You know you can make it.
You want to.
You are determined to get things done and so you studied the most effective ways of doing so. You have your To-Do list, maybe a Trello, maybe you have a mentor.
You are an achiever. And you’ve heard that the best way to set your goals is to do it in the smart way. That is, formulate your goals in a way that is S.M.A.R.T.
S — for Specific.
M — for Measurable.
A — for Achievable or Attainable.
R — for Realistic.
T — for Time-bound.
So you have rolled your sleeves up and put your goals on paper. You expect to be able to keep on track and deliver by the deadline.
And there you are at the end of the quarter looking at your supposedly S.M.A.R.T. goals and you wonder. Not all of them are accomplished.
And so you are reading some more about goal setting and maybe thinking about moving to a different tool since SMART goals are not a reliable way to go.
Everyone’s Using S.M.A.R.T Goals (But Using Them Wrong)
What if I told you that the problem is not you. What if I told you the problem is not with SMART goals either.
I have heard the wrong advice on how to use the SMART goals on so many training that is not even funny. For a relatively long time, I had only the simplistic understanding as well.
The problem is that as much as the SMART formula seems self-explanatory, there are counter-intuitive tweaks you need to get it right.
The S.M.A.R.T. Formula Isn’t as Easy as Most People Think
As simple as the SMART concept sounds, it’s often not quite easy to grasp when it comes to it.
What does specific mean? How do you make a goal specific?
How do you make a goal measurable if it’s not related to something that one can easily measure? Like personal development or behavior-related goals?
What is the difference between Achievable and Realistic? Is it not the same thing?
First, let’s explore what each of the letters in the acronym caries for meaning on top of what is notoriously known that will help you get where you want to be.
S: Specific, Simple and Sensory
S indeed stands for Specific.
The way you formulate your goal has to answer these questions:
“What exactly do I want to accomplish?”
and “How exactly will I know I have succeeded?”
It also stands for Simple.
Sometime we like to over-complicate things and as much as they are specific, they are also difficult to achieve because we put it in confusing terms.
For example, if I go with “I want to have a great income and starting from September 2019 I will make great money so that I can afford to buy this new car and travel to Australia” I am not setting myself for success.
What does great income mean? And is it about income or is it about a new car? Or maybe the priority is to travel? I have exaggerated a bit but you get my point. This goal is too complex.
Same as another example (used with generous consent of one of my clients): “I want to have a family with the right person and a very committed relationship and live in Canada in a year from now.” Again, too complex, too complicated. We need to break it down. And keep it simple.
You may want to re-phrase to smaller chunks.
In the two examples, it would be something like: “It is September 2019 and I see the first of many recurring 1.000 USD payments coming to my account from my online course.”
and: “It is September 2020 and I am with the love of my life. My second half that shares the same values and life vision with me.”
The Taste Of The Fruit Of Your Work
If you want to fill the well of your motivation, you want to tap into your hidden resource — your subconscious. Your mind will drive you to the desired outcome if you paint a lively enough picture of your goal.
S also stands for Sensory.
Imagine what you will experience when you accomplish what you are setting yourself up to. What will you see and hear. How will you feel. Deploy all your senses.
In the two examples, it could go like this: “It is September 2019 and I see the first of many recurring 1.000 USD payments coming to my account from my course. I feel joy, pride, and satisfaction — I made it! I see my husband’s admiration and I hear him saying — I have never hesitated you’d make it, darling.”
and: “It is September 2020 and I am with the love of my life. My second half that shares the same values and life vision with me. My heart is filled with happiness, anticipation, and excitement as I hear my partner laughing as we brainstorm the names for our future baby.”
You will know you did it right if you catch yourself smiling as you paint this vivid picture.
M: Measurable and Meaningful
The Stats And The Meters
How do you measure success?
There are a few questions I like to use that help:
- How will you know that you have achieved your goal?
- If I was a fly on the wall, what would I be able to observe as different if you achieved this goal?
- What simple steps will keep you on the right track?
- What actions and in what frequency will you take?
For example, one of my clients wanted to improve the visibility of his new project. But how do you measure visibility?
So we went through the above set of questions. These were his answers:
- The stakeholders, the people that work on my project, and their collaborators from other teams, they all know what is the project’s goal. They know who are the main contacts and that I am the project owner.
