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SMART Goals: Increase your chances of success

SMART goals
Tonja Blatnik
9 minute read

Why is it that so many people fail in their endeavors? Because they don't set SMART goals.

The American philosopher Elbert Hubbard gives a straightforward answer: “They failed not because they lacked intelligence or courage, but because they did not organize their energies around a goal.”

Size does not matter! No matter how big or small your goals are, without a good plan, they will most likely remain just a dream or pedestals for you to fall off of and feel frustrated afterwards.

Thanks to the long history of research, about 40 years ago academia developed the S.M.A.R.T. method for setting goals. The main idea behind this tool is to inject clarity, focus and motivation into our goal-achieving process. 

As times are changing and becoming more dynamic, critics say that FAST is beating smart. Goals must be set according to the competitive environment and complexity all around us.

To help you to enjoy a happy, successful life and career, we have taken a deeper look at the SMART method, compiled some tips, and also tried to have a look at some less conventional goal-setting techniques, which may perhaps be more in line with 21st century challenges.

Decoding SMART goals

Forbes reports that high achievers can produce up to 400 percent more than the average employee. For sure, high achievers know one thing: a goal without a plan is just a dream.

All too often, we talk about what we want to achieve, while others put down a plan of action and systematically work step by step until they achieve the final goal. That is the main difference between being a dreamer and high achiever; it’s the difference between imagining and talking about what could be versus working to make it happen.

And this is where SMART method comes in. The beauty of this very popular technique is that it is useful for all possible goals in life - pursuing an education or a promotion, or living a more fulfilling personal life.

No matter what the goal is, you can increase your chances of success by making it SMART.

This means that your goals should be:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

Specific: specificity is a solid start

Be specific, precise, clear and unambiguous when describing your goal. Think about what exactly you want to achieve. This helps you focus on the task ahead and avoid distractions. Don’t use vague terms like “to become happy” or “ to live better.”

Use precise words and target a specific area for improvement. State what you intend to do. Use action verbs. The main idea behind the letter “S” in the acronym SMART is to remove ambiguity.

A little tip:

When drafting your goal, you can use the “W method” to guide you. Try to answer the five "W" questions:

  • What do I want to accomplish?
  • Why is this goal important?
  • Who is involved?
  • Where is it located?
  • Which resources or limits are involved?
  • What restrictions might I encounter?"

Measurable: feel the excitement of getting closer to success

It’s not a SMART goal if you can’t tell whether you’ve achieved it or not, so make sure that your goal is measurable so that you can track your progress and stay motivated.

Assessing progress helps you to stay focused, meet your deadlines, and feel the excitement of getting closer to achieving your goal. Quantify or at least suggest an indicator of progress, and in this way, you can track your progress and stay motivated.

Little tip:

A measurable goal should address questions such as:

  • Do I have a timeline?
  • What is the number behind the goal? How much of something do I want to achieve?
  • How will I know when I have accomplished this goal?

Achievable: stretching your abilities, but still remaining realistic

At this point you should give yourself a reality check. Your goal should be ambitious, but it should also never be out of reach. Goals should be realistic, achievable, and big enough to push you forward.

Beware of setting goals that someone else has power over. For example, "get a better job!" depends on other candidates and the employer’s decision. But "get the education that I need to be considered for that promotion" is entirely down to you.

A little tip:

An achievable goal will usually answer questions such as:

  • How can I accomplish this goal?
  • How realistic is the goal based on other constraints, such as financial factors?

Relevant: every goal should have a reason behind it

Relevancy is about ensuring that your goal matters to you, and that it also aligns with other relevant goals (on a departmental or organizational level). Smaller goals should link to the larger picture.

Make sure that your plans drive everyone forward, but that you're still responsible for achieving your own goal. When setting a goal is always smart that you start with the question why, why do you want to achieve something?

A little tip:

A relevant goal should answer "yes" to these questions:

  • Does this seem worthwhile?
  • Is this the right time (read more, how to hit the right timing when setting goals)?
  • Does this match our other efforts/needs?
  • Am I the right person to reach this goal?
  • Is it applicable in the current socio-economic environment?

Time-bound: don't let the sands of time run out on your tasks and projects

Set realistic deadlines for yourself - this will help keep you accountable and ensure that you don’t procrastinate. 

Also, set a target date to work toward. When you have a deadline in place, it will be easier to focus on achieving your goal and keep other, less important tasks off your mind.

Failing to meet a deadline might hurt your reputation, have financial consequences, and you might lose trust or slow down a projects’ progress. You should especially avoid letting others down in cases where a project is multi-staged and involves more people.

