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12 Ways to Make Your Goals Smarter

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Click for photo When you search the interwebs for information on goal setting, you find a lot of the same recycled drivel.  “Make your goals inspirational” and “Break your goals down into tasks” are common recommendations, but the single biggest bit of repeat advice is to make your goals SMART. 

This acronym is one of the most overused in all of personal development, and doesn’t capture the essence of goal-setting.  Not because it’s necessarily bad advice, but rather because it isn’t personal and authentic advice.  It’s cookie cutter… and is more about task management than achievement.

To recap the SMART designation, the general thinking is that any goal that doesn’t meet the following attributes is a goal not worth having.

S = Specific
M = Measurable
A = Attainable
R = Realistic (or Relevant)
T = Time-bound (or Timely)

Specific is about making sure your goal isn’t too vague, but instead represents exactly what you plan to accomplish, why you want to accomplish it, and how you’re going to do it.  Measurable makes sure you can actually see and celebrate progress against the goal in order to move in the right direction through quantitative means.  Attainable goals are goals you can actually achieve in the timeframe allotted – i.e. having a goal to make $10 million dollars in 1 week would be an unattainable goal for most people.  Realistic refers to having a goal that you’re both willing and able to achieve.  Time-bound (or Timely) is all about making sure you have an end-date in mind to hold yourself accountable to; a goal to become President of your company isn’t really a goal unless you set a date by which you’d like to accomplish it.

Sounds great, right?  Sure, maybe if you’re a Cylon.  For the rest of us, SMART doesn’t give us a solid enough framework to set personal goals.  The SMART methodology is believed to have started in corporate America, and was originally used for commitment setting in the new practice of management in the 1950s.  It’s intended mostly, to this day, for project management and not for real-world use.  Perhaps this is why it seems so “big company” and not very relevant to the uniqueness and quirkiness that is human nature.  Sure, you want your goals to be SMART, but don’t you need them to be more than that?

We need a new way to think about goals.  A new framework for forming them, and a different way to think about evaluating them once they’re set.

I first starting formal goal setting in 2000, although I do recall setting informal goals throughout my college years in the mid-90s.  My first set of goals were more like a test for me: how exactly do these things work?  How should I write them so that they matter?  How should I track my progress against them?  I didn’t know any of those answers at the time, and looking back at my 2000 goals, they were a combination of core values, a personal mission statement, things I wanted to achieve “someday”, and very specific things I wanted to achieve that year.  A total hodgepodge.

Over the past 10 years, my goals have become a lot more refined.  I now have a very clear and specific set of goals for each year, as well as a 5-year plan – and I reserve time each year to reflect, celebrate, and refresh my goals.  My personal goals have become far more focused on my family and on intrinsic personal growth, and less about specific circumstances or desired outcomes when compared to my goals from 10 years ago.  I’ve spent the better part of the past decade perfecting what goal-setting means for me, and in the process feel like I’ve reached a point of real Zen about the process.

These 12 traits are the most important attributes of goals I’ve found, and many of them have been validated in University studies.  While there are others that didn’t make the list, these are the qualities I most look for in my goals each year.

Goals should be:

