How to Set SMART Goals: The Most Crucial Rules to Follow

How to Set SMART Goals

 

One thing’s for sure: I wish I had known about SMART Goals when I was twelve. But perhaps that’s one of the reasons why SMART Goals were invented—to make up for all the lost time in which people had no idea about them.

The idea of SMART Goals has permeated almost all spheres of life: the workplace, business, education, medicine, even parenting… But the most important perhaps is its effect on our personal lives.

We shouldn’t simply go through life without any idea where we’re going. You must have a plan, especially if you’re with people who are unbelievably pessimistic about the world.

What are SMART Goals and how do you set them?

Since the concept of SMART Goals has a huge impact on almost anything planning, a lot of definitions for the acronym has emerged. However, I believe this is the closest definition of SMART we should be using, especially with personal goals:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

Mindtools has laid out great questions you could ask in qualifying any goal. I’ll be using an example and come up with answers to those questions.

Specific

SMART Goals don’t answer rhetorical questions. You should be able to zero in on your objectives. You’ll have outcome goals you should break down into daily process goals.

For our example, I’ll be using “lifting weights” for a goal. For now this is absolutely a vague goal, and that’s okay, because we’ll turn that around by answering the relevant questions to come up with SMART Goals.

Let’s start.

The Specific part should be able to answer the five “W” questions.

  • What do I want to accomplish? – I want to gain muscles, towards a lean type of body.
  • Why is this goal important? – I want to make my physical health a high priority because it’s essential for my overall wellbeing. I also want to be more confident so that I can really enjoy interacting with other people.
  • Who is involved? – A gym instructor. I may also consult a nutritionist if deemed necessary.
  • Where is it located? – The gym, which is a five-minute commute from home.
  • Which resources or limits are involved? – My two main enemies are laziness and busy work schedule. I also don’t want to compromise time with my loved ones.

Measurable

You should be able to measure your results. Even if you can’t measure them to a T, you should at least be able to tell that you’re going to the desired direction.

  • How much (muscle gain)? – I could identify my lean body mass (LBM) by measuring my body fat percentage (BFP), because BFP tells what the LBM is. I’ll aim for 15% BFP and 85% LBM. (Note: If these are actually your goals, talk to your instructor.)
  • How will I know when it is accomplished? – First, this is a lifetime commitment. But I’ll know it when I achieve the lean build I want, with the 15% BFP and 85% LBM.

Take note that this Measurable part is similar to the next one, Achievable.

We just identified here some measurement metrics for the object, which is muscles. In the next section we’ll transform these metrics into actions.

The SMART criteria are a simple tool, yet you can use them with a bit of flexibility.

Achievable

If you find yourself asking, “Do WHAT? Am I kidding myself? I haven’t even been to the gym before!”…well, that’s okay. And you should be asking yourself such questions because you want to achieve something in the first place.

This part is where you answer all the “how” questions.

You won’t get significant results on your first day at the gym, except perhaps a sore body, but you should understand one thing:

In order for you to achieve the outcome goal, which is gaining muscles, you now need to identify the activities you can do that will take you there, and those activities now become the daily process goals you have to meet.

Process goals, for our example, then become the routine, the minimum number of reps, the foods to avoid, and other goals you should meet on the daily. Ask your instructor or dietician for help.

Process goals are not your body measurements in this case (they would fall under outcome goals after a year or so). Process goals are not end-results. Instead, they are more about the actions you take without really thinking about outcomes.

Your end-goals are now broken down in terms of actions or tasks. You could even interchange this part with Measurable above, because you could now start measuring counts, calories, time, or anything really—as long as you can achieve those measurement units daily, or weekly at the most.

Now, on to the questions:

  • How can I accomplish this goal? – I’ll do x reps for pull-ups, y for squats, z for bench press… I’ll also start changing my diet, following a plan recommended for me.
  • How realistic is the goal, based on other constraints? – The constraints I see are laziness, fatigue, and a busy schedule. I’ll overcome them by taking my gym outfit with me every time so that I could go straight to the gym after work and before going home. Also, going to the gym at least three or four days a week is realistic because I don’t have a huge responsibly at home, such as raising a family (I’m single).

Understand the power of process goals. If you kinda believe in New Year’s Resolutions, then the idea of process goals should have busted that myth by now.

Process goals allow you to see long-term goals in a different light. Suddenly your long-term goals seem easier, very actionable, not-so-stressful, and actually attainable!

It’s a great idea to brainstorm all the possible obstacles at this point. Since you’re dealing with the “hows,” think of the people or events that will likely become a hindrance.

Relevant

This part is related to Specific in that it also answers the question “why,” and also related to the next section, Time-bound, in that it answers the “when”—but here it’s more about the timing.

