how to set SMART goals

Why Should You Set SMART Goals?

Anne Shaw

What does every successful person, from an Olympian to a business mogul to a third-grader who aced her spelling test, have in common? They set a goal, and that goal served as a guiding post for their decisions and their training leading up to it.

But not all goals are created equal. How you go about identifying and setting goals affects whether you can achieve them just as much as your action plan does. Increase your chances of success by setting SMART goals.

What Are SMART Goals?

When you set a SMART goal, you simultaneously build your plan for how to achieve it. How? SMART goals are designed in a way that provides a project structure with guidelines while also defining success and outlining exactly how to measure it.

Creating SMART goals organizes your project in such a way that you’ll not only uncover how to measure your project’s success but also what resources you’ll need and which steps to take along the way—a great way to start out.

Breaking Down the SMART Goals Acronym

Before we jump into examples of SMART goals and how to begin setting them, let’s talk about why they’re called SMART goals (hint: it’s not just because it’s a smart thing to do). Each letter in SMART stands for one aspect of the goal that ensures it’s specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Smart, right?

S for Specific

Using specificity saves us from creating nebulous goals that can be interpreted in a number of ways—ones that could easily be changed as the project moves forward, detracting from what we truly set out to accomplish. To make sure you’re creating a specific goal, consider the following questions:

  • Who is needed?
  • What will you accomplish?
  • When do you expect the final outcome to be accomplished?
  • Which steps will you take along the way, and which obstacles will you need to overcome?
  • Why should this be done? Why do others need to be involved? Why are certain steps essential?

Example: Jane wants to learn about email marketing. To set a specific goal, she should first explain why she wants to learn email marketing, defining exactly what she wants to learn, and what she plans to achieve her new skills. Then she can research and make decisions about where she can find email marketing courses and when they start, who can teach her, when she should take steps to further her learning, which strategies and technology she may want to use, how she will practice, etc.

M for Measurable

If you can’t measure your success, then how will you know when you’ve achieved your goal? Planning for the M in SMART means identifying which metrics you’ll use to measure progress and how you’ll determine whether and when you’ve met your goal.

Example: A marketing team needs to improve the quality of leads it passes to sales. Team members must determine which metric will not only help them measure the quality of their leads overall, but also how to compare the lead quality both before and after their improvement efforts. They decide to use the “percentage of closed marketing-qualified leads” and then decide upon the amount of improvement they’d like to achieve.

A for Achievable

Are people likely to strive for a goal that they don’t believe is possible? Setting an unattainable goal typically ends up demotivating people. Make sure the goal you set is achievable by considering whether you can do it with the skills, timeframe, resources, and tools currently at your disposal.

Example: If, for instance, you’re setting a goal around the number of new client deals closed each quarter, remember to keep in mind your sales team’s tenure, the quality of their networks, current market conditions, and any seasonality that affects your business and industry. Set goals throughout the year that stretch their abilities but are still possible for them to achieve. And, if you plan to set goals beyond what is achievable now, start slowly by allocating loftier goals to later quarters while outlining for your team how you will help them boost their efforts to get there by then.

R for Relevant

SMART goals must be relevant to be worth accomplishing. Consider whether your new goal is aligned with your overall business goals. If a tributary SMART goal doesn’t align with your larger business objectives, then consider how it can be modified before moving forward. Otherwise, you may just decide to scrap for now.

Example: If your main business objective centers around improving profitability, then setting a goal to generate new customers or open new branches to increase sales isn’t relevant. Focusing instead on keeping customers and improving account penetration would be a more relevant goal.

T for Time-bound

Creating a realistic timeline—including an end date—for your goals stimulates ongoing progress and motivates team members to keep moving. Assigning deadlines for when things need to get accomplished avoids confusion and keeps projects on track.

Example: Imagine asking your assistant to organize and prioritize your email inbox so that you don’t have to waste time looking at low-priority emails and sifting through junk to find important client requests. If you don’t tell your assistant that you want this done daily by 10:00 a.m., then he may think that it’s a one-time task he can complete by the end of the day or week.

SMART Goals Examples

Let’s put SMART goals into practice by outlining two examples.

Scenario 1: Your business needs to improve its relationships with customers.

The details:

Specific – Consider who should be involved, what they’ll accomplish, by when they’ll complete related tasks, and how this goal aligns with business objectives. This could include:

  • What: We will improve overall customer satisfaction.
  • Why: Our business needs to better retain customers; improving customer satisfaction will help us develop long-term customer relationships.
  • Who/How: Our customer service manager will read customer reviews and feedback to determine areas of weakness and areas of strength. She will work with operations and customer service to fix weaknesses where we can. She will also collaborate with marketing and operations on setting expectations and delivering outcomes that capitalize on our strengths.
  • When: Our goal will be achieved by the end of the year, and we will measure our progress via monthly customer surveys.

Measurable – Increase our overall customer satisfaction score, taken from regular customer satisfaction surveys, from 70% to 84%.

Achievable – We have the right people with a strong plan in place. In the past, we have improved this metric by 14%, so we believe that, with a concerted effort, 20% is possible.

Relevant – We want to increase profitability, and customer retention will help us do so.

Time-bound – We aim to achieve this by the end of the year.

SMART Goal: We will improve overall customer satisfaction by 20% by end-of-year.

Scenario 2: You spend too much time on unproductive tasks.

