Norman Vincent Peale, an advocate of the positive thinking movement, once said:
So, by proxy, goals are everywhere. And, more to the point, everyone has their own.
But, are our goals always worth pursuing?
Are our goals always even possible to pursue?
Are our goals tangible enough?
Are our goals integral to our lives?
Can we easily recognize whether we’ve been successful in reaching our goals (or not)?
Can we mark goals with a time frame and a motivating deadline?
Those are all difficult questions — ones that often seem to surpass our ability to answer in a straightforward, methodical, and logical way. Luckily, there’s simple criteria you can use as a point of reference to determine the value of any goal — and that are the SMART criteria.
Now, what exactly are the SMART criteria? What are SMART goals? And how do they work?
To help shed light on these principles here’s your very own SMART Goal-Setting 101 Guide that helps explain everything you need to know about this popular and useful goal-setting strategy:
Table of contents:
- What are SMART goals and objectives? What does SMART stand for?
- Inspirational SMART Goals Examples
- How can SMART goals help you? When to use SMART goals?
- When SMART goals are not so smart
- How to set SMART goals
- SMART goal templates
- Basic SMART goals template
- Simple SMART Goal Template
- Elaborate SMART goals template
- SMART Goal Tree template
- SMART Action Plan Template (+ Action Steps and Responsibilities)
- New Year SMART Goal Template
- Basic SMART Goal Template (+ Problems)
- Elaborate SMART Goal Template (+ Problems)
- SMART Goal Template for Project Managers
- SMART Goals Template (+ Rewards/Motivations)
What are SMART goals and objectives? What does SMART stand for?
According to the SMART goals definition, SMART goals (also known as SMART criteria or SMART objectives) are goals that are:
Specific — i.e. they are straightforward, precise, and can be easily defined.
Measurable — i.e. they imply a clear tool or points of reference you can use in order to assess whether you are successful in progressing toward or reaching the said goal (or not).
Attainable —i.e. they are realistic, in terms that you have a reasonable amount of time, money, and skills to successfully reach them.
Relevant — i.e. they hold certain importance within your life, the project you’re currently working on, or your business as a whole.
Time-bound — i.e. they “bind” you with a specific time frame you’ll have to work on reaching the goal, in order to call your efforts a success.
The application of SMART goals is versatile — you can use these criteria to decide whether it’s worth it to pursue specific career goals or work on specific areas of your personal development.
To help you wrap your head around the matter, here’s look at a few examples that illustrate what SMART goals really are (and, perhaps even more importantly, what they’re not).
What are Specific Goals? (Specific goal example)
Saying that you want to “be in marketing” is a nonspecific goal.
It’s what you usually say to your extended family when you want them to stop pestering you about when you’re going to get a job — it sounds nice, it may even impress your grandparents, but it’s too broad to actually motivate you to act on it.
On the other hand, saying that you want to “land the position of a junior marketing specialist in a Boston tech company” — now, that’s a well-defined, specific goal you can strive for.
What are Measurable Goals? (Measurable goal example)
Saying that you’re going to study for your Math exam that’s scheduled this Monday is not a measurable goal.
Again it’s something you tell your parents to get them off your back — it suggests no actionable plan, and no distinguishable milestones to help keep you on track.
But, saying that you’re going to study for your Math exam for 5 hours each day, leading up to the next to last day before the exam when you’ll revise everything — that’s a measurable goal with clear milestones and a plan you can follow (and, more importantly, a plan you can stick to).
What are Attainable Goals? (Attainable goal example)
Saying that you’ll lose 30 lbs in one month is usually not attainable.
There are two outcomes that can come from such an overachieving goal. And neither is favorable:
- You go on a strict diet and exercise routine. You stick to your diet with faltering and exercise hard every morning. But, ultimately, you fail because it’s simply near-impossible to lose that much in such a short time. As a result, you feel demoralized, despite the problem being striving too high, and not your own lack of skills and determination.
- You feel discouraged by such an unfeasible goal from the start. So much that you give up without even trying.
On the other hand, saying that you’ll lose 3 lbs every week for a month by eating healthier and exercising regularly is attainable.