  1. Holistic.  Each goal must fit like a puzzle piece with all other goals.  If your goals aren’t holistically aligned, you’ll quickly find that you’re working in conflict with yourself.  As an example, if one of your goals is to spend more time with your family, and another is to start a business in another state, you’ll find yourself at odds.  Your goals need to work together or the whole thing could go up in smoke.
  2. Value driven.  Your goals need to speak to who you are at the core.  This means you need to know yourself and understand what drives you.  For example, if you’re someone who lives to spend time with your grandchildren, it’s important that your goals reflect that joy.  If your goals reflected someone else’s values or society’s at large (material wealth based on social comparison) and not your own, you may find yourself chasing down the wrong thing at the expense of what really makes you tick.
  3. Personal.  Are you someone who likes to spend the majority of time with lots of other people, or do you like to spend your time alone or with a small close-knit group?  Are you someone who likes things to be predictable or someone who thrives on chaos?  These aren’t small considerations when it comes to setting goals.  You want to make sure you know under which circumstances you’ll thrive best, otherwise you’ll end up with a goal you don’t even want to look at.  One fun evaluation of this is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator – derive goals from your personality type and have a better shot at success.
  4. Fresh.  Setting goals is not something rigid and unbending, it’s actually a very fluid process.  If you’re only setting goals every few years, and only looking at them annually, there’s a pretty good chance your goals don’t align with your current reality.  That’s a sure way to ignore them.  Instead, your goals need to be fresh and adjusted on a semi-regular basis.  My own timeframe is annually – with monthly check-ins and readjustments.  What’s yours?
  5. Scoped.  Only you know how many goals you should have in order to feel balanced.  Too many goals and you can become crushed by the weight of them.  Too few and you’re failing to realize your full potential.  This may take some adjustment, and it may take years to find the right rhythm, but sooner or later you’ll find the scope of goals most appropriate for you.  I’ve had as few as five and as many as twenty for the year – each year is also somewhat different depending on the variables at play.
  6. Habit forming.  Goals that are habit forming are far more powerful than goals that are solely about the outcome.  For instance, if you’d like to get a 5% pay increase, the best way to make that happen is to break down your behavior and get the right habits in place to enact positive change.  Don’t focus on the increase in pay, that’s just a byproduct of the success you’ve created.  The increase in pay may (or may not be) an indirect result, but the more lasting and important change is in your day-to-day approach.  Habits are the building blocks of goals.
  7. Present tense. “By February, I’d like to buy my first home” isn’t a present tense goal.  “I’m a homeowner and have found and purchased my first home” is.  Trick yourself into believing you’ve already accomplished your goal.  By reaffirming this with yourself with each review, you’ll find that your goals come more easily.  I’m not talking about some mystical “Law of Attraction” – I’m talking about proactive reinforcement and implicit influence of your self.
  8. Positive.  Studies have shown that people are more apt to achieve “approach” goals vs. “avoidance” goals, so your goals should be positive in nature.  In other words, make your goals about enablement and the things you’re going to do, not the things you don’t want to do.  If you want to quit smoking, you want your goal to be about improving your health or setting the right example for your children – not constantly calling attention to the thing you’re depriving yourself of.  “Stop taking daily cigarette breaks” is tough to rally behind, but “Improve my health and overall well-being and show my kids how to live a healthy life” is motivating.
  9. Challenge/skill balanced.  Sound familiar?  That’s right – this is a core component of Flow.  You want to have a goal that take you closer to the Flow state and not goals that make you bored, overwhelmed, or otherwise apathetic.  The key is to find the right balance between the challenge involved, and the skill you’re developing to address that challenge.  From Csikszentmihalyi’s Wikipedia entry: “If the task is too easy or too difficult, flow cannot occur. Both skill level and challenge level must be matched and high; if skill and challenge are low and matched, then apathy results.”
  10. Want-to.  A goal can quickly degrade to perceived work if it feels like an imperative.  Yes, there are things you have to do in life, but your goals – in order to really work – have to be things you actually want to do.  The process of setting your goals alone can open your eyes to how many things you do on a regular basis that aren’t things you actually want to do.  And even if some of your goals are have-to goals, you should figure out how best to phrase them as want-to goals.  For example, you have to go to work in order to get paid.  But you want to close 10 sales/week in order to be at the top of the sales force for the year.  And if you don’t want it at all, maybe it’s time to pull out your copy of What Color is Your Parachute and change something bigger.
  11. Lasting.  Goals that are subject to hedonic adaptation aren’t lasting enough to focus on, while goals that have long-term value can make a serious positive difference in your life.  For example, buying a brand new $50,000 car may be a great goal – but research has shown that after some time (shorter than most of us think) we adapt to changes in our circumstances, returning our level of happiness back to where it started.  The best goals are the ones that compound on themselves – similar to compound interest in your retirement account – and “keep on giving” long after they’ve been accomplished.  For instance, learning a new language or skill, spending time with friends and family, or organizing your life are all more impactful long-term than buying a new gadget (not that there’s anything inherently wrong with buying gadgets!).
  12. Shared.  Most of us aren’t an island – we have life partners, spouses, kids, close friends, pets, and imaginary friends.  While it may seem that goal-setting is an isolated experience, it shouldn’t be.  The things you decide to commit yourself to are, in some cases, just as important to the people around you as they are to you.  And (to speak in project management terms): you need to get buy-in from the stakeholders before making any commitment.

These 12 attributes have helped me take a process that was pretty vague at first, and turn that ambiguity into smarter goals over time.  It isn’t that having SMART goals isn’t important – it’s just that it isn’t nearly enough if you want to both succeed and improve your happiness level during the process.

My recommendation is to start simple: pick a single goal you’d like to target, tweak it until it meets this criteria, set a date on the calendar, and go for it.  Start with something that can be scoped to 30 days at first; if your first goal is something you won’t be able to see success with for years, it’s not a good first step.  Once you’ve been able to succeed with one goal, you’ll be able to repeat the process as many times as is feasible for you (see #5 above).  Eventually, you’ll get it down to a science!

Have fun 🙂

Written by Mike Torres

September 8th, 2009 at 7:03 am

  • What a great way to look at goals, makes a lot more sense for goals to be more personalized. Great job!

  • I really clicked with your section about ensuring you set ‘holistic’ goals, goals which fit with one another, rather than goals at clashing ends.

    This year I’m going to think of my set of goals in a holistic fashion, hopefully cutting out any clashes.

    Thanks for the thorough analysis – I like the way you write original content instead of rehashing the same tired old “Goals must be SMART” advice like far too many other bloggers out there are doing.

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