Almost every time you hear someone mention goals, the idea of SMART goals comes up. But what are SMART Goals and why should you care?
“SMART goals” is a goal-setting system which uses an acronym to identify best practices for setting goals. Each letter in the SMART acronym stands for a different requirement that your goals should meet to increase your chances of reaching them. Although the exact words vary, SMART generally stands for:
The system might sound confusing if you’re just learning about it for the first time, but don’t worry! It’s important to learn because it will show you how to set your goals so that you can actually achieve them. And the first step to that is understanding what SMART goals are.
Let’s dive deeper into what this acronym even is and where it came from so we can increase our chances of accomplishing our goals!
Word Math: What are SMART goals?
“SMART goals” is a goal-setting system. Let’s look at what the word “system” means to understand it better. According to Oxford Languages, which Google uses, a system is:
“a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done; an organized scheme or method.”
If we set our phrase SMART goals equivalent to this, and simplifying we get:
SMART goals = a set of principles or procedures according to which goal-setting is done.
Another word we can use to describe SMART goals is “framework,” which means:
“an essential supporting structure of a building, vehicle, or object.”
As an engineer, I particularly like this definition because it refers to the work I do of designing buildings to structurally support outside forces. Using this version, we get:
SMART goals = an essential supporting structure of goal-setting.
If we combine these two and add some modifications to make it more clear, we get an even better understanding with this phrase:
SMART goals = a set of principles or procedures which provides an essential supporting structure for effective goal-setting.
That’s pretty profound. Ultimately, the SMART framework or system supports your goals. When designing a building, I make sure it can remain standing against outside forces, like snow, wind, and earthquakes.
In a similar way, the SMART framework will support your goals against the forces of laziness, boredom, lack of commitment, and more.
In my answer earlier I mentioned that this system also involves an acronym. The definition of this word, with help from Google, is:
“an abbreviation formed from the initial letters of other words and pronounced as a word.”
An acronym uses the letters within a word to help you remember a phrase or set of words. The acronym SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. But as you’ll see in a moment, this isn’t the only way to define it.
Where Did SMART Goals Come From?
Some reports claim that the acronym has been around since the 1970s. But it’s more widely accepted that it came from a business executive named George Doran and his company.
In his 1981 article There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives, he outlines how it applies to management professionals. In it, he states the acronym as follows:
“Specific- target a specific area for improvement.
Measurable- quantify or at least suggest an indicator of progress.
Assignable- specify who will do it.
Realistic- state what results can realistically be achieved, given available resources.
Time-related- specify when the result(s) can be achieved.”
Doran also shared how he’d seen the simple correlation that people who focused on this method had a higher chance of success in reaching their goals.
While it’s easy to get caught up in it and try to fulfill all five of these requirements, the original article declares that this isn’t meant to be so rigid. He declared:
“It should also be understood that the suggested acronym doesn’t mean that every objective written will have all five criteria. However, the closer we get to the SMART criteria as a guideline, the smarter our objectives will be.”
In other words, it’s not meant to be an exact science but more of a guide to help you set better goals.
You also have to recognize that the system was originally for managers to help their teams reach objectives, not individuals. It does adapt well to personal goals, but this shows that you don’t need to be strict with it. Instead, you should use it however it helps you the best.
And you can see how true this is with how many different versions of the acronym have come about since Doran first introduced it.
What Are the Variations of Smart Goals?
Growing up I always believed the acronym was Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-Bound. But after looking into it more deeply, I realize that this doesn’t even make sense because “attainable” and “realistic” essentially mean the same thing.
That’s why I was grateful to learn recently that there are dozens of possible ways to define the acronym. This is helpful because you can find and use whatever you feel supports your goals the best!
Here’s a table outlining some of the different combinations you can have:
|Achievable, attainable, assignable, aligned with corporate goals, ambitious, action-oriented, agreed
|Relevant, realistic, results-based, reasonable, resourced, resonant
|Time-bound, trackable, time-limited, testable, timeframe, time-sensitive, timely, time/cost limited, time-oriented, time-based
There are hundreds of possible combinations that would work best. I think my new favorite way of doing it is going to be this:
From what you now know about the flexibility of SMART goals, go ahead and try out different ones to see what works best for you!
How Will SMART Goals Help You?
When introducing the SMART system, Doran mentioned how he’d seen that people who applied it had a higher rate of success in reaching their goals. I’ve seen the same for my own goals and have even found a system to make setting SMART goals even easier.
Let’s go through each of the words in the acronym to see how they contribute to higher chances of success.
When your goals are well-defined, it’s easy to stay focused on the outcome you want. This also helps you create and stick to a vision of what you really want, which is a powerful way to maintain motivation.
When you can track the progress of your goals, you get more excited as you see how far you’ve come and how close you are to your final objective.
Another major benefit of this component that I’ve discovered only recently is the ability to know if you need to change your goal or plan. By using lead and lag indicators and a weekly review, you can determine if your action steps aren’t helping you meet your end goal or if that aim isn’t something you want anymore.
This is a huge deal because often, you don’t start goals because you’re afraid of committing when the future is uncertain. But when you prepare with the factor of measurability from the start, it kills that anxiety about getting your goals just right and makes you far more likely to just begin.
Nothing inspires me like a new big goal. I love it when the idea pops into my head for something that sounds crazy but that I know I can accomplish with SMART goals and the right planning.
One time, this principle even helped me get out of a mini mid-life crisis after I’d been in my career for a couple of years. I felt like I was stagnating in multiple ways, but that all changed when one day I got the ambitious idea to go to graduate school and run a half marathon.
Like a rocket, those new goals propelled me into a much happier life.
Along with the idea of “Ambitious” helping you set goals that stretch and inspire you, it’s wise to have goals that you can achieve so you don’t push yourself too hard.
Big goals are crucial and you should set them. But including an element of realism makes sure that the timeline is long enough for you to achieve them. This is where many of the other letters of the acronym come in handy. It’s also a major reason why I love this one so much.
When your goals are realistic, you are more likely to accomplish them because you know they are within reasonable limits.
And if you do start with goals that are too intense, don’t be afraid to change them to increase your chances of finishing.
In Jon Acuff’s book Finish, he identifies that if you’re constantly failing at a goal, cut it in half or double your timeline. I’ve used this myself with multiple goals with wild success and recommend you consider it too.
I love this one because it gives constraints to measurability and provides an important structure for tracking your goals.
The looming due date of your goals provides motivation to work hard. This component is also vital to ensure you can set daily action steps and weekly, monthly, or quarterly milestones to meet and see your progress.
Consider how much more powerful “lose 12 pounds in 12 weeks” is than just “lose 12 pounds.” That tiny little addition adds so much more meaning and structure that also makes you far more likely to finish.
Let’s Wrap This Up
I have to admit, I haven’t always been a fan of SMART goals. They can be tedious, confusing, and even boring. Sometimes it’s easy to wonder if the work to set goals with this framework is worth it.
But after diving deep into the history and different components of this system, modifying it to meet my personal needs, and seeing the protection it provides against the forces that try to derail me from my goals, I’m convinced this is a powerful method that will skyrocket your chances of reaching your goals!