Did you know that SMART goals can actually hurt instead of help you?
It’s true that SMART goals can help you make progress and help you succeed – when you use them correctly.
However, when done incorrectly, it can also hinder your progress and success.
So that leaves us with these two questions:
- How are you doing them wrong?
- And how do you do them right?
Well, you are in luck. That’s what we are going to talk about in this article.
We will cover the basics of SMART Goals, how to write them, common errors when using SMART goals, and extra tips to write them (or any type of goal) better.
The basics of SMART goals
What are SMART Goals?
The SMART Goal system is a goal setting framework that uses an acronym to help you write better goals. Each letter stands for a word that helps remind you of important elements that need to be in your goals.
What does the SMART acronym stand for?
S – Specific
M – Measurable
A – Attainable/Achievable
R – Relevant/Realistic
T – Timely/Time-bound
(Note that as you read and hear about SMART Goals, you will find that different people use different words for the letters. I put the most common, but do know that there are other variations as well. This Wikipedia article lists a bunch of them, if interested.)
S – Specific
You and anyone around you should be able to quickly look at your goal and know exactly what you are trying to accomplish.
Making your goals specific makes them well defined and focused. They are clear. You know what you want and others can quickly tell what you are trying to accomplish.
Examples of vague goals:
- To lose weight.
- To grow my business.
- To increase sales.
- To earn more money.
- To read more books.
- To be better at baseball.
- To lift more weight.
Examples of specific goals:
- To lose 15 pounds….
- To grow my customer base by 10% in my business…
- To increase sales by 30%….
- To earn $20,000 more this year….
- To read 15 books…
- To decrease my error rate by…
- To increase my bench-press to 225…
Look at the two different lists. Do you see how being specific makes a difference?
With the first, you will never know if you get there. What does “losing weight” mean? Would one ounce work?
What do you mean by growing your business? How many books? 2? What do you mean by more?
With the second list, it’s specific. You know exactly what you want.
Note: in some situations, you may want to expand on your goals, giving more detail. For example, your goal may be to find and buy your dream house, but on a separate paper or below the goal, you may want to list (probably in bullet-point format) everything you want in the house in detail.
M – Measurable
You must be able to measure your goal. You must be able to track how well you are doing and if you completed the goal or not.
If it’s not measurable, how will you know if you completed it or not? How will you know if you are on track or off-track? How will you know what to aim and strive for?
A measurement gives you a target to aim for. It can help motivate you and challenge you. It can give you an early warning sign of things not going well so that you can make adjustments.
And often, by making it specific, you make it measurable.
Here are examples of measurements:
- Increase my typing speed to 80wpm…
- Lose 30 pounds…
- Run a mile in under 7 minutes…
- Increase my commission earnings by $10,000…
- Earn at least an 85 in every class..
- To put a man on the moon…
- To earn 1st place…
A – Attainable/Achievable
Attainable/Achievable means that it’s something that’s possible, that you can do.
This is where one of the biggest dangers of SMART goals lie.
What happens is that people will often set the bar too low to make sure it’s “attainable”. The problem with that is it doesn’t challenge you or move you forward. (We will discuss this more below).
You want whatever goal you choose to stretch you and challenge you, but it needs to be feasible as well.
For example, having a goal to run a marathon in a week when you haven’t run in two years is not realistic – it’s not achievable.
Five months? That’s more attainable but still challenging.
R – Relevant/Realistic
The realistic goes with the above, with the goal being attainable.
As to relevant, you do need to make sure your goals are relevant to your situation, job, and life. Relevant means there’s a connection to or has something to do with it.
Here are some examples:
- In a work situation, make sure your goals are relevant to your job position, your team’s goals, your company’s overall mission and goals.
- In your personal life, make sure it’s relevant to your other goals, your values, your priorities, and your long-term goals.
- Make sure that it’s relevant to your season of life. Your priorities and goals when you are a new parent will likely be different than when your kids leave for college.
Timely/Time-bound basically means that you have a deadline. There is an end-point for your goal.
Why do you need a deadline?
Because, without a deadline, there is no urgency toward your goal. It’s indefinite. There’s no set time for it to be done, so it’s easy to procrastinate and put it off.
When you have deadlines, especially challenging deadlines, you get more done and get it done faster. It’s motivating.
Without it, the chances that your goal will get done is close to nil.
How to write out your SMART goals
To write your goals, in addition to everything we just discussed, here are some extra tips:
- Make it short and sweet.
Don’t write and write and write. You can write your plan and strategies for the goal elsewhere. Remember President’s Kennedy’s goal to put a man on the moon. It wasn’t super wordy and didn’t describe every idea they had. It was simple and concise. To paraphrase: “To put a man on moon and bring him back safely by the end of the decade.”
