How SMART are you?
I have known this basic principles of management for years, and yet it is frightening to see how often I don’t use it myself. I try to keep reminding myself, because I notice a significant difference when I actually do apply it: setting SMART goals!
We established in my last post, that sometimes it takes goals to accomplish things. But just as with so many other things in life, not every goal is a good goal…or should I say: “not every goal is a SMART goal”. The idea of SMART goals was first suggested by Doran, Miller and Cunningham in an issue of the “Management Review” in 1981. There have been many variations on the theme since then, but the basic idea remains the same: There are smart goals, and there are not-so-smart goals. Smart goals are goals that help you achieve your objectives. Not-so-smart goals, usually don’t help you much at all…they might even hinder you in achieving your objectives.
Smart goals can be tested with the help of the acronym S.M.A.R.T. I understand that different people use different terms to go with each letter. These are the ones I have found most useful (but am very happy for feedback, if you have any better suggestions):
- S – Specific
- M – Meaningful
- A – Ambitious
- R – Realistic
- T – Timed
Here is a quick explanation of each term, along with a practical example. We will use the following common New Year’s resolution as our example: “I wanna run more to get fit.” It’s a great goal, but sadly a not-so-smart one. Let’s see how we can make this goal a little SMARTer…
The more specific a goal is, the easier it is to understand it, track it and measure it. For me that includes the “who”, “what”, “where”, as well as “how much”. And it should be put in writing (this helps to make sure it really is specific). This is not easy, and it usually takes some time and energy to make goals specific.
In our example it could mean deciding on how far or how fast I will run, or on how many times a week for a certain period, e.g: “I will run 5K three times a week” or “I will run the annual 10K-race in my city in 45min or less”
Some people see the M as “Measureable”, but I like to include the measurable aspect in “Specific”. For me M stands for “Meaningful”. A Goal MUST be meaningful to the person who will be working on the goal, or else chances that the goal will be accomplished are very low. This seems so secondary, but I believe it is at the center of SMART goals. And it explains why so often people don’t accomplish goals that OTHERS set for them. If I am going to invest time and energy on accomplishing a goal I want to know that it is meaningful. Meaningful might mean different things to different people, but a goal must be in some way meaningful to the person working on the goal.
In our example running might be meaningful to someone because they want to get or stay fit, or because they hope to increase their social standing as an athlete. If there is no deeper meaning behind it, chances are the running will quickly come to a stop.
Most people I know are ambitious. Obviously some more than others, but to some degree, it is built in to us (After all, who doesn’t want to see a larger figure on their next paycheck than on the last one…?) The world is a place of growth and progress…
Setting ambitious goals gives us the chance to achieve. They give us a sense of satisfaction, if we accomplish them. And that sense of satisfaction can be addicting. What qualifies as ambitious will be very individual, and might take some trial and error to figure out. But if it is not ambitious, you will soon lose interest in your goal.
Setting a goal of running 1K in 60 minutes might sound like a great idea for success, but unless you were born without legs or without lungs, it should be a fairly simple task. In fact, so simple, that most people won’t even try it. There is simply nothing to gain by accomplishing that goal. It is not ambitious.
“Realistic” goes right along with “Ambitious”. Some people avoid “ambitious” for fear of failure. Others are over-ambitious and forget about “Realistic”. There are only very few people who will continue to fight a lost cause. And yet we set goals that from the out-set are impossible to reach. And then we wonder, why we aren’t accomplishing what we set out to do. Although our goals should be ambitious, we should set them in such a way, that we are able to reach them if we really try hard and things go well.
In my case, setting a goal to run 10K in 30min might be ambitious, but not very realistic, at least not with the amount of time I have available for training (and I don’t plan on becoming a professional runner anytime soon…)
The last criteria for a SMART goal is “Timed”. That means goals must have some reference to time. How long, when, by when, etc… This is a major area of problems when it comes to setting goals. And even when we remember this point, we often TRY to forget about it, because it puts the pressure on… “Have the report in by monday…” “You have 10min left…” “We only have three more days…” Many of our tasks and responsibilities would be easy, if it wasn’t for deadlines. Then again, approx. ZERO of our tasks would get done, if there was no deadline. Same story with our goals. If you don’t set a time-frame, you might as well not set a goal…the results will be the same!
In our example of setting a goal for running it might mean: “Run 5K three times a week for the next two months“, or “Run 10K in less than 40min by the end of the year“.
New New Year’s resolutions
So with that in mind, the goal I used as an example “I wanna run more to get fit” could be restated as:
“For the next two months, I will run 5K three times a week to get fit.”
That goal is specific. At the end of the two months I can evaluate very easily if I accomplished it or not. It is meaningful, because my health is important to me. It is ambitious, but at the same time realistic. (Remember, what is ambitious for me, might not be for you…) And this goal has a clear time-frame: two months.
Looking back at this criteria helps me understand why the concept of “New Year’s resolution” seldom works:
Our New Year’s resolutions are usually:
- Not specific (Remember: “Getting better at…” “Doing more…” isn’t specific!)
- Not meaningful (They might be “good” and “right” and in someway “desired”, but they are usually not heartfelt convictions that are really meaningful to us.)
- Realistic, but not ambitious (e.g. “I want to get out of bed every day this year”)
- Ambitious, but not realistic (e.g. “I want to get up at 5am every day this year and do two hours of exercise before work”)
- Not timed (Not setting a timeframe doesn’t make it easier to accomplish a goal, it makes it impossible!)
So, New Year’s resolution or not: If you are struggling to accomplish your goals, check to see if you have SMART goals or not. Then use the list above to adjust them and make them SMART. You will be surprised at what a difference that will make in your life!