With such a reasonable goal, you’ll have the best chance to maintain motivation throughout it.
What are Relevant Goals? (Relevant goal example)
Say you want to major in Economics. That sounds relevant and worthwhile, right?
However, you’re not the least bit interested in Economics, and you don’t plan on pursuing a career in Economics in the future. That right there makes it an irrelevant goal, as it’s not clear what you’ll gain in life by working toward it (apart from gaining a college degree, which you can also manage by studying something you like).
As concluded earlier, it’s always best to pursue a college education in a topic that interests you. A college education goal may also be relevant if you pick a potentially profitable subject you’re not 100% passionate about, but want to pursue, and know you’ll be able to land a prospective job with.
What are Time-bound goals? (Time-bound goal example)
Saying that you “want to participate in a poem writing contest that’s due next week” is admirable.
But, phrasing it like that means it’s not a time-bound goal.
In this case, the contest has a deadline — say it’s Sunday, February 2nd. But, you yourself don’t have a deadline for your work defined.
When will you write?
How will you write?
Will you submit your finished work on Tuesday? Or Wednesday? Or 5 hours before the contest deadline, giving you enough time to tweak to perfection?
What is your time-bound battle plan?
Now, say that you plan to handle the contest by:
- writing the first draft for your poem on Monday, January 27th
- revising everything on Tuesday, January 28th
- finalizing the rhyme scheme on Wednesday, January 29th
- sending out the poem on Thursday, 3 days before the deadline
That’s a time-bound goal you can work with.
Now that you understand what each letter in the SMART acronym means (and what it all looks like in reality), here are some examples of well-rounded SMART goals you can find inspiration in:
Inspirational SMART Goal Examples
SMART goal for improved performance at work (example)
- Specific: I want to improve my performance with Excel, in order to get a promotion at work. These performance improvements will focus on quicker data entry, more efficient calculations, and creating graphs.
- Measurable: I’ll know I’ve succeeded, because by the 1st of next month, I’ll be able to enter my data, complete my calculations through custom and combined formulas, create graphs, and carry out my other work in Excel all on my own, and with minimum effort.
- Attainable: I have enough time to work on improving my Excel skills. I can even eroll in an online course to help me understand some of the finer points.
- Relevant: I like working in my company, and I want to continue working there — one of the preconditions of my staying in the company longer and getting a promotion is to streamline my work in Excel.
- Time-bound: I want to perfect my performance with Excel by the 1st of May.
SMART goal for improved time management (example)
- Specific: It takes me 6 hours to implement all the formulas I need to process data in Excel. I want to cut that time to 3 hours per day, at least.
- Measurable: I can track the time I spend handling Excel data every day, and then observe how that time decreases day by day, and week by week, while I work on improving my schedule.
- Attainable: I have the resources that will help me learn how to be more efficient when using and combining Excel formulas.
- Relevant: I currently spend 6 hours of an 8-hour workday carrying out calculations in Excel, and that’s too much of my time. Cutting that time in half would make sure I have more time for other work activities.
- Time-bound: I want to cut the time I spend on Excel calculations in half by the 15th of next month.
SMART goal in education (example)
- Specific: I want to improve my GPA to 3.8 so that I can apply to a semester abroad with full-scholarship covered.
- Measurable: I’ll need to score an A or A+ on all of my tests this semester in order to improve my total GPA to an average of 3.8 in order to qualify for a semester abroad on time.
- Attainable: In recent months, I have fallen behind with school, but I have a history of improving my grades when I put substantial effort in it, so I can improve my grades once again. I’ll need to work hard, temporarily cut back on extracurricular activities, and focus on each test and quiz as it comes along.
- Relevant: The school abroad I want to spend a semester at has a great Chemistry program. Passing that program will come in handy when I go to college, where I want to major in Chemistry, in order to become a Chemical Engineer.
- Time-bound: I want to improve my GPA to 4.0 by the end of this semester, in order to qualify for a position at the college abroad in question.
SMART goal for leadership and team management (example)
- Specific: I want to motivate my team to improve their productivity by 50%.