- Make sure you are specific.
Anyone who looks at your goal should immediately know exactly what you are pursuing.
- Make sure it’s measurable.
If possible, add a number. If not, use event(s) or benchmark(s) to show when accomplished. Again, the goal “to put a man on the moon…” was measurable because we know when it was accomplished – when someone got to the moon and back.
- Add a deadline.
Make it time specific. Challenge yourself even. If you “know” you can do it in 12 weeks, shoot for 10. Or 8.
- Make sure you challenge yourself.
Stretch yourself. It’s okay to try the “impossible” – but don’t be unrealistic.
- Make sure it’s relevant.
If it doesn’t apply to your job or life right now, you are wasting your time and may cause incongruence in your life.
Examples of some SMART goals:
- Increase revenue by at least 20% for this quarter.
- Lose 50 pounds by Summer vacation (June 15).
- Finish the first draft of my book by October 11.
- Learn the basics of the Macarena by the first school dance.
- Run my first marathon by January 11. (With goals like these, you could set subgoals such as “Run 7 miles straight by October 1”, etc. or just incorporate them into your plan).
- Go to the gym every week 3x a week (could even add “for 10 weeks” or similar for a streak goal. You then can celebrate when you achieve it).
- Read 1 book a week every week this year.
Common errors of SMART Goals
Now that we’ve discussed the basics of SMART goals, let’s go over some common mistakes that we make when making and pursuing them.
1. We set the bar too low
As mentioned briefly earlier, one of the biggest dangers of SMART goals is that to make it “attainable” or “achievable”, we set the bar too low.
This is dangerous for a couple of reasons:
First, when we always set goals that we “know” we can meet, we don’t push ourselves forward as we could.
Great progress and achievement come by pursuing ambitious and “impossible” goals.
Take Kennedy’s goal to put a man on the moon and back by the end of the decade. That was an ambitious goal. They didn’t know how they were going to do that.
But they took the challenge and did it. If he had set a goal he “knew” they could do, we would have never gotten to the moon, and the goal itself would have never been as inspiring.
Secondly, if all you do is set easy goals that you know you can achieve, you won’t be as motivated to do them.
That’s another aspect of challenging goals – they are inspiring and motivating. We don’t get inspired by easy to do goals. We get inspired and motivated by challenges that stretch us.
If you set goals that challenge and stretch you, you will be much more motivated to do it.
In fact, Brian Tracy, one of the goal setting guru’s, we should set our goals so that there is a 50% chance that we won’t make it.
So what does this mean for your goals?
Challenge yourself. Stretch yourself. Do something that is possible, but make it challenging to you as well.
You will be more motivated and others around you (if a group goal) will be more inspired.
We will discuss using stretch goals with SMART goals a little later.
(On a side note, in a business setting, be careful of how SMART goals are used and implemented. If one’s success is based on whether an employee completes their SMART goals, some are likely to set easy non-challenging goals to fill that checkbox).
2. We set the bar too high
Just as it’s dangerous to set the bar too low, it’s also dangerous to set it too high.
Wait a minute! Wait a minute!! Stop the tapes! Didn’t you just say to challenge ourselves?
Yes, yes I did. In fact, we will talk about a little later the importance of shooting for the impossible with stretch goals.
At the same time, if we set goals that are unrealistic or too high, it can hurt us.
First, it can be demotivating.
If you keep setting goals so high you never meet them, it can demotivate you and cause you to stop setting goals and trying.
Secondly, if we set a goal so high that we really don’t believe we can achieve it, guess what? We won’t really try to make it happen because we don’t believe we can.
Does that make sense?
So challenge yourself, even stretch yourself to where you could fail, but don’t be unrealistic either. Give yourself some victories.
If your belief levels are low, start with smaller goals and build up as you get victories.
3. We use SMART goal as a checkoff, feel-good mood-enhancer
Another danger of SMART goals is that we use them as mood enhancers.
Instead of challenging ourselves or moving ourselves forward, we set goals that are easy to do, such as part of our regular daily activities, so that we can scratch them off when we finish, because scratching them off feels good.
That’s dangerous. That doesn’t move you forward as a person and doesn’t move your company forward either.
It’s great that you feel accomplished for achieving your goals. You should. You should celebrate in fact.
But you should be celebrating worthwhile goals, not doing anything just for that mood boost.
4. We put daily activities and plans as goals
One issue I’ve seen with SMART goals is that people put their daily plans and activities as SMART goals.
