Setting SMART Goals: The Why and How

Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame member Yogi Berra once said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.” This bit of wisdom is true not only when it comes to geography but also when it comes to your life. That means you need goals. Most people see goals as simply a way to accomplish things, but goal-setting has other surprising benefits you may not know about. Let’s discuss some lesser-known reasons you should make goal-setting an integral part of your life then outline how to set SMART Goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely.

Why Set Goals?

You can set out to achieve anything you want, but first, you have to decide what you want to do. American civil rights leader Benjamin Mays noted, “The tragedy of life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goals to reach.” Here are some benefits to setting goals for yourself:

Setting goals helps you figure out what’s important to you. It’s easy to let bosses, teachers, parents, and even society set all our goals for us. Common goals might be: graduate from college by 22,  buy a house by 25, get married by 28, retire by 65, etc. But what are your goals, and when do you want to achieve them? Setting your own goals will help you avoid reaching the end of your life and realizing you were living for and working toward someone else’s dream the whole time.

Setting goals helps you have peace of mind. Life’s demands typically only increase as we get older. At some point, most people are plagued with doubt about whether they are doing enough and whether they are good enough. Setting goals and working toward them every day will help assure you that you’re not wasting your time, and you’re doing the best you can.

Setting goals makes decision-making simpler. Imagine you’re driving a car through the city, and you have no destination in mind. At any and every traffic light, you could turn right or left. That’s an infinite number of options. Now imagine that you’re driving through the city, and you’ve decided to go to Starbuck’s. Though more than one way to get there may exist, having this destination gives you a direction and makes it very easy to decide which way to go. Each choice you make has a purpose. Whether you goal is to reach Starbuck’s or to write a novel, when you’re presented with a choice, you just have to ask yourself: “Does this get me any closer to my goal?”

Setting goals can make you happier. Pscyhology Professor Kennon M. Sheldon, Ph.D., conducted research that indicated setting goals that increase autonomy, competence, or connection with other people can increase our happiness. Happiness itself doesn’t make an effective goal; instead, it’s a by-product of healthy, effective goal-setting. The authors of the chapter “Extrinsic vs. intrinsic life goals, psychology needs and life satisfaction” published in Dimensions of Well-Being, Research, and Intervention explicates this concept wonderfully: “For many people, the primary goal in life is to be happy. Yet research indicates that happiness is most often a by-product of participating in worthwhile projects and activities that do not have as their primary focus an attainment of happiness.”

What is a SMART Goal?

Now that you’re hopefully convinced that setting your own goals—rather than having no goals are simply letting others set them for you—is significantly beneficial, let’s talk about how to set SMART goals. SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely.

Specific: You have to decide exactly what you are trying to achieve. Goals like “I want to exercise more” or “I want to spend more time with my kids” are too non-specific. Try something like: “I will exercise for 30 minutes five times per week for one month” or “I will attend all of Charlie’s baseball games and pick him up from school on Fridays instead of letting him take the bus.”

Measurable: Your goals have to be measurable, or you won’t know whether or not you’ve achieved them. Exactly how much money are you trying to make? Exactly how many students do you want to mentor? Exactly how many pages of that novel are you going to write per week?

Achievable: Yes, the point of setting a goal is to stretch and challenge yourself, but you have to be reasonable, too. Don’t take on three jobs to pay off your bills faster if you know you’ll have to sacrifice your health and relationships to do it. Don’t sign up to run a half-marathon next month if you’ve never jogged of your own accord in your entire life. Starting small is not just OK but advisable. Setting goals that that are absolutely impossible to achieve will just leave you feeling more discouraged.

Relevant: Be sure that you are using your time and energy to accomplish something that matters. Research indicates that achieving goals won’t make you happy if you only set the goal to appease someone else or if achieving it results in your separation from other people. Make sure you are working toward what you really want and that other more important things won’t be sacrificed while you’re trying to achieve it.

Timely: Homework and work projects usually have a due date. We respond well to deadlines; it’s just human nature. Your personal goals should have “deadlines,” too. For example, decide not only how much weight you want to lose but exactly when you want to lose it. Decide exactly when you want to finish writing the book. It may also help to break up your large goal into smaller parts and strive to reach each bit by a certain time. That way, you’ll feel like you’re achieving multiple goals.


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