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How to Set SMART Goals and Achieve Them

Updated on February 10, 2016

Setting personal goals the right way

Ever set a goal for yourself, get super excited about accomplishing said goal, only to fall short of where you were aiming? This used to happen to me all the time, and I know how daunting this can be, and how discouraging to the entire goal-setting process it can feel. However, I've learned a simple trick that has made all of the difference not only in my incredible productivity of late (I've gotten more done in the last six months than in the last two years in many ways), but also in my personal happiness. Here's some extremely simple but helpful advice to help you set your ambitions properly.

My messy whiteboard, one of my favorite tools


SMART goals

When setting goals for yourself, there's a great deal of knowledge out there. One method that has stuck with me over the last few years has been to always make SMART goals. What are SMART goals? They are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

If the goal isn't Specific, it's not really much of a goal, just kind of a wishy-washy fantasy vaguely pointed at some kind of improvement. For instance, if you say you want to eat healthier, that's not very specific, and it's really tough to pinpoint whether you've reached your goal or not. Did you eat less pizza than before, or work out more? What if you worked out more but ate more pizza, too?
Similarly, if the goal isn't Measurable, there's just no way to know whether or not you have reached the finish line, but "measurable" is a slightly different animal. You might have set a very specific goal of making more money this year than last year, but if you're not carefully writing down all sources of income, how can you actually measure whether you accomplished this or not?
Attainable is the main focus of this article, and this is where we're going to spend most of our focus. The goal has to be genuinely within your reach; it can't be something that you'll strive for and then lose interest in. More on that later.
Relevant goals have actual meaning in your life, or with the specific project you're trying to complete. If my main focus right now is to lose 10 pounds by eating healthier, but I set a goal for myself to drink less diet cola and more coffee, you can't really define this goal as relevant in any way to my larger purpose of weight loss. On the other hand, if I decide to eat 20 fewer calories for breakfast every day, and I've been measuring it so far, then I have a relevant (and specific, and measurable) goal.
Time-bound goals don't go on forever, but have a specific limit to them. A terrible example of a time-bound goal would be to become better at Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. An excellent example of a time-bound goal would be to drill an armbar 4000 times by December 31st. I can obviously mark down once I've reached that specific marker, and I have a deadline, so I'll work harder to achieve it.


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The A in SMART

Now that you understand the SMART system, I want to shift your attention to what I consider far and away the most important component: the A, "Attainable."

There are many differing views on this aspect, such as Ted Turner quoting the best advice his father ever gave him: set your goals higher than you'll ever be able to achieve in your lifetime. However, Mr. Turner isn't talking about the same types of goals we're talking about. Time-bound objectives are meant to be met.

What Mr. Turner was talking about is more of what Michael Gerber calls a Primary Aim, something you want to accomplish in your life. Others might call this a BHAG (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal). With a BHAG, you might chase the proverbial carrot in front of you for years without catching it.

Project board to help keep longer term goals in check


Three reasons for LHFs (as opposed to only using BHAGs)

Reason 1
BHAGs are extremely useful tools in deciding upon your vision and mission, if you're running a business, but not so useful if you're trying to finish a specific project, or set and attain daily or weekly goals. On the other hand, attainable goals, once achieved, tend to improve your status immediately. That's the first major benefit of grabbing a "Low Hanging Fruit" goal, or LHF for short: you reap benefits right away.

Reason 2
The second, perhaps more major, benefit to accomplishing that LHF goal is that your morale goes up incredibly - and instantly. If you're the type who enjoys crossing an item off of a "to do" list (and I bet you're just like me, and you love it), then LHFs are absolutely necessary. You're going to be excited about what you've gotten done, and you'll likely be ready to tackle the next task!

Reason 3
Finally, the LHF goal accomplishment takes you one step closer to a BHAG. LHF goals are rarely an end, but rather a means to a much larger purpose. Not only do you get to enjoy a benefit right away (using the diet analogy from earlier, perhaps you set an LHF goal of not eating an extra cookie with your breakfast today), but you begin to move toward a larger purpose with a step you can actually measure.

My gym, where many goals are accomplished on the business end


Setting lower goals does NOT mean doing less

Just because you're reaching for that low hanging fruit, does not mean that you are going to get less done. On the contrary; I've found that I am able to accomplish far, far more when I set my sights on a small, attainable, incremental goal for the short term (ideally, today). Once I accomplish that goal, I'm ready to set a goal for the next day, and so on, until I attain a truly monumental accomplishment (like having written several hundred articles by the end of this year, or helping our gym grow by another 10% this year, or improving my diet by eating 4 salads a week every single week).

Try this new way of setting and accomplishing goals out for a few weeks, and you're likely to see a new paradigm of both productivity and happiness in your life. It worked wonders for me, and I bet it can work for you, too.

Another result of short term goals: long term goal accomplishment


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    • goatfury profile image

      Andrew Smith 3 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Thanks, Maggie! If I may suggest: try doing the most important thing on the list first, without distractions, if possible. I've found that to be of considerable help as well.

    • Maggie.L profile image

      Maggie.L 3 years ago from UK

      Great ideas here. I've recently started to make lists to complete every day and it is helping me to get more done.

    • goatfury profile image

      Andrew Smith 3 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Very glad to have provided some value! Let me know if it changes the way you view goals long term, Chauncey.

    • Chauncey St Clair profile image

      Chauncey St Clair 3 years ago from New York City

      I already knew about the SMART Goals, but I like the idea of classifying them as Low Hanging Fruit or BHAG. I find that I cannot successfully complete any goal unless I have a vision of how that goal is taking me somewhere. This was helpful motivation to start thinking in more structured ways!

    • goatfury profile image

      Andrew Smith 3 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Pawpaw, couldn't agree more. I'm the boss much of the time as well, and I will try to take this lesson to heart.

    • Pawpawwrites profile image

      Jim 3 years ago from Kansas

      Before I even got to it, I thought to myself that the A was very important, in SMART goals. The others are too, but it has to be reachable.

      I used to have a boss you set goals that were unacheivable. I think her plan was to maximise the amount of work, but it just made everyone feel constantly unhappy, and pressured.