How to Set SMART Goals and How to Keep Them

Goals are what can push your life forward and make you feel more in control. If you don’t set goals, or worse, don’t know how to work smart, you’re subjecting yourself to feeling lost and exhausted. If you want to live a fulfilling life and reach your potential, you’ll benefit from the SMART goal method. It’s easier than it appears to be – all you need is to tweak your approach a little. In this article, you’ll find out how to do it and what to do to stick to your goals.

how to set smart goals and how to keep themWhat are SMART Goals?

Have you ever heard the phrase, ‘Work smart, not hard’? The SMART method allows you to accomplish more but without overworking yourself in the process. A lot of people are taught that the key to success is working hard and end up going through life without having clear goals instead of using their resources productively.

SMART is an acronym, and the goals are written using the following guidelines:
Specific – in line with your purpose
Measurable – motivating you enough to keep your goals
Achievable – not too ambitious
Relevant – realistic and results-based
Time-bound – time-based

The Origins of the SMART Method

A psychologist, Edwin Locke, researched the theory of goal setting and the findings from his studies are what inspired the SMART method. Locke’s research revealed that to benefit from higher performance, people should set goals that are sufficiently challenging. If a goal is too easy, it doesn’t motivate us enough, and if it’s too difficult, we might give up even before we start. The findings also indicate that it’s important to set goals that are specific because clearly outlining the objectives pushes people to try the hardest to achieve them. This is what the SMART method allows you to do – it encourages you to commit to the goal through smart planning techniques.

Is the SMART Method Effective?

The SMART method is very much research based. Findings from studies that investigate its effectiveness indicate that setting goals with this method results in improved performance. For example, a paper by researchers at the University of West Florida looked at how smart goal setting can influence learning outcomes in students and concluded that teams utilizing the SMART goals template are likely to outperform teams that don’t. [1] 

Why Should You Give SMART Method a Go?

If you feel like you’re getting nowhere in life even though you work hard, lack a clear direction, or simply want to become more successful, you should try SMART goal setting. Following a rigid plan might not be for you but you’ll benefit from giving this approach a go and tweaking some steps where necessary. Keep reading to find out how to try this method today and get what you want in life.

How to Come Up with SMART Goals

While some people know exactly what they want and where they want to be in 5 years’ time, others might not have this kind of clarity. Here’s what you should do if you struggle to come up with your goals:

1. Reflect on your life

Sometimes the easiest way to find out what you want is by eliminating scenarios you don’t want. Evaluate your life and consider which aspects you’d want to change and which aspects you aren’t happy with. For example, if your work isn’t fulfilling, ask yourself what other careers an option for you are, and if aren’t proud of where you are in life, consider goals that could aid your self-development.

2. Identify your values

All goals should be driven by core values because only then we can truly commit to them. If you act according to someone else’s expectations and not what you truly want, not even the SMART method can help you become successful. To identify your values, you can google a list of core values and choose a few that are the most important to you.

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How to Develop SMART Goals

If you know what’s important to you in life, it’s time to move on to the practical part. Follow this template to set your SMART goals:

1. Specific

The first step is to be specific about what you want to achieve by answering the ‘w’ questions.

Who – Consider who needs to be involved to help you accomplish this goal. For example, if you want to overcome social anxiety, you might have to attend therapy and if you want to publish a book, you’ll need an agent and a publisher.

What – Ask yourself what is it that you’re trying to accomplish. Be clear about what you want and include as many details as possible.

When – Set an initial time frame for accomplishing your goal. This could be a month from now or 2 years, depending on how time-consuming and ambitious the goal is.

Where – If your goal is tied to an event or a specific location, mention it here. For example, you might aspire to become an English teacher abroad so it’s best if you decide which country you’d want to move to in advance.

Which – Try to write down potential obstacles that might stand in the way of achieving the goal. For example, you might want to become an actor, but you’ve never tried acting before. This will allow you to set smaller goals before you commit to more ambitious ones.

Why – Why do you want to achieve this specific goal? Is it to earn money, gain fame, for personal growth or something else? If you struggle to answer this question, imagine that you’ve already achieved the goal and pay attention to what thoughts arise in your mind and how this visualization makes you feel.

2. Measurable SMART Goals

The aim of this step is to consider how you’ll be able to monitor your progress. Make sure your goal answers the following questions:

How much/how many - For example, if your goal is to advance your business by gaining more followers, you should consider how many followers you need to grow your audience.