I would rate this as arguably the first or second most important part of SMART, with Achievable being the close one, because a goal—whatever kind that is—must be relevant to your current life situation, your current skills, and your other complementary goals.

A goal should actually be useful at the time you accomplish it.

You wouldn’t deadlift 300 lbs on your first day—maybe have that goal x months from now. Why would you aim for that on the first day?

You should answer “yes” to the following questions (except the last one):

  • Does this seem worthwhile? (Say, is a sore body on the first week worthwhile?) – Yes. It’s only the beginning. All people who lift had a sore body when they started.
  • Is this the right time? – Yes. I believe everybody should be lifting; they don’t have to be like Arnold. I even think I should’ve started when I was 16. Anyway, health authorities advocate at least two days of strength training per week. If health is made a high priority, then all the time is the right time.
  • Does this match my other efforts/needs? – Yes. Health is wealth. How could I get other things done with an otherwise weak or sickly body?
  • Am I the right person to reach this goal? – Yes. I deserve it.
  • Is it applicable in my current socio-economic environment? – Yes. I just have to follow the routine. I don’t have real obstacles but myself.
  • Why is this goal relevant? (You can have the same answer under the Specific section above, but you can also answer the similar question, “Why is this goal relevant to your other goals?”) – I have a tight schedule but I’m an advocate for spending time outdoors with nature, with my loved ones. I want them to have a healthy lifestyle, too—I’ll lead by example. (Notice that you can get really specific here. Ask more questions and you might be surprised by your answers—which is a good thing.)

Time-bound

Perhaps this is the part you’ll dread a bit. Deadlines can induce anxiety. They create pressure. Instead of focusing on the now, when everything’s supposed to be laid out already—no, you might think about that time you should’ve accomplished this or that.

But hey, your best life is still ahead, and you’re not going to live forever. So you’re going to need deadlines, and you should be strict with yourself.

Train yourself to get things done within a time frame. This sounds easier said than done—especially if you’re working for yourself, but learn to focus, do your best, identify all the damn limits, and set reasonable deadlines.

The point is to do something and move forward. If you work a bit slower than you would like to, then take the time to practice until you develop speed. If there are heaps of distractions vying for your attention, but you could literally throw them out, then why not?

Stretch yourself to your limits…and then some more—just so you can tell how to structure your day. Life is a series of experiments. Love yourself but don’t you stop daring to do what you can actually do.

Who knows, maybe your current abilities or skills or talents are just the tip of the iceberg. Don’t settle there.

Let’s move on to the questions:

  • What can I do today? – Later at 5 P.M. I’ll visit the nearest gym and talk to an instructor. Before going there I’ll make a list of questions for them.
  • What can I do six weeks or six months from now? – Most probably I’ll be a regular by then. Other than that, I’ll see how it goes.
  • When are you starting? – I’ll start the routine on Monday next week, right after work.

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How to Set SMART Goals: The Most Crucial Rules to Follow

Be most honest with yourself, but explore all possibilities.

…especially in assessing your current life situation. Accept that in order to achieve something you think you want, lots of frustrations and tradeoffs will happen.

Don’t dismiss a goal if you think you can’t achieve it YET. Because most probably you can start working on the skills and resources you lack.

On the other hand, take stock of what you already have. You might think you don’t have enough to start, when you actually do.

You might simply need some help. Do you have people from whom you could ask for help? Yes? Can you ask for their time, money, expertise, tools, whatever? If not, can you do something valuable in exchange for them?

You could do something right now even if it seems the opposite. But don’t oversimplify and overgeneralize. Don’t expect too much, but do your best.

Write your goals down.

The writing doesn’t need to be elaborate. Don’t overwhelm yourself. But you have to set things down.

If you haven’t done this before, try it—even just for the heck of it. Write only five lines of whatever goals you can think of—but please do me a favor: take a moment (for one or two minutes) to think before you write. (Do it now before you continue reading.)

If you did it, I bet while you were getting them down, a lot was happening inside your head, and maybe you had even the teensiest urge to keep writing more.

The point here isn’t how neat you write or how organized your thoughts are or how the paper smells oh-so-nice.

It’s simply about writing those goals down. Because it’s the start of it all.

Your life is a mess? Write down all your bad habits and start working on only one today.

Always lazy as freak? Write down the reasons you’re lazy, and start working only on them today. Don’t do anything else.

Want to earn more? Do some research online even for just 15 minutes and put down possible options.

You see, you start by writing down what could possibly be rubbish. But it’s so easy and it will look for some sort of direction, even if it’s muddy in the beginning.

From nothing (say, your life is a mess), you could mark a spot in your well-known territory and make that your starting point. From there make better decisions—your decisions. It’s about starting.

But putting things on paper (physical or digital) is a great habit. The coming days and weeks and years may seem pointless and tiresome—just return to what you’ve written and be reminded that you’re here to do and be something.

