Set a goal, go after a goal, accomplish a goal—if only it was that easy. While it seems simple in theory, goal-setting can actually be one of the most challenging aspects of improving your life. Consider that only eight percent of people actually accomplish goals they set for the new year, and it becomes clear that there is a right and wrong way to approach a lifestyle change or improvement. It might only be the first step, but goal-setting has power that permeates every single part of accomplishing your goals.
Regardless of this small margin of success, it's human nature for people to set new goals. In fact, according to the influential American psychologist Abraham Maslow, all people have a basic need for personal growth. So since we're not stopping anytime soon, what’s a logical first step to achieving this personal growth? SMART goal-setting.
SMART, which stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound, is a strategy for setting goals that are more realistic. Gone are the days of stating to your friends after brunch that you're "going to lose 10 pounds" or will "finally start looking for a new job." While blanket statements often set people up for failure, the SMART goal-setting method actually helps people determine how, when and why that will lead them to success. Let’s break this method down into steps.
Step 1: Write your specific goal statement.
This step feels deceptively simple, but it's also incredibly important. By physically writing down what you are trying to achieve, you're setting up a contract with yourself, one that you and only you are responsible for sticking to. Be as descriptive as possible, and try to answer the following questions with your goal statement.
When writing your goal statement, try to keep a positive mindset and focus on putting the emphasis on performing a "good" behavior, rather than not performing a "bad" behavior. Instead of trying to not eat pizza every weekend, focus your efforts on trying to eat healthy meals five out of seven nights during the week. This small mindset shift helps you to remember the good reasons you're working toward your goals, instead of feeling deprived of the items or actions that you recognize are not in line with what you want in life.
Step 2: Make sure your goal is objectively measurable.
In order to know whether or not you’ve reached your goal, you must be able to measure it.
Look back at your goal statement from the first step, and verify that you are able to quantify and measure your success. The ability to measure your goal is important because it allows you to define what success looks like in a tangible way, making all your efforts leading up to the finish line feel more important because they're adding up to something you want to achieve.
The weight loss example above is measurable, because the number of pounds lost can be measured using a scale. Some other measurable goals could include completing a certain number of activity sessions (fitness classes, gym sessions, meditation practices, et cetera), accumulating a defined amount of time engaging in an activity (minutes, hours, days, months) or achieving defined improvements in biometric values (BMI, total cholesterol, blood glucose, et cetera).
Step 3: Make sure your goal is achievable.
Once you’ve confirmed that your goal is measurable, look back at your goal statement from the first step and ensure that it is something that is plausible. Your goal is considered achievable if it’s something you believe you can legitimately accomplish given your current circumstances (e.g. health status, fitness level) and resources (e.g. time, money, equipment).
For example, don’t set a goal that will require a sizeable financial investment if you’re on a tight budget, or a goal that will require a huge time commitment. You also should avoid setting goals that are generally unrealistic, such as training for a marathon in four weeks’ time if you’ve never been a runner or losing 30 pounds in one month.
In this step, it is important to be honest with yourself. By choosing goals that you know to be unrealistic or unachievable, you're setting yourself up for failure and frustration, which could lead to decreased self-esteem and a sense of resignation in any kind of self-improvement.
Step 4: Your goal must be relevant.
Ask yourself one question: Is your goal relevant to you? Ignore what everyone else says or thinks and spend time reflecting on areas or accomplishments that you admire or desire for yourself. Your goal statement should reflect what you want to achieve, rather than things about yourself you think society or someone else wants you to work on. Successfully reaching a goal requires time and hard work, so it's key that any goal you set for yourself aligns with your values, personal interests and lifestyle.
In this step, it might be helpful to figure out exactly why you chose your goal. Your answer will reveal whether or not this goal is relevant to you. To refer back to the original example, consider why you want to lose weight. Your goal is relevant if you’re losing weight to gain self-confidence, improve your health or because it will make you happier; your goal is not relevant if you want to lose weight because it would make someone else happy. Self-improvement begins and ends with your passion, so be careful to set goals that you are willing to pursue day after day.
Step 5: Attach a timestamp to your goal.
The "T" in SMART stands for time-bound, which puts a deadline on your goal. If you followed the instructions in step one and specified when you will achieve your goal by, you’ve already hit the mark on this. If you’d like to adjust based on the process you’ve just worked through, now’s the time!
A deadline is not meant to put the pressure on or make you feel stressed; rather, it is in place to keep you on track and accountable. By working toward something that is set—whether it's a 5K race, high school reunion or annual review—you can more clearly visualize the steps and pacing you need to take to hit your mark on time.
Does your deadline seem far off? Consider outlining small milestones along the way that you’d like to celebrate between now and your deadline. These mini goals can help keep you feeling motivated even on days when you're feeling uninspired or exhausted.
The right goals can change your life for the better, and utilizing the right language is key in achieving personal development, career milestones and so much more. Using this formula will ensure that your path to greatness is set out before you before you even begin.