Networking and Career Advice

What Are SMART Goals?

Natasha Serafimovska

Career Coach, Professional Resume Writer, Freelance Writer

When it comes to achieving our goals, there’s a lot of noise to work through. A study by the University of Scranton has found that only 8% of people who set New Year’s resolutions actually achieve them. Our busy lives might be one reason for this. Another, even more important reason, is our approach to goal setting. Being too vague, too ambitious or simply unclear on the timeframe can set us up for failure.

In contrast, SMART goals focus on setting specific, realistic goals, which helps us think in practical terms. Whether you’re looking to advance in your current career or want to choose a different career altogether, setting SMART goals will help you stay on track and monitor your progress along the way. 

Here, we look at what SMART goals are and how you can be SMART about your goal setting. We’ll also look at some examples to showcase the power of SMART goals.

What are SMART goals and how can they grow my career?

What are SMART Goals? Where Did The Idea Come From?

The term SMART goals was coined by George T. Doran in his 1981 article “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management goals and objectives”. The article explored how businesses, and managers in particular, can be more successful in setting clear goals and objectives for their business.

In their simplest form, SMART goals are goals whose progress can be measured at any point in time. The approach encourages you to think in practical terms about the actions and when you want to achieve them.

The term has since been used beyond the world of business to encourage SMART goal-setting in all aspects of life. This approach works really well because it’s grounded in psychology which we’ll explore later on.

"S" for SMART Goals

S = Specific; Set Specific Goals

Say, for instance, you want to improve your marketing performance. You might say something like “I’d like to generate more leads in the upcoming quarter.” However, this isn’t specific enough. How would you know if you’ve achieved your goal or not? Is 10% more leads a sign of success? Or, do you need 50% more?

A specific, SMART goal in this context would be “generate 25% more leads in Q2”.

"M" for SMART Goals

M = Measurable; Set Goals That Are Measurable

Some goals are inherently measurable like “lose ten pounds” while others can be more difficult to put into numbers. However, it’s important that you quantify your goals so you can track your progress. For example, let’s imagine you want to be more productive at work. How do you go about measuring that?

Things you might start tracking are the amount of hours you spend on your phone or social media. You may aim to reduce those by a certain percentage. You can also measure how much time you spend completing a task with no interruptions. Then, seek to increase that by 20%. Or, you can look to increase the amount of similar tasks you can complete in a given time window. All of these things are measurable and can help you increase your productivity over time.

"A" for SMART Goals

A = Attainable; Your Goals Need to be Attainable

Your goals need to be attainable if you ever stand a chance of accomplishing them. Attainable, in this context, means challenging enough that you’re not bored, but not too challenging that you’re discouraged from pursuing them. 

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be ambitious. Rather, set incremental goals which can lead to a larger goal over time. For instance, say you want to earn $100K next year even though you only make $30K today. That’s over 300% jump in pay, and that’s unrealistic to achieve within a year. However, you could start building towards that goal by saying that next year you’d earn 10-15% more. Then, come up with practical steps on how you will achieve your longer-term goal of $100K. 

"R" for SMART Goals

R = Relevant; Think About The Big Picture

At the end of the day, your goal needs to be relevant to what you’re trying to achieve and who you want to become long term. Creating goals that are relevant to your bigger picture as a person and professional will help you stay motivated to overcome challenges when they arise. 

We all have dozens of competing goals and priorities at any given time, so which ones get your attention? Say you want to be more confident and you decide that losing five pounds will help you with that. When you lose that weight, you realize that your confidence issues are still there. In this context, losing weight is irrelevant to your need to grow as a confident person and perhaps you need to look at other factors instead.

"T" for SMART Goals

T = Time-bound; Have a Deadline In Mind

Deadlines are proven to improve performance. Just think back to your university days and how quickly you could read through 150 pages when you had an exam the following day. Setting a deadline will help you avoid procrastination and stay focused.

Without a time limit, there’s a big risk you’d be postponing that uncomfortable call or boring excel task for yet another day. So, next time you decide you “want to learn French” why not tell yourself “get to level B1 by next summer before my trip to Paris”?

Why Are SMART Goals So Effective?

SMART goals are really effective because they use psychology to our advantage. Studies have shown that when goals are specific and challenging, our performance tends to improve. That’s because specific goals show us a roadmap of where we need to go, and we feel more confident about our actions as a result. In turn, challenging goals make us use more of our mental capacity, thus keeping things exciting and interesting for longer. 

Setting a deadline by when we need to accomplish these goals removes the risk of procrastination. SMART goals also help us put things into perspective and break down our goals into incremental and measurable steps that we can accomplish in the near, mid and distant future..

Examples: Ordinary Goals vs SMART Goals

Now that we’ve discussed what SMART goals are and why they’re important, let’s look at a few examples to see how they’re different from ordinary goal-setting. 

Example 1

Let’s imagine that you work as a property manager, but you’d love to retrain as a graphic designer. Here’s what an ordinary and SMART goal can look like:

Ordinary goal: “I want to get a job as a graphic designer.”
Specific goal: “In the next six months I will retrain as a graphic designer. By this time next year, I would have applied to 50 graphic designer jobs.”

See how the SMART goal is not only specific, but it also focuses on things you have control over? While you can’t be sure someone will hire you as a graphic designer, you know you have control over how many job applications you send in that time period.

Example 2 

Ordinary Goal: I want to be more mindful.
SMART Goal: By August, I will be able to meditate 40 minutes without interruptions.

Mindfulness is one of those goals that aren’t inherently measurable. However, you can focus on areas you want to improve and find measurable actions that can increase your mindfulness. One route you can go is to start meditating and increase the time you spend in meditative state.

Or, you can commit to jotting down five things you’re grateful for before you go to bed each night. Maybe when you start, you can think of only one or two things. However, by the end you’ll be able to name six or seven things simply because you’re more mindful throughout the day. 

Example 3

Ordinary Goal: I want to write a book.
SMART Goal: I will write 75,000 words by December of this year. 

Having a SMART goal can help you break down the goal into smaller objectives. Depending on how many months you give yourself to write the book, you can break down the word count into monthly, weekly and daily objectives. 

Example 4

Ordinary Goal: I want to be better at sales. 
SMART Goal: I will grow my sales by 25% by next June. 

Again, being better at sales doesn’t depend on a single activity like sitting down and writing a book. You probably would need to set several smaller objectives along the way like “make thirty outbound calls per day” or “shadow two sales calls with senior account executives per week.” These things will help you improve your negotiation skills and increase your odds of success by engaging more prospects.

Example 5

Ordinary Goal: I want to have a comfortable retirement.
SMART Goal: I want to have $250K in savings by the time I’m 60.

Depending on where you are in life, this can be a long-term goal you’d work towards your whole life. There are different ways you can go about it. Some, for instance, might choose the F.I.R.E movement where they spend very little upfront and are able to save more and retire earlier. Others may decide to put aside a small percentage of their income each month so that they reach $250K by the age of 60.

Key Takeaway

Setting goals for ourselves is an important part of our success in life. Whether we want to be more successful in our careers or lead happier and more fulfilling lives, goals can help us be intentional about the type of life we want and how to get there.

SMART goals can help us take a practical approach to reaching our goals by making us think in specific terms about what we want to achieve and why. So, next time you think about “eating more healthily” or “earning more” why not apply the SMART model and see where it gets you? 

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