Why is that bad?
If all you do is put your regular routine as your goal, then you aren’t accomplishing anything. You aren’t stretching yourself. You aren’t moving forward.
It’s just your daily routine.
It’s an easy-to-accomplish, check-off-the-checkbox goal, but it doesn’t move you forward as a person or your company forward either.
A goal is meant to move you forward.
Generally, goal is an outcome you want to achieve. You then build a plan, activities, and a routine to help you get there.
You can also have an activity goal, such as workout 3x a week, but it’s a goal to start doing something you aren’t already doing, not something you are. Once you make that a habit, you would change or update your goal.
5. We make them incredibly long
Shorter is better. Concise is better.
Long goals aren’t inspiring or motivating. In fact, when they are long, they can be more confusing and we are less likely to reread or rewrite them (something that you can do to help remind yourself of your goals and keep focused on them).
Short and concise is better.
Think about Kennedy’s goal: put a man on the moon and bring him back safely by the end of the decade.
What if it was: Our aim is to build a spacecraft that can carry multiple people into space safely and then have the technology that will allow it to travel to the moon and land on it as well as take off and return. We will accomplish this goal by the end of the decade.
Which is more inspiring? Which is more motivating? Which one are you more likely to read over and over and rewrite?
You want to be specific, but also as short and concise as possible.
Some SMART examples ask you to write something for every letter of SMART and fill out a paragraph. Don’t do that.
Make it short and sweet. You can always write out your plan or steps to get there separately.
6. We marry our strategies (and put our strategies in our goals)
There is a difference between your goal and the strategies you use to achieve your goals.
Your goal is the outcome you want. You generally don’t change it unless you need to make some adjustments as you go along as you learn more. But it basically stays the same, with some possible variance.
Your strategies, however, are okay to change. You are not married to your strategies.
If you want to lose 50 pounds by summer, you may try different strategies. Your first strategy may be going to the gym three times a week and eating differently.
Your goal is to lose weight; your strategy is the gym and to eat differently.
What if you are not moving toward your goal as you should? Does that mean you failed?
Change your strategy. Maybe you will do something else at the gym. Maybe you will change the way you eat even more. Maybe you will go more times to the gym. Maybe you will begin running or walking before work.
Maybe you will join Weight Watchers. Maybe you will find friends who will hold you accountable.
Your goal stays the same. Your strategy changes.
Don’t be married to your strategy. If it doesn’t work, try something else!
That’s one reason I don’t recommend writing your strategy in your goal (it also makes it long when you do that!).
Instead, write out your goal, short and sweet and concise.
Then, on the same or separate paper, write out the strategies you may try to do to accomplish it. Find two or three that you think will have the greatest effect, and focus on those.
If they don’t work, your goal stays the same, just try something else.
It’s more motivating, easier to read and rewrite when you have a goal such as:
“Lose 50 pounds by summer vacation.”
“My goal is to lose 50 pounds by summer vacation. I will do this by working out 3 times a week and eating a better diet. My diet will consist of….”
Get the point?
You can write all that extra part in your plan or as a sub-goal.
Tips for better SMART goals (and for accomplishing them)
1. Make sure you are passionate about your goal
One reason we aren’t motivated about and/or fail our SMART goals (or any goal) is that we aren’t passionate about the goal.
If we aren’t passionate about it, we aren’t going to put in the effort to make it happen. This often happens because someone else wants us to do it. It’s not our goal – it’s theirs.
If you don’t own it, when the hard times come and it becomes difficult, you will likely not persist.
Make sure the goals you are pursuing are something that you are passionate about.
If it’s a goal that you have to do, such as for work, find a way to own it and be passionate about it. Find your own “why” for the goal. Find your own reason for doing it and let that motivation help push you forward.
2. Find your “why”
One of the best ways to stay motivated is to remember the “why” of the goal you are doing.
Why are you doing your work goals? Why are you trying to lose weight? Why are you reading more books? Why do you want to run the marathon?
Know your “why” and write it down.
Visualize it as well. See the finished result. See why you want to do it.
Then, when things get tough, look at your “why” and remember why you are doing it.
3. Use sub-goals
We mentioned this earlier in a different section briefly.
For large goals, you may want to break them down into subgoals.
For example, if your ultimate goal is to increase revenue, to do that you will likely need to contact more potential customers or sell more to current customers. You could set a sub-goal to contact 10 more customers per week, for example.
Breaking goals down into sub-goals can make it more manageable.
4. Make a plan
Once you have your goal, make a plan to accomplish it. There are different ways to do that.
You can start at the end and go backward each step you will need to take to get to that point (look at the step you will have to take to finish the goal, then the step to get to that step, and so on).
