Chances are you have heard of a SMART goal. You can probably even spout off the acronym. It IS quite catchy! 

S specific

M measurable

A attainable

R relevant

T time-based

SMART goals are part of a well-thought-out system for getting you where you want to be. These are not ideas you think up on the fly – they should simply be a way of articulating a goal that has sat within your soul for a while. In the end, a goal that is specific, measurable, and time-based tells you where to go; it is the map. But relevancy is the gas in your car. In other words, unless you care – and care deeply – you aren’t going to get anywhere. 

So how do you use the system?

Specific. Our goals should be clear and straight-forward. This is the heart and soul of the SMART goal approach. When making sure your goal is specific start by answering the five W’s:

  • What do I want to accomplish?
  • Why is this goal important?
  • Who is involved?
  • Where is it located?
  • Which resources do I have available? Which limits/challenges will I encounter? 

Measurable. If we cannot measure our goal, we cannot track progress, celebrate our wins along the way and stay disciplined.  A measurable goal will address:

  • How much? 
  • How many?
  • But most importantly, how will I know when it is accomplished?

Attainable. When making sure your goal is attainable, be sure to take this particular season of your life into account. For example, maybe when you were younger you could go to the gym five times a week for an hour each time, but now maybe you have small children or limited childcare which make that amount less attainable. Or the opposite could be true, now that your children are grown and out of the house you are stuck with the limiting belief that you cannot ever get to the gym. Answer the following questions:

  • How can I accomplish this goal?
  • How realistic is this goal given, my current season of life, my current constraints ie financial, time, resources etc.?

A word of caution when double-checking the attainability of your goal: be wary of setting goals that someone else has power over, such as getting a promotion, for example. In the end, whether or not you are chosen for a promotion is ultimately out of your control. A better way of stating this would be, “attain skills A, B and C, which are needed to be considered for a promotion.”

Relevant. This is the gut-check of the SMART goals system. Your goal needs to be something you care about. If it isn’t, then why bother? The answers to the following questions should be “yes” in order to move forward – preferably an enthusiastic yes.

  • Does this goal seem worthwhile?
  • Does this goal matter to me or does this goal matter to other people?
  • Does this goal matter to me or have I been raised to believe it should matter to me?
  • Is this the right time to set this goal?
  • Does this goal align with other goals I have set?
  • Will this goal help me become the person I want to be?

Time-bound. Every goal needs a target date. A target date helps to prevent daily tasks from taking priority over your long-term goal. Make sure your goal is time-bound by answering:

  • When?
  • What can I do in six months?
  • What can I do in six weeks?
  • What can I do today?

Use this step to build a potential timeline for your goal. If your goal is big, consider breaking it down into several smaller time-bound goals, which can act as stepping stones along the route to your endgame. Plus, achieving smaller more manageable goals along the way helps build the confidence needed to tackle the bigger overarching goal! 

Simply put, SMART goals are a map pointing the way towards what you want to achieve and who you want to be. 

SMART goals work because:

  1. They force us to articulate why our goal is important to us
  2. They force us to anticipate roadblocks
  3. They encourage us to state our strengths and leverage them
  4. They define what success will look like at different points in the journey
  5. By defining success, we have built-in moments of celebration throughout the process, so don’t forget to stop and acknowledge your progress!

By using the SMART goals system you are in a better position to make things happen. 

We use SMART goals because the system is well-established and well-studied. The data shows that they work! But, unfortunately, that does not mean that they work for everyone. If setting SMART goals has been a struggle for you in the past, ask yourself if you are actually setting SMART goals. Are you using the system as it was intended, or are you setting SMART-ish goals? Be honest with yourself. Sit with the goal you set for a few days then revisit these questions.

If you are confident you are using the system the way it was intended then maybe it’s time to try SMART(ER) goals. SMART goals lack two very important components, components that for some of us make or break us when it comes to accomplishing our goals. They lack emotion/ excitement and re-evaluation. Hence, SMART(ER) goals.

Emotional/Exciting. You made sure you goal was relevant, so now let’s add in an emotional element to stay committed. Make this exciting by visualizing the end result. Set some time aside. Start with a simply breathing technique to set the mood and then let your imagination run rampant as you answer the following questions. As you are visualizing the answers to each question, give yourself enough time to make it as detailed as possible. The more details you add, the more time you sit in your imagined feeling the more effective it will be.

  • How will achieving this goal positively impact my life?
  • How will I feel when I have accomplished this goal?
  • How will a typical day change once I have accomplished this goal? How will I feel during this typical day?
  • How will a typical week change once I have accomplished this goal? How will I feel during this typical week?
  • How will my most important relationships change once I have achieved this goal? How will I feel in these relationships?

Re-evaluation. By re-evaluating your goals periodically, you build flexibility into the system. 

Things change. Seasons change. YOU change. It can be incredibly soul-crushing to set a goal in one season of life – perhaps an easier season of life – only to have your reality change. You may label yourself as unmotivated or undisciplined, when your reality has changed. Taking the time to re-evaluate will help you see things and either make your goal smaller and more manageable or  help you decide to shift goals entirely. 

You change too, though. What is relevant one day may not be relevant the next. Maybe you had a child, changed career paths, discovered health limitations or maybe – JUST MAYBE – you simply changed your mind. It happens. If you aren’t making progress towards your goal, take a moment to do a gut-check: is this still attainable? Is this still relevant? Then act on your answer and stop beating yourself up. 

To help get your started on your journey, try this SMART goal worksheet. Find what works for you and get goal setting! 

Ariel Mulzoff, LMSW, is a regional social worker and the Hope For The Warriors’ Resilient Warrior & Resilient Family Program Manager. Married to a salty Marine veteran and a mother to two hooligans, ages 5 years and 21 months, Ariel credits meditation and movement as being the pillars on which her sanity rests. In her spare time, you can either find her lifting heavy weights, hiking, or reading a book.