Time-bound also has a bigger context behind. It’s about good time management and making sure your every hour is smartly invested. 

A good project time tracker or timesheet app can be great tools to help you manage your time better when working and make sure no time goes to waste.

When to commit to a new SMART goal with a deadline?

Deadlines help you to achieve goals that you might otherwise put off. In spite of knowing that, deadlines are still a "pain in the ass" in many people's working lives.

Some suggest that adopting a positive attitude towards deadlines, instead of hating them, is a solution.

Some suggest more concrete ways. Mindtools, a British provider of research and learning resources, provides some steps for you to take before agreeing to a deadline.

These steps are especially valuable in avoiding procrastinating and other self-sabotaging behaviors.

1. Be sure to understand what your task is

Every new activity, every new project in the workplace, is created in response to a business need. Clearly agreeing on what you are going to deliver in that process is the starting line.

Do not rush. Make sure that you take enough time to evaluate what is required. If you are involved in a complex project, take into account that setting a deadline requires more information before agreeing to a tight deadline.

2. You are important, but you are not the only one

In most cases, tasks are not entirely dependent on you. So, consider whether you will have the people, technical support, equipment, or materials ready and available in time.

If not, you may have to suggest a longer schedule, or a lowering of the quality or quantity of work that you'll deliver on time. Get the right resources!

3. Allow for problems

An ideal scenario is rarely the case. The thing is that not everything goes to plan, no matter how hard and smart we work. It's wise to think about potential problems in advance.

For example, how would COVID, and IT failure, or an unexpected, urgent family matter affect your plans? You can, for instance, consider briefing a colleague so that she or he can cover for you in an emergency.

4. Plan in Detail

The next step is to create a detailed schedule. A good approach is often to break tasks down into small components and to create deadlines for each one.

As a result, you might find that you're going to need more time than the overall deadline allows. Be sure to raise this as an issue as soon as possible and avoid simply hoping for the best!

The ability to see how you're progressing can be very motivating, and it can help you to immediately identify tasks that haven't been done.

When planning, you will also be skipping the mess of multitasking, as it's not efficient. This kind of mental "juggling” is killing your productivity and makes you more error-prone.

5. Limit the damage before it’s too late

Keep others informed of progress during the working cycle; let them know of any obstacles and problems that delay you. By doing so, they will understand the situation. Perhaps they will even set a new deadline, sparing your nerves and embarrassment.

In any case, keep in mind that when you agree to a deadline, it is your responsibility to respect it.

And one last tip: Be assertive! It is ok to say "no",  if appropriate, or to at least give yourself space to evaluate a deadline before you agree to it.

Sometimes SMART is not smart

Not everyone sees SMART goals as a positive force in goal setting. Critics, especially those who equate this method to an annual checkbox exercise, believe that the SMART technique doesn't work well for long-term goals because it lacks flexibility and encourages people to set low goals.

According to Harvard Business Review, rather than using the acronym as a way to determine which goals are wise or worth pursuing, you should use it only as test to check whether goals are well-stated.

Opponents also suggest that this approach stifles creativity, and that organizations that stick to this approach may drive their business in the wrong direction - especially nowadays!

Take COVID, for example. It is hard to manage specific, time-based targets when demand, technology, and competitor sets are incessantly shifting and everything around us seems uncertain.

FAST as the alternative to SMART

If the traditional approach to goals cannot ensure successful strategy execution, what’s the alternative?

MIT Sloan Management Review writes that, over the past few decades, leading companies including Google, Intel, and Anheuser-Busch InBev have pioneered and refined an alternative approach to harnessing the power of goals.

A core tenet of the SMART framework is that goals should be achievable and realistic. The temptation to play it safe seems logical. Google, for example, expects employees to achieve an average of 60% to 70% of their key results.

In the eyes of Google executives, asking for more would prevent employees from thinking big enough when setting their objectives.

Moving beyond the conventional wisdom of SMART goals leads us to the next goal-achieving method, known as FAST.

  • F: Frequently discussed
  • A: Ambitious
  • S: Specific
  • T: Transparent

It is all about the four core principles: frequent discussions about goals, setting ambitious targets, translating them into specific metrics and milestones, and making them public and transparent for everyone to see.

Setting up your own roadmap to success

Goals are a powerful tool to drive strategy execution and achieve personal happiness. Setting the right targets that are almost, but not quite, impossible is a sign of a high-achiever. Thankfully there are a myriad of tools to choose from.

Having the right attitude is the ultimate cure for dreamers, too. Attitude is a habit of thought. You have the power to change, and to be, and to do anything ... so use it!

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