You can also list out all the steps you will need to take that you know and organize them by sequence and priority.
And, when you really don’t know what the next step may be, or don’t know many steps or how you will accomplish it, focus on the first step, then the next.
You don’t have to have a full plan (in fact, overanalyzing and overplanning can hurt you if you aren’t careful). Figure out what step or steps you need to take, then take action!
5. Take action immediately
Once you have your goal, take action immediately toward your goal, right then, or, at a minimum, that day.
The longer you take to start, the less likely you will start, so start immediately and so something small and easy toward your goal.
Get the momentum rolling.
6. Do a scorecard, gamify, and/or chain your goal
Scoreboards are effective because they let you know where you are at the moment with your goal. By looking at them, you can know quickly if you are on target, ahead, or falling behind.
It can give you momentum to keep moving forward, and it can let you know when you might need to make adjustments if something isn’t working.
Gamifying and chaining
Jerry Seinfeld is famous for his red X chain he built when writing jokes. His goal was to write jokes every day, so he would put a big red X on the calendar every day he did it.
Over time, he had a chain of red X’s going. That was motivation to keep going because he didn’t want to break the chain.
And if you do break it, seeing all the red X’s can show you all your successes in the past you had so you aren’t so discouraged for missing a day.
You could do that for workouts, or for every time you finish your customer phone calls or so on.
Find a way to gamify, track, or chain your goals, and you will be more likely to complete them.
7. Consistently review your goals
Whether every day, week, or month, take time to review your goals. See where you are at, where you have been doing well and where you can improve.
Look at what’s working and what’s not. If your strategy isn’t working, try something else!
Reviewing your goals can help remind you, stay on track, and help you make adjustments as you move toward your goal.
8. Be forgiving of yourself
You will make mistakes and you will have failures. You may not meet your deadlines.
That’s okay. Forgive yourself, learn from it, and keep moving forward.
If you find that you set a deadline to short, don’t beat yourself up over it, just change the deadline and keep working at it.
9. Use stretch goals with SMART goal
In his book Smarter Faster Better, Charles Duhigg talks about some of the possible dangers of smart goals that we mentioned previously.
One huge suggestion he has in the book is that we can pair stretch goals with SMART goals.
Stretch goals are those goals that we have no idea how we are going to accomplish it. It’s chasing the “impossible” (similar to Kennedy and the moon).
Duhigg gives an example of Jack Welch at GE. The division that manufactures airplane engines said they would reduce the number of defects in finished engines by 25%. They thought they could do that pretty easily.
Welch at GE
Welch said to do 70% in 3 years.
They thought it was impossible, but they started making changes. And making changes. And making changes.
To reach their goal they ended up changing who was hired, how they were trained and how the factory ran. They ended up reducing errors by 75% and even reducing costs by 10%.
Japanese bullet train
Another example Duhigg gave was the bullet trains in Japan. Tens of thousands of people traveled between Tokyo and Osaka over 320 miles of train tracks along with industrial materials. The trips could take as long as 20 hours.
To help revitalize the economy, the head of the Japanese railway system in 1955 told them to invent a faster train. When they presented one that goes 65 mph, which was very fast at that time, he said, not enough, 120mph.
They said “impossible”. He was insistent, so they started making changes. And little by little, they increased the speed all the way to 120 mph. They changed the rials and railways. They dug tunnels through the mountains.
In 1964 the world’s first bullet train left Tokyo and arrived in Osaka in 3 hours and 58 minutes. Their bullet trains helped revitalize their economy.
All because someone believed in and pushed for the impossible.
Don’t be afraid of the impossible. Be willing to stretch yourself and try for the crazy.
One way to do that, according to Duhigg, is to create the stretch goals, then use SMART goals to help get you to the stretch goal.
Pairing the two can help you do the “impossible”.
For example, the stretch goal was to create a train that goes 120mph. The SMART goals are all the smaller goals they did to make the train go faster, step by step.
10. Avoid doing too many goals at once
It can be easy to be ambitious and shoot for 20 different goals at one time. However, when we do that, not only do we not put much effort into any goal, we easily get burned out and don’t do ANY goal.
It’s good to write out a list of goals you want to do. But, instead of trying to do them all at once, look at them and chose which goal will have the greatest impact on your life or work, and then focus on that goal. If you do more, do 2-3 at the most.
Otherwise, you won’t give each goal the attention it needs.
As you’ve seen, SMART goals can be effective – when done well. And they pair well with stretch goals, which can push you further than you ever thought.
Now to you: What tip had the most impact on you?