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laptop with the words SET SMART GOALS on the screen
No doubt you’ve heard of the SMART technique. It’s a very popular method used to define goals and set objectives in the project management, employee-performance management, and personal development arenas.

The acronym SMART stands for:

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

The SMART system provides a clear and simple framework for defining and managing goals and objectives.

Why do we need goals anyway?

Whether pursuing an education, advancing your career, or leading a more fulfilling personal life, having a goal gives you something to work towards. It gives you something to focus on. Having a constant reminder of what you want to achieve — and why — can inspire you to keep moving forward and pushing through challenges even when your motivation is very low.

In looking at the origins of SMART, Project Smart reports that back in the late 19th century, renowned American philosopher Elbert Hubbard realized that many people failed in their endeavors. “They failed not because they lacked intelligence or courage, but because they did not organize their energies around a goal.”

People needed a way to organize their efforts to improve their chances of success, and in the late 20th century that help arrived in the form of SMART goals.

According to Project Smart, it’s generally accepted that the SMART acronym was first written down in November 1981 in Spokane, Washington. “George T. Doran, a consultant and former Director of Corporate Planning for Washington Water Power Company published a paper titled ‘There’s a S.M.A.R.T. Way to Write Management’s Goals and Objectives’.” The method has mushroomed since that time, and is widely used in corporate America, professional sports and athletics, psychological counseling and life coaching, and numerous other industries.

Decoding SMART

The five steps, or components, of the technique provide an easy-to-remember strategy for success when you’re setting goals.

Specific: Target a specific area for improvement. State what you intend to do. Use action verbs. You can use the “who, what, where, when, and how” method to guide you.

Measurable: An indicator of your progress toward your goal. These are the defined metrics you can review that provide a way to evaluate how well you’re doing and how close you are to achieving your objective. “It’s not a SMART goal if you can’t tell whether you’ve achieved it or not,” notes Pete Davies, marketing and communications director in higher education.

Achievable: Your goal must be possible to accomplish, realistic, and attainable. This prevents you from getting discouraged.

Relevant: This is the “why” of your goal. Is it personally meaningful? Are you internally motivated to achieve it? It’s important to clearly articulate your reason for wanting to achieve the objective.

Time-bound: This is your defense against procrastination. “We often have so many things we want to accomplish that if we’re not careful we can end up taking half-steps toward all of them and not completing the things that are our highest priorities. That’s why deadlines are crucial,” explains Davies.

Some sample SMART action plans

Let’s take a look at some common goals and how SMART could help you move toward your dreams and objectives with intentionality.

Find a new job

Creating a step-by-step plan for your job search and eventual hiring might look like this:

Specific: I want to be offered a new position in the sales and marketing department at a luxury hotel within six months.

Measurable: I will connect with eight new people within this industry over the next three months, either by phone or by attending networking events. I will reach out to eight of my existing contacts by email or phone to let them know of my job search within the next month.

Attainable: These goals are very realistic and attainable if I attend one networking event per month for the next three months and spend one Saturday afternoon during the next month connecting with my existing contacts online.

Relevance: This goal is very important to me because I am very unhappy in my current position and it’s taking a toll on my physical health and my emotional well-being.

Time-bound: My goal is to give my current employer my two-week notice six months from today or sooner.

Want more job-specific SMART examples? Laura Handrick has a great article on Fit Small Business that provides an overview of SMART goals examples: “20 Best SMART Goals Examples for Small Businesses in 2018.”

Improve physical health and overall wellness

Observe the difference between someone who says: “I want to get in the best shape of my life. I’m going to lose 50 pounds in three months. I have to do this, because my spouse and my parents keep nagging me about my poor shape,” and someone who uses the SMART method:

Specific: I will weigh 30 pounds less than I do today six months from today.

Measurable: I will lose 5 pounds per month by eating a vegetarian diet and walking for an hour at least four times a week.

Attainable: This is very doable for me because I like vegetarian cooking. I can fit the walking in during the early evenings before dinner or before I go to work in the morning by just getting up a little earlier.

Relevant: I really want to lose this weight and feel better about my body. I miss wearing nice clothes, and I hate how I breathe heavily with slight exertion.

Time-bound: I will only weigh myself at the end of each month. If my weight loss is not on track at a 5-pounds-per-month rate, I will take a closer look at my calorie intake and increase my walking time and intensity.

Pay off unsecured debt

Specific: I will pay off $10,000 in credit card debt.

Measurable: I will apply at least $200 each month to that debt.

Achievable: I can do this if I stop eating lunch out every day, get rid of my cable TV, and buy my work clothes at resale shops.

Relevant: I hate having all of this debt hanging over my head. The interest is way too high, and I don’t have any money in savings for emergencies. I will need a new car in a few years, so paying off these credit cards will also help raise my credit score so I’m a better auto loan candidate.

Time-bound: I will pay off this debt in 4 years.

Earn a graduate degree

Specific: I will earn my Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree over the next three years.

Measurable: I will take two courses each quarter or semester.

Attainable: This is a realistic goal because I can earn my MBA online while I continue to work at my current job.

Relevant: I’m very interested in this online MBA program because it has an Entrepreneurship concentration. My long-term goal is to start my own company.

Time-bound: I will graduate with my MBA in the spring of 2022.