The details:

Specific –

  • What: Save time by delegating or eliminating unnecessary work.
  • Why: To give me more time to focus on higher-level work, like business strategy.
  • How/When/Who: On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, I will track and record what I work on—and for how long. On Thursday and Friday, I will work with my assistant to identify what I can delegate to others and what I can eliminate altogether. If needed, I will look into automation tools and create productivity schedules for myself.

Measurable – Each week, I will measure how much time I’ve gained and record how I spend it.

Achievable – Until this point, I haven’t focused on intentionally scheduling my day or on delegating tasks that I no longer need to do considering the team I’ve built around me. I believe it is possible to shave five hours per week of unproductive work.

Relevant – This will help me focus on higher-level work to grow my business.

Time-bound – I will achieve this by the end of this month.

SMART Goal: By next month, I will spend five hours less per week on tasks that others can do. Instead, I will use that time to do things only I can do and to focus on big picture strategy.

How to Write Smart Goals

Every goal worth striving for should be relevant, so start out by making sure that your goal aligns with your business’s current objectives. Once you’ve confirmed that it does, you’ve taken care of the R in SMART. Now it’s time to consider how you can accomplish it—the people and resources you need and the steps you’ll take—before outlining a realistic timeline. Read on for a template that will guide you through pulling out key information for setting SMART goals.

SMART Goals Template

To build your project team, consider what skills you’ll need and who should be involved. Remember to be realistic about your goal. Use the following template with your team to discuss each question and how it shapes what your SMART goal should be.

Problem to solve: [blank]

Specific

  • What do we need to accomplish, and why?
  • Who should be involved, and why?
  • Are there milestones along the way?
  • When is the deadline for achieving this goal?

Measurable

  • What end measurements signify that we’ve successfully met our goal?
  • How can we measure progress along the way?

Achievable

  • Do we have the skills, resources, and time required to achieve our goal?
  • If not, can we get them in place within the given timeframe, or do we need to reassess?
  • Is the effort to achieve this goal in line with the value of the outcome?

Relevant

  • Does the outcome of this goal align with business objectives?
  • How can we be sure that it does?

Time-bound

  • What is the deadline for achieving this goal?
  • Is the deadline realistic?
  • Are there smaller deadlines we should set along the way?

SMART Goal: Review the details you’ve written down. Pull out high-level specific details that outline what you plan to achieve, the timeline of your goal, and how you’ll measure its success. Write this down in a SMART goal statement.

Benefits and Downside to SMART Goals

SMART goal setting provides clarity, helps teams focus, and motivates people to achieve relevant, realistic, and achievable goals. That said, some people find the meticulous planning of SMART goals to be stifling and inflexible. Whether this ends up being the case depends on the outlook and leadership style of those running the project.

Some SMART goal setters choose to include a Plan B. They may think of their overall SMART goal as a “stretch goal,” while their Plan B is the consolation goal. One way to ensure that SMART goals can evolve when necessary is to hold regular update meetings in which project members can identify and discuss unforeseen obstacles. Often this collaboration helps solve any issues and keeps the project on track; but depending on what comes up, you may need to adjust timelines and expectations. Remember that even if you don’t completely reach your SMART goal, you’ll end up closer than you would have if you hadn’t set one in the first place. Plus, you’ll have learned valuable lessons along the way that will improve your next attempt.

What Does Success Look Like for Your SMART Goals?

Because SMART goals include a measurable outcome, you’ll have a clear idea of when you achieve your goal and whether you did so on time. Keep in mind that while setting SMART goals improves your likelihood of reaching them, success isn’t guaranteed—and that’s okay. In fact, it’s why some people set SMARTER goals. In the case of SMARTER goals, the E stands for “Evaluate,” and the R stands for “Re-do.” Because they include wiggle room for trial and error—allowing us to learn from our failures and succeed in the end—these two aspects of goal setting are especially helpful for people who are beginners at setting SMART goals.

Start Applying SMART Goals

Now that you know what SMART goals are, their benefits, and how to set them, consider where you can start using SMART goals, both personally and professionally. Places to start at home could include creating positive habits or better nurturing your relationships. At work, consider where your business could improve or look for ways in which you can better capitalize on strengths you haven’t yet taken full advantage of. Once you’ve identified an opportunity, use our SMART Goals template above to decide whether you need to build a team around you and how to move forward. Happy goal setting!

One Response to "Why Should You Set SMART Goals?"
    • Jennifer from Vancouver | October 18, 2020 at 5:00 pm

      Alright, so I know it’s cheesy, but I like to set ssmart goals – the extra s is intentional. The extra letter stands for small, as I find I procrastinate less when I set small goals. There is significant evidence in the habit forming literature that small tasks are better when forming new habits, therefore, I set small goals while I build up a daily habit and I make them more ambitious over time. While this has always worked well for me, people seem to complain about this extra letter for one of two reasons: 1. They are impatient, and want faster results than the small goals will give them. 2. They for some reason conflate small goals with small ambitions. The first objection is hard to combat, but I always tell people you will get further with the goal you stick with than the one you abandon. The second objection is easy to deal with, ambitious goals need to be broken down into small concrete steps, you are just focusing on those small steps when you make your daily goals, you don’t abandon the big ambitious vision you are working towards. Now I understand there is some overlap between achievable and small, but I think most people underestimate just how small the tasks should be in the beginning of a project. The example I give is that experts on habits will often recommend people floss JUST ONE tooth when trying to start a flossing habit. At any rate, I enjoyed your write up on SMART goals and I wanted to thank you!

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