- When the project is mentioned in a meeting, people are constructive, prepared, and know what we talk about. The communication flows smoothly, people talk to the right people, and follow the escalation path up to me if needed.
- What would help would be to invite the relevant people to present along with me on an All hands meeting. It would be great if it is in the afternoon and we follow with an informal party so that people get to know each other. And I should put together a communication matrix with escalation path and make it available for reference.
- I will organize two All hands meetings in the next three months. I will get myself invited to the C-level meeting and introduce the project’s highlights. I will report on the goal and the progress on our bi-weekly sync-ups. And I will document the roles and responsibilities and pin it to the wall (both virtual and physical in the office).
This approach sets the measurement around actions and makes it clear what does the expected outcome look like. It is more efficient than setting a measurement for measurement — like a company-wide survey at the end of the quarter with a questionnaire. For most projects, that would be an overkill too.
Granted, you can’t improve what you don’t measure. The real thing though is this — you can’t improve what is not meaningful to you either.
So M stands for Measurable, but also for Meaningful To You.
Imagine you didn’t really want that project. Rather, it was assigned to you and you hate it. You have two options: refuse the project altogether and live with the consequences it might have, or accept it and make it meaningful for you against all odds.
If you are not fully sold on your outcome, chances are you will self-sabotage and achieve little.
So ask yourself these questions: “If I go ahead, what’s in it for me? How will I benefit? What good impact can this have on my relationships/reputation/growth?”
Let’s say you are an individual contributor, you self-identify as an introvert, and you have been given the leadership position in this project because you get things done. But you don’t really want to interact with anyone, not to mention create visibility for yourself or the project.
So what’s in it for you? Maybe it’s that you get the bonus and reward yourself with something you always wanted to do.
Or maybe you can finally get promoted to a senior or principal role. After all, in most companies even the individual contributors on senior and principal levels are expected to have exponential impact.
Maybe you never quite believed in your abilities and this project will confirm that you are an achiever.
Maybe you had to go through a lot of back and forth anytime you wanted an approval. By building your reputation and by suddenly being known to stakeholders, you get any approval you need with no questions asked.
Whatever it is, find the meaning. If you can’t give it a meaning, brace for having a hard time.
But why to suffer if you can take it as a stretch assignment and grow?
A: Achievable, As If Now, All Areas Of Your Life
The Do-ability Test
Sometimes the goals we set are way too ambitious. Sometimes we question our abilities. So you may want to do a quick sanity check before you tick the “A” box in the SMART test.
A stands for Achievable.
Ask yourself a question: “What resources do I need to achieve the desired outcome?”
Watch for your own skills, but also for your dependencies. How will you overcome the gap in your skills, what do you need to learn? How will you deal with the situation where someone you are dependent on doesn’t deliver?
The Destination Now
Once you know the meaning (for you!) and you have a solid idea of the resources you’ll need, fill your motivation well.
Go sensory again and repeat the exercise from the S section of the SMART goals above. Paint a vivid picture of the final destination. Picture the victory moment, bring yourself there making a mental image, and enjoy it now.
The trick of As If Now is that you formulate the goal in the present tense. Instead of going “I will be promoted to a senior role in September 2019”, go with “It’s September 2019 and I am promoted to the senior role”.
The Ecology First
Your goal would better be ecological, meaning in alignment with your values and functional across All Areas Of Your Life.
What you may want to do is to replace the word “goal”, with the word “outcome”.
This simple tweak will give you a broader perspective. While goal tends to be looked at in isolation, the outcome helps to grasp it in context.
For example, if the promotion you have in mind means that you will compromise your love life or your family, or if your real desire is to go full-time on your side hustle, this misalignment might as well make you drift away from it.
R: Realistic (It Is Not Binary As You Might Think)
Using The Feeling Test
So far you have tested your goal and you have formulated it in a way that it is achievable. If it is achievable, it is also realistic, right?
Achievable = Realistic. It’s either YES or a NO, one might think.
The problem here is that we don’t deal with the theory but with our motivation. So while the goal can totally be theoretically realistic, it doesn’t mean we will go for it.
Do you feel like doing what it takes? Because if you don’t, you are screwed.
So ask yourself a question: On a scale 1 to 10 (where 1 is “I just don’t feel like doing it at all” and 10 is “I am all for it with no doubts”), how likely it is for me to get started?