- Measurable: 50% of increased productivity will trigger a 50% faster project turnaround.
- Attainable: I’ll use team management software, as well as supply my team with the right productivity tools to help them out.
- Relevant: Higher productivity means faster project turnaround, and faster project turnaround means satisfied clients. Satisfied clients bring a good word of mouth, so we’ll likely land more clients on account of it. As a result of such great results, the team’s morale and their self-confidence will increase, so they’ll feel encouraged to continue with the said good work.
- Time-bound: I want to see the expected improved productivity results 6 months from now.
Now that you understand what SMART goals are and what they can be, let’s see when they’re the most effective (and when you should avoid them).
How can SMART goals help you? When to use SMART goals? ✔️
Are SMART goals effective?
Yes, when used in the right context.
Here’s when SMART goals work best for
- Setting priorities — use them when you want to single out your priorities and focus solely on them.
- Emphasizing priorities —use them when you feel like you can’t identify your priority tasks and initiatives.
- Prioritizing high-level goals — use them when you need to focus on high-level goals that involve a number of smaller, specific tasks.
- Tackling your work tasks — use them when you want to successfully carry out your on-going job responsibilities.
- New projects — use them when you’re moving on to a new project.
- New assignments — use them when you’re moving on to new assignments.
- New priorities — use them when you need to shift focus to new priorities.
- Personal development — use them when you want to make an everlasting, positive change in your life.
When SMART goals are not so smart ❌
Now, just because it sounds like the smart thing to do (pun intended), that doesn’t mean that you should view all your tasks and initiatives through the SMART goals prism. Or, try to force them into the SMART goals mold.
Here’s when SMART goals simply don’t work
When you want to use them to “count” your successes and failures
You shouldn’t use SMART goal setting just so you can race past your goals as fast as you can, without stopping to take a breather and reflect on what you’ve learned along the way.
You also shouldn’t view a SMART goal you haven’t accomplished as a failure you need to reprimand yourself for.
Just because you failed this time, doesn’t mean you won’t be able to succeed next time or use the knowledge you gained from pursuing the said goal in the future.
When you have the tendency to give up too soon
SMART goals take time — that’s because they’re more complex than your usual, everyday goals, such as getting to the food store before it closes.
As such, they take more effort and dedication — hence, they can be a bigger challenge for people who get nervous when they think they’re not progressing as best as they could.
If you fear that a goal, no matter how SMART it is, is too large for you to commit to it, it’s best that you reassess it, and parse it into smaller, less challenging goals you can reach easier, one by one, until you’ve accomplished everything.
When you’re uncertain whether a goal is attainable or not
Out of all the letters in the SMART acronym, the “A”, as “attainable”, is the least precise one.
After all, most of the time, we can only be sure a goal is attainable or not if we’ve already tried pursuing it.
So, are you really sure you have a shot at landing the position of that junior marketing specialist at that Boston tech-company?
Perhaps you don’t have the right qualifications?
Or the right experience?
Just as we’ve seen before with our example with losing 30 lbs in a month, pursuing a goal we’ve defined as attainable (despite it not being so, realistically speaking) is bound to discourage us when we fail to reach it.
Alternatively, we may miss out on some great opportunities if we mark a realistic goal as “out of reach” without properly thinking about it.
How to set SMART goals?
Setting SMART goals shouldn’t be a problem — you can do it by answering a straightforward set of questions. Here are some great questions you can answer to determine the value of your goal and outline an action plan.
Set SMART goals by answering the SMART questions (with examples)
Let’s say that you want to lose weight. Here are the universal questions that will make sure that’s a SMART goal, one letter of the SMART acronym at a time:
Questions for Specific goals
- Q1: What is the goal?
- Q2: What are the details of the goal?
- Q3: What do I want to accomplish with it?
- Q4: Who is involved?
- Q5: Where is it going to happen?
- Q6: What resources are available?
Examples of answers that prove the goal is specific:
- A1: I want to lose 12 lbs.
- A2: I want to lose 12 lbs by losing 3 lbs each week during the said month — I’ll eat healthier food and exercise to achieve this.
