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How to Propel Your Career Forward with SMART Goals

February 18, 2020

What if there was a near fool-proof method you could use to ensure you could reach your next goal?

A method that doesn't involve a magic lamp or exorbitant amounts of money. The only thing you'd need is a plan and the dedication to see it through. Who wouldn't take advantage of something like that? 

If you’re looking to take your professional development to the next level, or just impress your boss, you can’t go wrong using the SMART goal criteria.

The SMART goal strategy is a practical five-step process you can use for any goal you have. It doesn’t matter if it’s personal or professional, this strategy works. The best part? The only thing you’ll need is your own imagination and some pen and paper.

What are SMART goals?

SMART goals are simply a new twist on an old habit. There’s nothing new about setting a personal goal or challenge for yourself, but there are better ways to make those goals a reality.

SMART is an acronym that stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based. It was first conceptualized by George T. Doran in 1981 and has been a popular goal-setting method since.

A SMART goal uses these five different benchmarks to ensure your goals are set up for success.

What are SMART goals?
 

You can use the SMART methodology for any goal you want to set. Whether you’re hoping to lose 20 pounds in the next year or you’re looking to get promoted at work, SMART goals can help you get there.

They provide an action plan toward achieving your goals. When you use SMART goals, you step beyond daydreaming and move toward making your goals a reality.

What does SMART stand for?

As we mentioned above, SMART stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based. Each part of a SMART goal requires a different perspective and strategy, which is why you should familiarize yourself with each of them.

Specific

The first step in setting a SMART goal is making your goal specific. When you set a specific goal, it’s easier for you to measure your progress and reach your goal.

Setting specific goals keeps your mind focused on where you’re going and how you’re going to get there. It keeps you accountable and prevents you from moving the goalpost on yourself.

Is your goal specific?

  • Would another person understand this goal out of context?
  • Does this goal have direction and focus?
  • What is your motivation for this goal?

The trick is making your goal specific enough that you’ll succeed but not so specific that it’s inflexible. Striking that balance can be tricky, but with enough practice, you’ll be able to set goals that matter.

Measurable

The second step in creating a SMART goal is making it measurable. A measurable goal is one that has clear benchmarks for success. Running a marathon is a measurable goal because at the end of the day, you either run a marathon or you don’t.

Is your goal measurable?

  • Are there numbers behind your goal?
  • How are you tracking your progress?
  • What does success look like for this goal?

This step is also important because success is different depending on the person. You need to be able to define what success looks like to you, and then create the criteria for measuring that success.

Attainable

For your goal to be SMART, it needs to be attainable. This might be the most important step in the entire process.

Whether or not your goal is realistic is the lynchpin for the entire process. You can set the goal to fly to the moon and map out the benchmarks for success, but unless you can actually pull it off it is of no use to you.

Is your goal attainable?

  • Do you have the resources necessary to complete this goal?
  • How are you going to accomplish your goal?
  • Does this goal need to be broken into smaller objectives?

If you get to this step and find your goal isn’t attainable, don’t panic. Instead, focus on the parts of your goal that you can accomplish and refocus from there. There’s almost always a good idea buried in an unrealistic goal – it’s all about perspective.

Relevant

The fourth step to planning SMART goals is making sure your goal is relevant. You might set a goal that is specific, measurable, and attainable, but is it helping you achieve your overall life plans? It might be harder to achieve something if the goal you’re setting isn’t working in line with the other things you’re working toward.

Is your goal relevant?

  • Does this goal support your overall plan in life?
  • Does this goal matter to your long-term plans?
  • Is this something you can accomplish now?

Goals that work together in harmony with the rest of your life have a higher chance of success. It’s also important to remember that just because a goal isn’t relevant now, doesn’t mean it won’t be relevant later. The relevance of your goal depends entirely on timing.

Time-based

The last part of planning a SMART goal is making sure your goal is time-based. A time-based goal is simply a goal that has a deadline.

Setting a target date for your goals is an easy hack for success. It helps create a sense of urgency that will keep you motivated. This ensures the goals you’re working towards have a finish line in sight.

Is your goal time based?

  • Have you given yourself enough time to accomplish your goal?
  • Would breaking the goal into smaller deadlines help?
  • Do you have enough time to pursue this goal?

Another reason this step works is that it gives you perspective on how you’re progressing with your goals. If you say you’re going to accomplish something in a year, you can break your larger goal into smaller check-points every month. This gives you an idea of whether you’re on track or not and can be crucial for refocusing your goals.

Benefits of setting SMART goals

There are plenty of methods out there used for setting goals. What makes the SMART method popular is that it works. Many people have found success using SMART for both their personal and professional lives.

