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Refining SMART Goals to Achieve Results

Refining SMART goals to achieve results

Artwork by: Sasha Bogatov

  • Defining the five SMART goals
  • How do you write a SMART goal?
  • Benefits and disadvantages of SMART goals
  • How will you know if you’ve reached your SMART goal?
  • Key takeaways

The sociologist Laurence J. Peter said, "If you don't know where you are going, you will probably end up somewhere else." So make sure you get to where you want to be by using SMART goals. In this article, you’ll learn what they are, how to write them, and what you can achieve.

Have you been in a place where you feel like you’re drifting along, and not making the career progress you hoped for? Or maybe you feel stuck and don't know how to reach the next step on your career path. It happens to almost everyone at some point, but it doesn’t mean the end of your career. But remember — not every goal is a good one. The goals you decide on affect your outcome as much as the steps you take to reach them. By setting SMART goals, you can determine the objectives that are important to you, and give yourself a clear, specific path to reach them.

In this article, we’ll discuss SMART goals, including:

  • What are the five SMART goals?

  • How do you write a SMART goal (with examples)?

  • Plusses and minuses of writing SMART goals

  • What does a successful SMART goal look like?

Defining the five SMART goals

Apart from being a cool name, SMART is an acronym that you can use to set your career goals. SMART stands for:

  • Specific

  • Measurable

  • Achievable

  • Relevant

  • Time-bound

Using these essential traits, you can assess your progress and hold yourself accountable for your accomplishments. SMART goals help you rationally appraise what you are attempting to complete by determining what steps you need to take to achieve your goal. Following these parameters can assist you in making sure that your goals are attainable within a reasonable time frame. By using SMART goals (and writing them down) you will eliminate guesswork, establish an unambiguous timeline, and make it easier to track your progress.

Expert Tip

Want to earn more? Write down your goals!

It’s not enough to have a mental list of your goals. You need to write them down. According to Dave Kohl, a professor emeritus at Virginia Tech, people who actually write down their goals earn nine times as much throughout their career as those who don't. Surprisingly, 80% of Americans state that they don't have any goals, and the 16% who do, don't write them down. Only 4% write down their goals, and less than 1% review and update them regularly.

How do you write a SMART goal?

Setting goals doesn’t have to be complicated, and they don’t have to be overwhelming. You can write a SMART goal in simple, clear terms. Say, for example, that you want to become your company’s Sales Director. Here's how you can write a SMART goal to make sure you reach it:

  • SPECIFIC: Your goal should determine what you want to accomplish, why the goal is important, who is involved, where it is located, and what resources or constraints are involved.

Example: You would like to be promoted to Sales Director from your current position of Sales Team Lead. A specific goal might be: "I want to develop the required knowledge and expertise required to become the Sales Director at my company so that I can progress my career and manage a productive team."

  • MEASURABLE: You should be able to measure your progress and maintain your enthusiasm and incentive. Being able to gauge your progress helps you to remain motivated, hit your targets, and clearly see that you're on the road to reaching your goal. Your goal should fall within three parameters: how much? How many? How will I determine when I’ve reached it?

Example: You could measure your goal of attaining the skills to become the Sales Director by establishing that you will have finished the required training courses and certifications, and increased your applicable experience within five years.

  • ACHIEVABLE: Don’t set goals that are impossible to achieve. While you should definitely strive for something just out of reach, it should be within the realm of possibility. Setting an achievable goal will help you see opportunities that you might have missed and determine the resources that will help you reach it. Ask yourself, "How can I reach this goal?" and "How realistic is this goal, based on my current circumstances?"

Example: Is the position of Sales Director realistic, given your current skills and experience? Do you have the time to complete the relevant certifications or coursework? Are the required resources available? Do your finances allow for it?

  • RELEVANT: Make sure that your goal is actually important to you, and that it supports other goals you might have.  Ask yourself: Is this goal worthwhile? Is this a good time? Does this line up with my other goals? Is it realistic in this economic climate??

Example: You want to become the Sales Director, but does your work/life situation allow you to take the courses required to achieve it? Are you the right person for the job? Does your home life allow you to take the extra time needed to achieve it?

  • TIME-BOUND: You’ll need a set deadline so you have something concrete to work toward. This helps you eliminate or delay less important, or routine, tasks from shifting your focus away from your goal, i.e. “Oh, I’ll do that later.” This part of the goal will answer when you’ll accomplish the goal, and what you can do today, six weeks, or six months from now,

Example: How long will it take to get the extra training or certifications to qualify for the Sales Director position? What is the timeframe you'll need to set for accomplishing the smaller goals that you need before you can reach your end goal?

Benefits and disadvantages of SMART goals

SMART goals offer a clear application, focus, and inspiration that you need to reach your objectives. It gives you the tools you need to get there by requiring that you identify your goals and set a deadline. They can be used by everyone, require no special abilities, and allow you to visualize what “success” means to you.

On the other hand, some people misinterpret the purpose of SMART goals. Some might think that it's not appropriate for long-term goals because it's too rigid or inflexible, while others might suggest that it might suppress imagination or inspiration, or force you to pass up other opportunities that might arise. But checking in with yourself regularly, and adjusting timelines and goals as your circumstances change can manage this. Even if you don’t ultimately meet your SMART goal, you’ll be further along than if you hadn’t set one at all, and you’ll have gained valuable knowledge and experience that will help you when you set your next goal.

How will you know if you’ve reached your SMART goal?

Because SMART goals require a goal to be measurable, you'll be able to determine if you achieve it by your deadline as listed in your goal parameters. But remember — while SMART goals are a good tool and increase your chances of success, nothing is guaranteed. There are a lot of factors that are out of your control. For those reasons, some people like to set SMART-ER goals, in which the E stands for “Evaluate” and the R means “Re-do.”  This allows for a sense of trial and error, so even if there are bumps in the road, you can still reach the finish line.

At this point, you’re familiar with the ins and outs of SMART goals and what they can do for you, and you can start utilizing them in both your professional and personal life (yes, they work there, too!). SMART goals can be used to improve your daily habits or support your friendships or personal relationship. On the job, consider areas in which your work could improve or things you can do to increase your skills and strengths. Once you’ve decided what you want to accomplish, use a SMART goal to help you do it.

Unsure of the path your career should take? Use our Career Pathways tool to help you decide!) 

Key takeaways

  1. The “SMART” in SMART goals stands for goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.

  2. SMART goals offer a clear application, focus, and inspiration that you need to reach your objectives.

  3. Because SMART goals require a goal to be measurable, you'll be able to determine if you achieve it by your deadline as listed in your goal parameters.

  4. You might want to consider modifying your goals to be SMARTER, where E stands for “evaluate” and the R means, “Re-do.”  This allows for more flexibility in reaching your goals.

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