’s own progress as an accomplishment because one can see the evidence of progress that leads up to reaching a goal. When you do reach a goal, you know that you achieved that goal and that you committed to a system that led you to that success.

Some of the goals I’ve set for myself for the next 2 months are: 

1. Pass General Chemistry least an 80%. I will accomplish this by spending 90 minutes-two hours a day studying, reviewing concepts and doing practice problems. 

2. Complete a 30 day jump rope challenge by jumping rope at least every other day (Asking myself to commit to a full 30 days straight in this quarantine period stressed me out, so I built in off days). 

3. Draw a picture once a month and not worry about the subject and whether it looks good. 

4. Figure out how I’m really spending my time by tracking time spent on tasks.

Some of these goals are moving forward smoothly and others need revising, but by following the SMART strategy, I can figure out what is and isn’t working for me. 

Conclusion

When setting a goal, ask yourself:

  • What are the specific details of my goal?
  • How do I plan to measure my goal?
  • Can I actually achieve this goal and if so how? Is this a realistic goal and is it really want I want to invest my time into?
  • How long is it going to take to reach this goal and how much time do I need to dedicate to it? If I need more time than I set, is it worth the extra time?

Getting swept up in the push for success is easy when we are constantly bombarded with people’s success stories through the media, particularly social media, questions about why we haven’t done X yet, and even comparing timelines for success between generations. I think resisting this is an uphill battle, but practicing SMART goal setting can help alleviate the pressure and make it clear that you are in fact accomplishing something. The SMART method can set you up for success and minimize the time you’re spending on “goals” that you don’t really want to be working on. Keep in mind that goal setting is very much a skill that requires time, practice and patience. 

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