Here are a few advantages of using the SMART method:

  • Divides large goals into smaller pieces – (Specific)
  • Creates an actionable plan for success – (Measurable)
  • Encourages accountability– (Attainable)
  • Goals are fully thought-out in advance – (Realistic)
  • Easier to track goal progress – (Time-based)

This method only works so long as you stick to it. You can create the most detailed goal in the world and that won’t mean anything if you don’t work for it. Be sure to commit to using SMART from beginning to end.

Disadvantages of setting SMART goals

There are a few drawbacks to using the SMART method for setting goals. While this method gives you a clear framework, it can lead to some stumbling blocks if used incorrectly. It’s also important to know that not every goal works effectively in the SMART framework.

Here are a few disadvantages of using the SMART method:

  • Too intense for some people
  • Limits flexibility for long-term goals
  • Stifles goal-setting creativity
  • Encourages addiction to success
  • Intensifies guilt around failure

An easy way to combat these drawbacks is to use SMART with a bit of flexibility. Don’t be afraid to change your strategy. You can borrow certain aspects of SMART and change the ones that don’t suit your goal. If you find that one part of your goal is too rigid, switch it up and make it work for you!

The science behind setting goals

There have been many scientific studies on the science behind goal setting over the years. One of the more recent studies was conducted by psychologist Gail Matthews in 2015. Matthews gathered more than 250 participants from all walks of life and asked them to think about their goals.

She then divided the test subjects up into different control groups and had them all go about setting goals to be accomplished over the next four weeks. Each participant was placed in one of the five test groups outlined below.

Group 1 Asked to think about their goals.
Group 2 Asked to write their goals down.
Group 3 Asked to write down and form an action plan for their goals.
Group 4 Asked to write down goals, form an action plan, and share them with a trusted friend.
Group 5 Asked to write down goals, form an action plan, share them with a trusted friend, and send weekly progress reports to that friend.

After four weeks, Matthews tracked the success of her test subjects to see who had accomplished their goals and who hadn’t. The idea was to see if there was a method that worked best for setting actionable goals. Here’s what she found.

1. Talking about your goals increases the likelihood you’ll reach them

The test subjects in groups that required them to tell another person about their goals were more successful than those who didn’t. There are many reasons why this method works, but the general understanding is that when you verbalize your goals to other people, you feel held accountable to see your goals to completion.

2. Writing goals down increases the likelihood you’ll succeed

Subjects who wrote their goals down were more successful than the control group that was asked to simply think about their goals. This is likely because writing things helps you remember them better, and it creates a tangible record of the goal, making it more real to the person trying to accomplish it.

3. Breaking goals down into smaller parts increases the likelihood of success

Participants who sent weekly progress reports to their friends accomplished more than test subjects in any other control field. This works because large goals can be overwhelming to tackle all at once. When you break your goals down into smaller, more manageable pieces, it’s easier to see your progress overall.

SMART goals format

Using the SMART method successfully is all about keeping a detailed record of your action plan. As we’ve seen from the study above, writing your goals down increases the likelihood you’ll be successful. That’s why we’ve put together a template that you can download and use for any of your goals.

You’ll want to start with your goal and drill down from there. Use the SMART template to fine-tune the process you’ll use. Include any thoughts, obstacles, and notes you have within the worksheet.

The more planning you do ahead of time, the easier it will be to carve out your path to success.

Ready to set some SMART goals? Download FREE worksheet

SMART goals example

We’ve talked about how to set SMART goals and why setting goals is important, now it’s time to look at a real-life use case.

For this section, we’re going to use a common workplace goal, getting promoted at work, as our example. This goal in itself is pretty vague, but using each of the five SMART method steps, we’re going to take this goal from mediocre to a truly achievable goal.

How to set SMART Goals


Specific –
Instead of saying you want to get promoted, be more specific about what kind of promotion you’re hoping for. What job title are you targeting? Do you expect a pay raise with this promotion? What job duties are you hoping to get along with this promotion? This is much more helpful in your goal setting than simply saying you want to get promoted.

Measurable – The trick with measurable goals is deciding on your version of success ahead of time. How much of a pay increase did you want? Did you get the full amount you wanted?

Let’s say you get the title change and the pay increase, but not the additional job responsibilities. Is that still considered a success in your eyes? That’s something you should think about when setting your goal.

Attainable – There will always be external factors when it comes to setting your goals. Ensuring your goal is attainable will help smooth bumps along the road. Are you in a position to be promoted? Have parameters been laid out by management about promotions? What kind of blockers are in your way?

Before you even begin vying for the promotion, you should check if it’s possible. Just because a goal isn’t attainable now doesn’t mean it’s not attainable later. There’s no shame in readjusting your objectives.