- A3: I want to be healthier, boost my energy, and feel better about myself in general.
- A4: I am the chief person responsible for losing weight, but I’ll also book time with a personal trainer and occasionally consult with my friend who’s a professional nutritionist.
- A5: I’ll go to the gym, and I’ll make most of my healthy meals at home.
- A6: I’ll have advice from my personal trainer and nutritionist friend.
Questions for Measurable goals
- Q1: How will I measure progress?
- Q2: Do I have the necessary tools to measure your progress?
- Q3: How will I know the goal has been accomplished?
Examples of answers that prove the goal is measurable:
- A1: To measure my progress (or lack thereof), I’ll weigh myself each Sunday afternoon for a month.
- A2: I’ve recently bought a high-tech weight scale, and I’ll use it to measure my weight loss progress each Sunday.
- A3: Simple math will tell me whether I have accomplished my goal — If by next month the weight scale shows 12 lbs less in total when compared to the weight when I started the diet and exercise routine, I’ll know I’ve succeeded.
Questions for Attainable goals
- Q1: Do I have the financial capacity to carry out my goal?
- Q2: Do I have the skills and will power to carry out my goal?
- Q3: Will I have access to help when needed?
- Q4: Do I have all the necessary resources?
- Q5: Do I have the time to carry out the goal?
Examples of answers that prove the goal is attainable:
- A1: I have enough money to join a gym and consult with a professional trainer.
- A2: I’ve previously already managed to lose 13lbs within a month on a different occasion, so I firmly believe I can do it again.
- A3: I’ll have access to a personal trainer, helpful advice from my nutritionist friend, as well as additional support from my family.
- A4: I have all the necessary resources at hand, as there are several great gyms in my city, as well as an enviable selection of healthy food in the neighborhood supermarket.
- A5: Considering that I remotely work flexible hours 5 days a week (or 9-to-5 in an office), I can spare 1 hour per weekday to go to the gym, and I have enough time to prepare healthy meals. I can easily spare even more time for the gym and food preparation on weekends.
Questions for Relevant goals
- Q1: Why is this goal important?
- Q2: Is this goal worth my time?
- Q3: Is this the right time for it?
Examples of answers that prove the goal is relevant:
- A1: Losing weight will help me be healthier and more energized. As a result, I’ll be more confident.
- A2: Considering that I personally really feel that losing weight would benefit me (either because my weight is affecting my health, or because the doctor ordered it), it’s worth my time.
- A3: Considering that the holiday feasts are over and that’s it’s time to implement the New Year’s resolutions, it’s time to lose weight.
Questions for Time-bound goals
- Q1: When will I achieve the goal?
- Q2: When will I carry out the activities that will bring me to my goal?
- Q3: When can I expect the first outcomes?
Examples of answers that prove the goal is relevant:
- A1: I’ll set February 20th for my end deadline.
- A2: Every day after work, I’ll go to the gym for 1 hour. I’ll make a clear meal schedule that will include breakfast, lunch, dinner and healthy snacks, and I’ll stick to it. I’ll weigh myself every Sunday afternoon, leading up to the 20th of February.
- A3: The first outcome I can expect should be 3 lbs less by the end of the first week.
There you have it. You can use these sets of questions for any type of goal. And here are the 10 templates that’ll help speed up the process.
SMART Goal Templates
An expertly created SMART goal templates and SMART goal worksheets can serve as your quick and efficient SMART goal generator — they provide the outline for your SMART goal setting and you just need to follow the said outline and fill it out with your own data. It’s a fast and efficient alternative to creating and following your own template or making plans without one.
🔷 Basic SMART Goal Template
What’s it about? The Basic SMART Goal Template is divided into 5 sections, each representing a letter of the SMART acronym (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound). Answer 1 or 2 questions for each section to determine whether the said goal is worth your time.
Best for what and who? This SMART Goal Template is perfect for people who want a simple approach to setting their goals.
🔷 Simple SMART Goal Template
What’s it about? The Simple SMART Goal Template lets you determine why you want to pursue your goal, as well as get started on planning your goal.