If your answer is between 1 and 5, you may want to chunk your goal to something smaller.
Ask yourself: “What is the smallest step I can do that would make me feel like starting is easy?” In other words, how can you re-frame and re-phrase the goal so that you can give yourself a score of 6 and higher?
Our goals would often be achieved (boxed ticked for achievable) if only we had time to squeeze them to our packed schedule.
So your new smallest step may include shuffling with your priorities or re-negotiating the deadlines of something else that stands in your queue.
T: Time Bound and “Towards Motivated”
When, Towards, And Away From
Finally, T stands for Time Bound.
Self-explanatory — you want to set a completion date.
It also stands for “Towards Motivated”. Never ever make a mistake of formulating your goals in a way that is “Away Motivated”.
What is the difference?
A “Towards Motivated” goal is formulated positively. What do you want to achieve. Something like: “I am friendly and pro-active”. Or: “I feel relaxed and confident when I am about to deliver the presentation. I speak clearly and loud so that people can hear me.”
The “Away Motivated” goal is formulated negatively — what you don’t want to get, don’t want to experience, don’t want to be. Maybe: “I won’t be silent in meetings”, or: “I won’t stress before presenting and I won’t mumble.”
If your goal is “Away Motivated”, ask yourself: Now that I know what I don’t want, what do I want instead?
Now that I know what I won’t do, what will I do instead?
Let’s take a conversation I am having with my clients rather often:
Client: My goal is not to take things personally anymore.
Me: If you don’t take things personally, what do you feel instead?
Client: I know that whatever my partner says, it’s just his way of communicating his needs.
Me: Nice. So how do you act knowing that?
Client: I listen carefully trying to figure out what is the motivation of my partner to say the things that hurt me. I guess, I am more interested in what he has to say.
Me: That sounds cool. So how can you formulate your goal in a way that it’s clear what you do and want rather than what you don’t do and don’t want?
Client: Chmm. My goal is to carefully and curiously listen. I take time to understand and clarify and I draw conclusions when I have collected as much information as possible.
The problem with “Away Motivated” goals is two-fold.
One, you are giving your mind a picture of what you don’t want but you are not giving it any direction.
If I tell you: “Don’t think of rainbows and unicorns”, what do you think about?
Two, it takes a lot of discipline not to do something. And when the goal is accomplished, your motivation drops and you get back to same old habits (and same old results).
The Power of Language
Setting the goals in this new SMART way requires some more thinking and work. As you have found by now, formulation is a big part of it.
We want to lose weight, we do, we gain it back. Why is this yo-yo effect happening?
First of, most of us focus on the goal of losing weight. From a linguistic perspective, what do you want to do if you lose something?
Find it, right?
Second, our strategies are often “Away Motivated”. We won’t eat sugar, we won’t eat fat. Once we achieve the goal and lose enough weight, we stop all that burden of not doing something. And the weight goes back.
So what if we used the word “outcome” instead of the word “goal” to start with?
We would probably say that the outcome is that we feel fit, full of energy, and we look young and beautiful.
How different will be our strategies if we put it this way? We would focus on feeding our bodies with the right nutrients, sleep well, move, meditate, journal …
Way different from counting calories and starving — something that most of us can only do for so much time.
The word “goal” implies effectiveness — whatever you set for your goal, you do it right. While the word “outcome” makes you focus on efficiency — you do what IS right.
Ambition -> Action -> Result
So far, you have been using the SMART goal concept with mixed results. It was better than nothing. At least it gave you some structure and framework and it made you think about deadlines and measurement.
Now you have a framework that is better than “better than nothing”. You have a framework that will help you achieve anything you want. It will make you do the right things and it will help you do them right.
How would your life be if you knew you are moving in the right direction?
It’s the end of the quarter and you are in the middle of the periodic review of your goals, ehm, outcomes. Your energy levels are high and increasing as you keep going through the list and recognize how much progress you have made.
All your desired outcomes were in alignment and made perfect sense. That’s why it was so easy to start and keep the momentum.
The more you worked on your outcomes, the more you knew how much they made sense and the easier you found to make adjustments.
The best thing? It’s easy to get there. Just implement the SMART goal tweaks today and you will be getting the miraculous results you were hoping for.