How will I know when it’s achieved?  If you set a goal that says that you want to gain more followers but doesn’t specify how many, you might not be able to tell when you’ve achieved your goal (is it when you gain one new follower or one thousand?).

If your goal is likely to take months, you can break it down into milestones. For example, if your main goal is to gain followers, you could first develop marketing strategies, start posting more often, upgrade your content and so on. Depending on the type of your goal, you can measure results by how much money you earned, how much more accomplished you feel or how many milestones you’ve completed.

3. Achievable Goals

Even if goals you’ve set so far look good on paper, you should try to be realistic and consider if they’re achievable. You should ask yourself if you have all the skills necessary if the workload won’t be too heavy and if your attitude is right for the goal. If you don’t have the skills, consider what it would take to develop them.

4. Relevant Goals

Whether your goal is personal or professional, you should consider how it aligns with your core values and long-term ambitions. For example, if you fancy becoming a teacher to make ends meet for now but know that you’d like to focus on a different career in the future, it might be worth thinking it through. Ask yourself, does this goal really matter to you and does it interfere with other goals?

5. Time-bound Goals

The key to success is setting a goal that has a target date. This will make you more motivated to achieve it before the time’s up and make the goal more tangible. Be realistic about what you can accomplish and ask yourself the following questions:

What can I do a few months from now?

What can I do a few weeks from now?

What can I do today?

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SMART Goals Example

The first step of the SMART method is to set a vague goal and then use the steps to develop it into a plan. Have a look at this example:

Initial goal: “I want to gain more skills.”

Specific goal: I want to learn Spanish because I feel like it would progress my career as the company I work for often cooperates with Spanish businesses. I’d like to be able to speak it at an intermediate level in 6 months. I’ll have to find a tutor that will help me achieve my goal in a timely manner.

Measurable: I’ll regularly watch Spanish TV to monitor my progress and ask my tutor for feedback. I’ll know my goal has been achieved when I can understand Spanish TV enough to watch it with Spanish subtitles and completed all my homework on time.

Achievable: I can set an hour a day to practice my Spanish skills that will involve listening, speaking, learning grammar and memorizing new vocabulary, plus 2 hours of class with a tutor.

Relevant: I currently have a lot of free time so it won’t be a problem for me to commit to studying. I also enjoy my job and I want to grow as an employee.

Time-bound: In six months, I should be able to speak and understand Spanish at an intermediate level. I can start by learning basic words today and hire a tutor. 

How to Keep SMART Goals

Outlining your goals according to the SMART method might not be challenging to most but keeping them is a different kind of story. Unfortunately, the SMART method isn’t a magic formula that will make you work on your goals and achieve them for you. If you want to stick to your goals, here’s what you should remember:

1. Review your values once if you feel stuck

What mattered for you in the past might not necessarily be your priority now. Similarly, you might set goals and realize that you don’t want your life to go in that direction and that’s okay. The SMART method works only if you feel strongly about your goal and if it’s in line with your values. Don’t be afraid to ‘give up’ if your heart is no longer in it.

2. Review your progress

The only way to know if you’re getting closer to achieving your goal is by documenting your progress and then evaluating what you’ve done so far. No matter how straightforward your objectives are, you’ll always be able to break them down into smaller goals and completing them will tell you if you’re on the right track. Keep a journal where you write down all the activities relevant to your goal.

3. Share your goals with other people

A lot of studies that looked at the effectiveness of the SMART method also recognize the importance of having a friend who can hold you accountable regularly for completing your tasks. For example, research conducted by Dominican University found that 76% of participants who shared their weekly progress with their friend achieved their goals in comparison to 50% of those who didn’t receive support from a friend. [2] 

Once you’ve come up with your goal, you should let your friend know what your plan is and keep them updated on how you’re getting on with it.

5. Implement the ‘no zero days’ strategy

To keep yourself motivated, become familiar with the ‘no zero days’ strategy. It means that no matter how tired or down you feel, you should make sure to do at least one productive thing per day, whether it’s just folding laundry or going for a walk. Even doing the bare minimum is better than doing nothing at all and can give you a sense of accomplishment.

6. Reward yourself

When you reward yourself for the progress you make, you teach your brain that effort has positive results, and this encourages you to keep going despite obstacles. If you track your progress, it should be easy to notice when you’re advancing so make sure to celebrate your success no matter how small it seems.



About the Contributor

Joanna Cakala is a multilingual writer based in the UK. Combining a degree in Psychology and passion for writing, she started her freelance journey penning articles on mental health.


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