Achieving your goals without a plan isn’t just difficult, it’s unlikely—that's where setting SMART goals come in.
According to research from Dominican University, people who write down their objectives accomplish significantly more than those who don’t.
But as many employees can attest, it’s not enough to put ideas on paper. The study also revealed that accountability and public commitment propel us to get more done.
The reason is as obvious as it is too often overlooked. Goals written are easier to remember, to feel obligated to accomplish, and to motivate an individual or a team consistently over time.
Accountability provides ownership of an objective. An individual made accountable for a task feels a connection to it, and knows that they’ll be rewarded (even if only emotionally) for accomplishing. Furthermore, they know they’ll feel unpleasant consequences if they fail to accomplish it. This touches on the basic psychological principles of motivation and accomplishment.
Public commitment adds something of both. It’s a kind of “writing” it down, even if the commitment is merely spoken. For one thing, almost everything that is made public is nowadays codified in one way or another. But even if it’s an informal commitment, spoken aloud to team members, or family members, or a partner in life or even in a hobby, human beings feel an extra motivation to live up to what they've publicly committed to doing. Our reputation is affected, as is our respectability, and our ability to influence others.
Despite these findings, many companies still struggle to set and achieve objectives in a way that maximizes success for the business—a place where individual, team, and organizational goals should ideally work in harmony.
People who write down their objectives accomplish significantly more
Luckily, there’s a goal-setting framework for that.
In this article, we offer a detailed definition of the SMART goals framework, along with numerous SMART goals examples designed to help your team effectively plan for results.
In addition, we offer some lay insights into how and why the SMART goals framework functions so well in human psychology.
The S.M.A.R.T. Acronym:
Whether we want to improve our fitness, buy a house, or learn a new skill, we can all agree it’s good to define the things we’d like to accomplish. Unless they’re defined, they remain vague desires or wishes.
And problems ensue when we don’t define these things enough. Usually, our goals are too vague and unformed to effectively drive the behaviors needed to see them through.
As a goal-setting framework, the SMART goal acronym forces us to consider the process and the structure of goal attainment in addition to the desired outcome.
SMART is an acronym. A SMART goal is smart because it is:
By emphasizing characteristics the average goal lacks, a SMART goal is less ambiguous, setting the stage for successfully achieving objectives and getting things done. This makes this framework ideal to use along with OKRs (Objective Key Results) or other KPIs that you use to manage job and company performance.
It also makes the SMART goals framework applicable to individual goals, not only for professional goals.
In the low-publicity or no-publicity world of individual goals (a personal best running time, learning a new guitar scale in a month, mastering a new grammar construction in a foreign language within three weeks), we can practice with and get familiar with SMART goals.
This will give us more experience and skill when bringing them into a professional context.
In that way, it’s like using a new app which is free for personal use, so that people may eventually choose to use it for their professional teams. It’s a great way to learn SMART goal setting and maintain the skill.
You can clearly see the differences between the simple goals and the SMART goals.
And can you sense the difference in how they might make you feel? That’s important, because emotions enable action. The SMART goals just feel better, since they’re constructed within parameters that motivate humans to succeed at them.
Simple (not smart) professional goals: 😕
SMART professional goals: 👩🎓
Simple (not smart) personal goals: 😕
SMART personal goals: 👩🎓
These examples of SMART goals in a personal context are especially exciting, because we as individuals can adopt one of them right now, as a personal experiment.
Or we can easily construct one along the same SMART lines, as an experiment.
As you do, you’ll sense the difference in clarity, motivation, and self-accountability which are part of the inner motivations that make SMART goals so much more doable than simple goals.
The S in SMART stands for specific, and it’s one of the most important defining features of a SMART goal.
When an organization tasks its sales team with closing more deals, there’s a reason the C-suite doesn’t leave “more” open to interpretation. They’ve already calculated the monthly recurring revenue needed to hit year-end targets—and they use this information to create clear objectives that don’t leave any room for confusion about expectations.
Specificity also extends to non-monetary goals. When a manager puts an employee on a performance improvement plan, for example, they detail exactly what the employee needs to accomplish to avoid termination and keep their job.
In less extreme scenarios, the principle is the same: to define what needs to happen in no uncertain terms.
The specificity doesn’t only satisfy the need for measurement and accountability. Crucially, it offers psychological benefits to the team, teams, or team members accountable for the goal.
When you know what’s expected of you, and know how you can reap rewards (even if these are only emotional or social in nature within the team), then you’re much more energized, persistent, and creative in reaching the goal.
A seldom noticed but extremely powerful result of SMART goals is the gamification they bring to an endeavor. Perhaps the oldest game of all is hitting targets. It could be with rocks, or spears, or golf balls, or email campaigns. If you have a target, you have a game. And that’s a fundamental attraction and enjoyment of competition.
So maybe you want to try it, now. Maybe you do want to see how it feels to write a specific goal, even if you’ve done it many times before. You could write one now, in your journaling app – or on a napkin. Maybe it’s a professional goal, or a personal one.
As management guru Peter Drucker famously said: “What gets measured gets done.” This is especially true when it comes to goal-setting. Measurability promotes accountability.
Take writing a novel, for example. Left unexamined, a lofty goal like this tends to generate a rush of excitement before fizzling into a pipe dream.
The would-be novelist starts with great motivation, only to be discouraged by the enormity of the task. It’s too vague. How long should it be? There’s no way a person can write 300,000 words – or 100,000 words, or even 50,000 words – all at once. So the task just seems amorphous.
With the SMART goals framework, any epic undertaking can transform into a series of manageable action items that help us stay the course. If one of your goals is to write a novel, a SMART goal might be something like “spend 1-2 hours each day writing 300 words for the next 6 months.”
