If you’ve ever tried to learn more about goal-setting, you’ve probably heard of the term SMART goals—but what are SMART goals really? And how do they actually work? These are important questions because so much of hitting your goals has to do with how you set them. And we know by now that improving anything—your health, focus at work, meditation practice—starts with setting a goal. If you set it up right, as in the SMART way, you’re more likely to achieve the success you seek, which, we might add, feels pretty damn good.
But let’s be totally honest: A lot of goals never make it to that point. We’ve been there too, and so have a lot of other people. Luckily, some of those people, as in researchers and experts, devoted countless hours to refining the craft of SMART goal setting. And we’re going to benefit from their work.
What are SMART Goals? An Acronym for Success
What are SMART goals exactly? Simply put, the acronym is a framework meant to set you up for success before you even start working toward your goal. Think of it less as a way to find an answer and more of a way to ask an effective question.
SMART Goals Defined
To answer the question what are SMART goals, you first have to get a handle on the acronym. But we’re going to go a step beyond that and dig into some examples of SMART goals. We’ll take one the whole way through so you can see how the process works fully. Then you’ll be ready to apply the SMART approach to your own goals.
S = Specific
If you want to know how to create SMART goals, you have to start at the beginning—with the S of course. The S stands for specific. SMART goals are laser-focused rather than broad or general. Say, for example, you want to get more productive. Instead of using that general statement as your one-size-fits-all goal, dig into the aspect of your productivity you specifically want to improve.
For example, “I want to increase my productivity by leaving my phone in another room with the sound turned off at least three days a week.” A science-backed way to boost productivity? Check. A super-specific way to do it? Check check.
M = Measurable
Okay, so you have your specifically defined goal. To be SMART, it also has to be measurable. Let’s stick with the productivity example. How would you measure “get more productive”? Since there are a million different metrics to look at, you really couldn’t measure it effectively. But measuring “leaving my phone in another room on silent for three days a week” is easy. It just involves counting. And paying attention to the count over time.
Here’s why measurable goals are important: By making sure your goal is measurable, you can tangibly track your progress. And research shows that tracking your progress makes you more likely to hit your goal. Here’s to kicking that distracting device and getting more work done.
A = Attainable
Here’s where the SMART goal method delivers a reality check. A stands for attainable—can you actually do this?
Say you’re a current events junkie whose notifications on the latest headlines never go unread, regardless of the time. Setting a goal to go cold turkey and never read the news on your phone again? Yeah, maybe not so attainable. In that case, a smarter goal would be to reduce the number of times you check the news on your phone—maybe it’s three times a day during work breaks only. Or maybe you disable notifications for just one of the news apps you follow.
When a goal is attainable, it increases your confidence that you can achieve it. And that confidence is important in making progress on not only this goal but other goals in the future.
R = Relevant
How bad do you want it? SMART goals are so effective because they’re relevant to you. Say, you think you’re productive enough already. No matter how specific, measurable, and attainable your goal of keeping your phone in another room a few days a week is, you’re not likely to stick to something that doesn’t feel relevant to you. Setting a SMART goal forces you to ask yourself why you want to put the phone away.
Aside from what the research says, why is your productivity important to you? What can it add to your life overall—more time with your family and friends, less stress, a bigger sense of accomplishment? Connect the why to the what for maximum success.
T = Time-bound
Goals need one more element to be SMART: They must be time-bound. In other words, where’s the finish line for your goal? You have to give yourself a deadline for your productivity transformation. Ideally, SMART goals should have a series of benchmarks.
If you’re giving yourself a month to hit your end-goal, that breakdown might look like this.
- For the first week of your goal, leave your phone in another room on silent once a week.
- During the second week, aim for twice.
- For the third week, shoot for three times.
How to stay SMART
To help you stay SMART, write down your goals including benchmarks for each week (and your final deadline) in a planner. We recommend a Panda Planner because it’s set up to help you capture both the small steps and the end result.
Seriously—studies show putting it in writing really makes a difference. Psychology researchers at Dominican University found that the simple act of writing down your goals makes you significantly more likely to achieve them. Their 2015 study also found that 70 percent of people who sent weekly goal progress updates to a friend completed their goals compared to only 35 percent of those who didn’t keep their friends posted. Just send those updates outside of working hours if you want your productivity to flourish, not falter.
Ultimately, setting SMART goals means setting yourself up to hit them. So apply the system to your aspirations to get going in the direction you desire. And remember that, like any skill worth acquiring, it takes time and practice to be a SMART goal-setting pro. But believing you can do it is the first step. You got this.
Your turn: What does your goal-setting process look like? What are SMART goals to you? Tell us more in the comments.
Think you need motivation to help you stay SMART? Check out this post on why motivation matters less than you think—and what to do instead.
Author: Macaela Mackenzie
Macaela Mackenzie is a freelance writer and content strategist. When she doesn’t have her nose in a research journal or the New York Times, she’s likely to be found looking for punny greeting cards or an excuse to explore a new travel spot.