Best for what and who? This SMART Goal Template is perfect for people who want to set SMART goals but don’t necessarily want to answer to SMART criteria.
🔷 Elaborate SMART Goal Template
What’s it about? The Basic SMART Goal Template is divided into 5 sections, each representing a letter of the SMART acronym (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound). Answer a detailed list of questions for each section to determine whether the said goal is worth your time.
Best for what and who? This SMART Goal Template is perfect for people who need more pointers on whether the goal they want to pursue is SMART or not.
🔷 SMART Goal Tree Template
What’s it about? The SMART Goal Tree Template helps you select and track the main Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that tell you how well you’re progressing with your goal.
Best for what and who? You can use this template to measure success in various business areas, such as customer support, company finance, internal processes, etc.
🔷 SMART Action Plan Template (+ Action Steps and Responsibilities)
What’s it about? The SMART Action Plan Template (+ Action Steps and Responsibilities) lets you determine the value of a goal by asking you to explain how or why the said goal is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Then, you can add the person responsible for the said goal, and lay out the steps you need to go through in order to reach success.
Best for what and who? Great for teamwork within a project where each teammate has different goals and responsibilities that together tie into one, greater purpose. Also great for goals that imply a specific set of steps (tasks) you need to tackle to reach them.
🔷New Year SMART Goal Template
What’s it about? The New Year SMART Goal Template lets you define SMART goals for your Personal Growth, Health, Business life, Family and Friends, Travels, Hobbies, and New Purchases you want to consider pursuing in the new year.
Best for what and who? This template is perfect for carrying out your New Year resolutions.
🔷 Basic SMART Goal Template (+ Problems)
What’s it about? The Basic SMART Goal Template is divided into 5 sections, each representing a letter of the SMART acronym (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound). Answer 1 or 2 questions for each section to determine whether the said goal is worth your time. Once you’ve done that, think about the problems you may encounter while working toward the said goal and try to solve them before they happen.
Best for what and who? This SMART goal template is great for forestalling potential problems with your goal (in case you want a simple SMART breakdown of your goal).
🔷 Elaborate SMART Goal Template (+ Problems)
What’s it about? The Basic SMART Goal Template is divided into 5 sections, each representing a letter of the SMART acronym (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound). Answer a detailed list of questions for each section to determine whether the said goal is worth your time. Once you’ve done that, think about the problems you may encounter while working toward the said goal and try to solve them before they happen.
Best for what and who? This SMART goal template is great for forestalling potential problems with your goal. (in case you want a more detailed SMART breakdown of your goal).
🔷 SMART Goal Template for Project Managers
What’s it about? The Basic SMART Goal Template is divided into 5 sections, each representing a letter of the SMART acronym (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound). You’ll be able to assess each goal you want to assign to a team member, and decide whether it needs redefining, or even whether it’s worthwhile (or simply unattainable by the assigned team member) in the first place.
Best for what and who? This SMART goal template is perfect for managers who are in the process of defining the goals and objectives of a project.
🔷 SMART Goals Template (+ Rewards/Motivations)
What’s it about? The SMART Goals Template (+ Rewards/Motivations) lets you assess whether a goal is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Then, you can define the motivations and rewards that stand behind you pursuing the said goal.
Best for what and who? Rewards are important to keep you motivated to pursue a goal — pick this SMARt goal template if you want to define specific rewards that will await you when you reach a goal.
The SMART goal criteria gives you an easy way to determine whether the goal you’re looking to pursue is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, and Relevant enough for you to pursue it in the first place. The SMART goal criteria also give you a time frame and deadline you can keep an eye on and use as a point of reference for your plan as you work toward the said goal.
SMART goals are suitable for both personal and business goals — for example, you can implement them with equal justification when you want to lose weight or improve your performance at work. In any case, they’re best used when you want to set and focus on a priority objective in life.
When setting and assessing your SMART goals there are sets of questions you can easily answer, and many examples you can follow and find inspiration in. Whatever SMART goal you pursue, it’s always best that you use a ready-made template to define and track it — you’ll spend less time planning the goals and more time actually working on it.