But not all goals will require extended plans or have quantitative measures. If you run a bi-weekly team meeting to share project updates, the measure is binary—did team members share the status of their projects? If the answer is yes, you’ve met the goal.
Attainable goals matter more than many businesses realize. Companies that overreach without considering whether its goals are actually achievable tend to miss targets while inadvertently hurting morale in the process.
Employee morale is not the only thing that is damaged. Leadership’s credibility and skill also take a hit. Stakeholders who were led to believe the team would somehow accomplish the impossible can be left disillusioned with leadership. Especially during a time of digital transformation, most stakeholders don’t have enough information, expertise, or time to judge the credibility of a leader’s wildly unrealistic predictions – until the time of bitter disappointment that follows on them not being met, quarter after quarter.
On the flip side, organizations that can accurately forecast what’s possible are more likely to meet targets and maintain enthusiasm across teams.
This isn’t to suggest that businesses should avoid setting ambitious goals (growth often depends on it), but balancing the aspirational with the probable is key to consistently hitting them.
Metrics matter, but sometimes we can become so focused on numbers we lose sight of the factors that influence how important they are, and our ability to hit them.
Relevance can always be optimized
Relevance is not a binary question. A goal is not either relevant or irrelevant.
Almost any business goal is more or less relevant. Leaders who consistently take their teams and companies to new heights, and consistently beat the competition, know how to choose the most relevant goals.
What will bring the most profit? What will best advance the enterprise’s business goals?
Saying Yes to anything is always saying No to a million other goals. What goals are you saying No to, by choosing the one that you have chosen?
What might be a more relevant goal?
It’s important, enlightening, and exciting to ask these questions as you reach the Relevance stage of setting your SMART goals.
Not setting goals for goals’ sake
This happens personally and professionally, which is why SMART goals should be relevant and realistic for the individual, the team, and the business.
Without both characteristics in play, companies can default to setting goals for goals’ sake—a practice that often leads to poor decision making and wasted time at best, and low morale and unethical behavior at worst.
A successful SMART goals framework includes setting goals that are reasonable, realistic, and resourced well before any work begins.
Deadlines give our objectives momentum. Without appropriate pressure to deliver within a set time-frame, many goals can roll on indefinitely (or worse, cease process altogether).
Why and how work expands to fill the time allocated
Famously, work expands to fill the time allocated for it. Is that really true?
Spoiler alert: it is 1,000% true. Here’s why.
Without a deadline, the time allocated feels endless. So we naturally get distracted by perfecting the work, gathering more information, mission creep, expanding or contracting the scope of the work – anything except for actually finishing a deliverable.
Without a deadline, all this lack of efficiency and focus is only natural, completely rational, and cannot possibly be avoided by sensible human beings who care that their work will be judged, and who care that it must be quality work.
We all know our work is judged on quality, and on performance. If there’s no deadline, we’re not being judged on timeliness. So any human being will naturally focus on gathering the best information, and on the quality, the scope, and the details.
That’s why work inevitably expands to fill the time allocated.
That’s also why deadlines are so important.
Avoiding the trap of endless perfectionism
Organizations that use the SMART goals framework eliminate this risk by asking how much time a given goal will take to accomplish. Whatever time-frame they determine becomes part of the goal.
Below is a free, editable Google Doc that you can use as a SMART Goals Template. As a Google Doc, you can also download it as a Word Doc or PDF, or Print it from the File Menu.
We chose a Google Doc for this template rather an Excel because you can use bullet points in a Google Doc. Still, you can always copy the cell data into Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets if that appeals to you.
Note: To copy this free SMART Goals Template, Go to File > Make a Copy.
There’s some degree of debate around the origin of SMART goals. Many people credit Peter Drucker’s management by objectives theory with spearheading the framework in 1954, but the first known use of the term SMART didn’t happen until nearly 30 years later.
Published in 1981, George T. Doran’s article in Management Review drew on philosopher John Locke’s theory of goal setting to explain the SMART goals framework—and he built a compelling case for treating goals differently (i.e. explicitly) to help propel an organization forward.
Today the most forward-thinking organizations adopt the SMART goals framework to define their objectives, align their actions, and assess their results.
Leveraging SMART goals at work is an effective way to manage one’s output, but it’s also a useful tool for managing one’s career.
In many professions, such as nursing for example, it is especially beneficial to set SMART goals. By systematically identifying their long and short-term objectives, nurses who use SMART goals can monitor their professional progress to proactively guide their careers.
The Vital framework for fewer, shorter, better meetings suggests that every meeting should have a purpose. A good way to think about the purpose of a meeting is to consider it a SMART goal.
Watch this video to learn how.
SMART goals are realistic, fully-scoped goals with clear measures and an expected completion date.
SMART goals stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound.
SMART goals possess five characteristics: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound.
Put an extra $500 towards a student loan with the highest interest rate to pay it off in 9 months.
Start by naming your specific goal. Then break down what you need to do to achieve it. Along the way, assess whether the goal is something you can actually achieve and make adjustments where necessary. Lastly, give your goal a due date based on how much time it will take.
SMART goals stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound.
Run three miles after work four times per week.
Reduce calorie intake by 20 percent for the next three months.
Drink at least 10 glasses of water every day during the summer.
A bad SMART goal is any goal that isn’t specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound. Also known as “a goal.”
Context (such as your available resources) and benchmarks (how long similar goals take on average).
Ask what needs to happen to satisfy the result you’re after. Make sure it's something that you can attach a number to. If no number is possible, is it either true or false?
All SMART goals are measurable, whether the measure is a binary (yes/no) or explicitly quantitative. If you can’t measure it, get more specific about the goal.
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