Relevant – Sometimes your goals are possible, but they aren’t relevant. Will getting a promotion support other goals in your life, both personal and professional? Will you use this promotion to help yourself and those around you?

You could have every argument to get your promotion, and you might still get roadblocked along the way because the goal isn’t relevant. The relevance of a goal isn’t just dependent on you, it’s dependent on others as well.

For example, maybe you want a promotion at work, but does the company need another manager? Ensure that your goals work within the larger structure you're involved with for maximum chance of success. 

Time-based – A goal without a deadline is like a marathon without a finish line. Don’t leave your goals open-ended, give yourself a timeframe to complete them in.

Do you want to be promoted within the next six months or the next year? Are you willing to leave your current job to reach this goal? Creating a sense of urgency with a time limit will keep you from slacking and push you toward success.

See how using the SMART methodology transformed the original goal? The new goal is much clearer and easier to visualize than saying you just want a promotion. Now that the goal is smarter, you can create the strategy toward accomplishing it.

Tips for accomplishing your goals

Once you decide on your goals, it’s time to get to work! Accomplishing your goals is an art. You’ll need the right tools for success. Everyone works differently and that means different strategies work for different people. Choose any number of the following tips to make your dreams a reality.

1. Write your goals down

There’s a psychology behind writing down your goals. A Harvard Business Study found that the 3% of MBA candidates who wrote down their goals ended up earning ten times more than the other 97% put together ten years after graduation.

Taking the time to put your goals into writing helps cement them. It also serves as an important reminder for what you’re working toward when you start to feel unmotivated.

2. Reach for the stars

Dreaming big is the key to success. The more ambitious your goals are the more likely you are to go after them with everything you’ve got. When you think big, even a failure can be a success in its own way. If you set out to run a marathon and can only manage a half marathon, you still ran a half marathon.

How to set goals

3. Tell the world about your goals

Telling your friends about your goals is one of the easiest ways to stay accountable. Think of it as holding yourself to your goals. When you let others know what you’re working toward, you’ll feel obligated to follow-through. Talking about your goals on social media can work just as well.

4. Break goals into smaller chunks

It can be intimidating to look at your overall goal without an action plan to accomplish it. That’s why breaking your larger goal down into smaller sections works. This helps prevent goal burnout and can keep you focused on achieving success. It also helps you track your progress along the way!

Tips for goal setting

5. Set goals for yourself, not others

You’re never going to accomplish a goal if you’re not dedicated to the outcome. Don’t set goals because you think it’s something people expect you to do. Set the goals for yourself that matter most to your growth. It doesn’t matter how big or small a goal is as long as you’re doing it to make yourself stronger.

6. Know when to take a break

The gig economy and hustle culture can make it seem like taking a break means you’re falling behind, but that’s not the case. Sometimes the best thing you can do is give yourself a moment to just relax. Take a break, recharge your batteries, and then get back in the game.

Tips for preventing burnout

7. Choose goals you can control

Things become much more complicated when the success of your goal hinges on another person. You could work your tail off for a promotion but the ultimate decision is in another persons hands. To maximize your chances of success, set as many goals are possible that are solely your responsibility. 

If you decide to set a goal that depends on another person, remember along the way that you're only responsible for your part in things. Don't get discouraged and focus on what you can control. This will help you stay focused when external factors come into play. 

How to bounce back from failure

There will inevitably be a moment in your life when you work hard toward your goals and fall a little short. Even a SMART goal can be unattainable at times. The real measure of success is how you recover after you stumble. Here are some tips for recovering after you fail.

1. Figure out what went wrong

The only way to learn from your failure is to pinpoint why you didn’t succeed. Sit down with a piece of paper and write down the roadblocks you encountered during your attempt. Once you’ve done that you can brainstorm different ways to overcome them the next time you try.

2. Ask yourself what went right

There’s a very slim chance that your attempt was a complete failure. After you pinpoint what went wrong, make a similar list about what worked. This is important because it gives you the framework for your next attempt. Once you know what works for you, you can spend your time fine-tuning the process.

3. Reframe your failure

Success isn’t a straight line. It’s not about finding the right solution the first time. The journey is just as important as the destination. If you find yourself confronting your failure, put a positive spin on your situation and dust yourself off.

Quotes about success

4. Don’t beat yourself up

It can be tempting to wallow in self-pity after failure. You can take some time to feel bad for yourself, but then bounce back. Your attitude can make or break your success. Focus on the positive experiences and learn from what happened.

Keep your eyes on the prize

Congratulations, you’re ready to hit your target! SMART goals are the foundation of a well-planned victory. You have all the tools you need to plan and execute your dreams.

What are you waiting for? Get out there and show them what you’re made of.

Curious about how to fit your new goals into your busy schedule? Check out our total guide on time management to get started. 

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