Set goals that motivate you.

It may take some time for you to realize that your goals are indeed the ones that genuinely motivate you. You’ll feel frustrated and may take a break, sometimes for a long time, only to go back and resume working on them because you’ll realize those are still the goals you want to pursue.

Sometimes your motivation to stick to your original goals only gets stronger by going after other goals. That’s the nudge right there.

There are two kinds of goals as far as internal motivation is concerned.

The first is the “I want to reach that goal because it’s a passion” kind.

The second is the “I want to reach that goal because I want to leave this deplorable situation” kind.

There might be others, which perhaps only you can define, but all in all, those goals will motivate you to move. And sometimes merely taking action—which can bring order to your world—is enough to keep you going.

Make an action plan.

An action plan is the organization of all the SMART Goals you come up with. It’s the whole system.

This could be an action plan for the quarter, year, five years, or even decade.

Start small with this, too. The challenge is to stretch your visions as far but as realistic as you can.

You might find that your first SMART Goals are too shortsighted, and I think they should be. But when you’re aware it can work over the long run, go back to your action plan and extend it.

Develop your support network.

A popular notion is that you should choose a trusted person that can be accountable for you reaching your goals. On the other hand, other people believe you should keep your goals to yourself.

But support networks are not solely for your goal setting endeavors. It’s simply a social and evolutionary fact that you can’t live alone forever…or at least, things are a lot easier if you have people you can run to when you need just about any kind of help.

Forget about self-control.

Don’t torture yourself by leaving your self-control resources vulnerable to attack.

Remove distractions and avoid enablers (people) in your life from the get-go.

You lose the battle the moment you allow yourself to even be around them.

To put it another way, you should rather use self-control on the important things.

For example, you might find it too hard to go to that gym because you allowed yourself to get involved in a long chat with your coworker who doesn’t do anything but chat. Not to mention he also brings the negative vibes—gossip is his cup of tea. Moreover, studies show that self-control tends to get depleted as the day goes by.

If you avoided that kind of enabler, you should’ve had more self-control resources the moment you left the office, and should’ve instead used them for your lifting enterprise.

Preparation is a huge part of self-control. Be very careful.

Don’t be an unethical asshole.

Now you might not really be sure how to be ethical (say, you’re in government or in business), but try to observe such a rule as often as you can, nevertheless.

I’ve learned about this one rule that can be applied to more or less anything. It goes something like this:

“Don’t use someone else as a means to an end…but you can have them as an end themselves.”

You’ll have those grand goals for whatever reasons. Maybe you want to leave a miserable place. Maybe you’ve had enough.

But maybe your ego has also been damaged. Big time.

You may reach your goals faster than you thought. You don’t want all your efforts go to waste (if you did the effort).

But do your thing right. For one outcome, there are only two ways to do it: the right way and the wrong way—you could use two ethically opposite means to achieve the very same thing.

Look, there’s too much evil already. Be a person of integrity. It’s the only way, to say it bluntly. Be evil and have more unnecessary problems you just might not be able to handle. It’s not worth it.

Rediscover happiness by not looking for happiness.

I know, I just said happiness. But bear with me for a moment.

Aside from setting your own goals, consider setting “general” goals for your happiness. In other words, don’t go looking specifically for happiness whenever you venture into something, especially if it’s meaningful to you. In fact, happiness and meaning tend to be inversely related to each other.

Setting general goals for happiness means bearing in mind that you have to make only the best decisions. It means embracing everything you’ll encounter along the path you’ve chosen. It means looking for the good side to the daily routine, even when it gets hard.

Now, why talk about happiness together with goal setting? Because it’s important to develop a sense of acceptance of everything that’s going on around you. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get your ass up (or down) to work and do the best you can, though.

Because looking for happiness is the problem. You might be expecting to find it after investing substantial amounts of your time and effort, only to find out they have absolutely nothing to do with it.

Enjoy your journey—face your demons, put up with the foolishness of the world, and lead by example. It sounds paradoxical, because it is. True happiness is found by developing virtue—“happiness,” as the popular idea we know of today, comes only second.

Setting goals requires a virtuous character—it’s good not only for your goals per se, but also for your wellbeing.

Start with the dead simple act of setting SMART Goals.

Because that’s the thing about it. It’s dead simple. A ton of variations to SMART has come out, but they have a huge intersection with its original definition (or with the one I laid out, at least).

You’ll hear about SMARTER, BHAG, HARD, what have you, but SMART is the trailblazer—start with it. Most probably you’ll develop your own version and interpretation of it, anyway.

Action is key. But action without direction is probably a waste of time. Mark the spot. Start. Your best bet is to set those easy goals for now.

(Image Credits: Lucas Vasques, Markus Spiske)

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