SMART goals are created using the "SMART" acronym, which stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. When applied to goal-setting, the SMART framework helps you focus your efforts, track your progress, adjust when necessary, and reach your destination. Each goal you set should follow the SMART method or risk setting undefined and unattainable goals.
Too often, people set goals that are vague and without a defined plan. To help, the SMART goal-setting framework takes a high-level vision and translates it into specific actions and measurable benchmarks, providing a reliable plan that systematically achieves your goal. Without the SMART framework, your goal is nothing more than a hope or a dream.
Every goal you set should consist of the five SMART goal elements. Let's look at each of these in greater detail:
A specific goal is foundational to success. This is because specific goals are well-defined and have a clear sense of direction. They give you a firm understanding of success and are the foundation on which you'll build your action plan. Vague goals, on the other hand, aren't tangible and can't be acted upon because the direction and definition of success aren't clear.
If you want to run a half-marathon, rather than setting the goal of "running a marathon" or "running for ~13.1 miles", set something more specific like, "enter and finish the Boston Half-Marathon." This way, it gives you a goal with a clear and well-defined destination and is something you can use as motivation.
SMART goals must have a defined benchmark by which to measure success. To do so, you must first identify the metric itself, and then set a specific number you're trying to meet or exceed. By breaking down a goal to specific metrics, you make your goal tangible and can use it to set productive habits, assess your progress over time, and know when you’ve reached your destination (or when it's time to change course).
Continuing the example above, "finishing the Boston Half-Marathon" is a worthy and specific goal, but by making it more measurable you add to its clarity and also make it more motivating. You can modify your goal to make it measurable and it becomes, "finish the Boston Half-Marathon in two hours or less." See how this adds clarity and specificity and also gives you a firmer destination in mind?
However, while SMART goals are specific and measurable, they also have to be achievable. This means that you need to set lofty goals and push yourself, but you need to do it in a realistic way. If you set a goal that flat out isn't achievable, it may seem like an ambitious endeavor but will quickly demotivate you when you realize you're not making any progress towards its achievement.
That said, it's a nuanced point because you don't want to set goals that are too easy either. For me, I try to set goals in which I have roughly an 80% degree of certainty I'll achieve. I've borrowed this approach from a sales philosophy that salespeople should track to roughly 80% of their max commission. This way, my goals are both achievable and lofty enough that even if I miss it I still end up in a good position.
Let's continue the example of running a half-marathon. It might sound like a good idea to set an ambitious goal of running the race in some crazy time like 1.5 hours, but that isn't so. You'll end up becoming demoralized as you train hard and realize you aren't built for running a half-marathon in that time yet.
To ensure your goal is achievable, check the benchmark you set previously and ensure that it's challenging and will stretch you to the limits, but is still within the realm of possibility to achieve.
SMART goals must also be relevant to your priorities and overall vision or desires. To ensure your goal is relevant, start with the end in mind and define your overall life vision. Then, translate your vision into a series of successive goals using the SMART framework. If the SMART goal you're setting doesn't fit within the overall vision for your life, it'll take you off track and isn't something to pursue.
Instead, always tie your SMART goal to your overall direction in life or something that is currently relevant and exciting to you. This ensures your smaller goals help you achieve your larger ones and that you'll have the motivation to see it through to the end. For more information on ensuring your SMART goal is relevant, check out my article on how to set goals the right way.
Using the half-marathon example, verify that running a half-marathon is actually a relevant thing you want to achieve. If it's not, it'll be hard to muster the motivation necessary to train hard and achieve your goal. Be honest with yourself and start by asking yourself, "how does this goal help or make my life better?" If it doesn't, you probably shouldn't pursue it, even in the face of social pressure or something similar.
One good way to ensure your SMART goal is relevant is to add a "so that" statement, which clearly defines your "why" behind your goal and verifies its relevancy. For example, if you want to run a half-marathon to improve your health, you can re-write your goal to read, "finish the Boston Half-Marathon in two hours or less so that I become a healthier person."
All SMART goals need a deadline. Setting defined deadlines gives your goal the destination it needs and gives you the motivation to stay focused and achieve it. Without a deadline, your goal is nothing but a dream and its pursuit will typically last forever without much progress. Deadlines also have the added benefit of reflection. It allows time to review progress and reflect on what's working and what's not.
Finishing the half-marathon example, give it a time limit to ensure your goal is time-bound. If you determine that you'll need three months to train for the half-marathon, set the goal of "train to run and finish the Boston Half-Marathon with a time of two hours within the next three months so that I become healthier." This way, there's no doubt to your goal's specificity and ensures that it's a SMART one to set.
Now that you understand the five elements of a SMART goal, it's time to dig into some more examples. Below are some key examples of how vague goals can become achievable through the SMART goal-setting process.
Assume you have a goal of expanding your Facebook presence to grow your business. Below we break down how you would craft this into a SMART goal.
Assume you have a goal of saving to pay down credit card debt. Below we break down how this could be crafted into a SMART goal.
In this example, your goal is to set a realistic growth target for your consulting business while also creating a specific action plan to help you achieve it.
As you can see, there are many different types of SMART goals you can set. For more information on the various types of goals and which ones are best for you, check out my article on the 12 different types of goals for more information and specific examples.
There are a number of analog and digital tools that can help you better set and track SMART goals. Written worksheets or goal-setting apps are both great ways to keep you motivated and on track in the pursuit of your goal. While physical worksheets are highly customizable to fit your needs, there are many goal-setting apps that provide a more seamless way to set and track goals.
Let's look at both options in a little more detail:
A simple goal-setting worksheet can be used to help frame your SMART goal and track your progress. Whether in a notebook or a spreadsheet, write out the goal, documenting why you want to achieve this goal and what it will mean for you.
Reflect on how progress would look and what steps you need to take. Then, finally set measurable actions with a timeframe to achieve them, recording your progress as you go. When the deadline hits, a handy record of your progress and notes will help to generate a new milestone if necessary.
There are many SMART goal-setting and productivity apps that are useful for building out habits and reminders as you work towards your goals. While some focus strictly on health and well-being, others are customized for project management or work-related goals. Each app uses a different strategy from “don’t break the chain” to negative rewards to personalized coaching.
A few of the top SMART goal-setting apps include:
A detailed review of these and other best goal-setting apps will help you find one that suits your SMART goals, personality and style.
SMART goals are a powerful tool to help make ambitious goals a reality. The SMART goal framework can be a constructive tool but it also has (albeit only a few) drawbacks. Below we break down the benefits and drawbacks of SMART goal-setting so you can use them constructively while avoiding possible pitfalls.
As you set SMART goals, make sure you have a clear vision of what you want your life to become and what you specifically want to achieve in each domain of your life. SMART goals can be set in any category such as personal, professional, health, or finance, but you don't want to have so many goals that it divides your focus and you end up failing at all of them.
For this reason, choose one big goal for two to three domains - no more or you may become overwhelmed or set yourself up for failure - and break each of those two or three down into a SMART goal so you have specific steps to follow. Use a notebook or productivity app to track your progress, review the data periodically. Celebrate small wins.
Once you see consistent progress and momentum, keep going until you reach your deadline. Then decide if you want to deepen your efforts towards that goal or pivot towards another goal or domain. For more information, check out my article on how to apply and achieve your goals in life.
Whether mastering a skill, working on physical health, writing a book, starting a business, or any aspirational goal in between, SMART goal-setting helps you understand your motivation, detail a process, create action items, and establish habits and practices to reach your goal. For additional words of advice, check out my article on the best goal-setting quotes from proven luminaries.