I was listening to an audio book recently and the author was talking about setting goals and how important it is to set a date for accomplishing your goal. He said that setting a date will keep you motivated by knowing the deadline is coming up.
I have to disagree. I’ve set deadlines for many goals, only to watch the dates come and go. Also, I’ve known many people who have done the same. There isn’t any magic in setting a date for a goal. Motivating yourself to accomplish any goal means fitting together several pieces of a puzzle that makes your goal so strong that leaving any part out dramatically weakens your chances of reaching your goal.
Goal-Setting Gets SMART
One popular method for goal-setting is the S.M.A.R.T. way. The word SMART is an acronym – each letter reminds you of one of the steps used in setting your goals so that you increase the likelihood that you will accomplish your goals.
S – Specific: This means your goal needs to be clearly defined.
M – Measurable: There needs to be a way to measure or quantify the results you’re getting so that you know when you’ve actually achieved your goal or are making progress.
A – Attainable: While it’s great to dream big, you have to believe you are mentally and physically capable of achieving your goal. So this reminds you to set your goal so that it’s believable; that you believe you can achieve it.
R – Relevant: Basically, your goal should be the right goal at the right time and you should actually care about it.
T – Timely: You should include a date by which you will achieve your goal.
Why It Works When It Works
The SMART method is only as good as your understanding and usage of it. At the surface, it’s easy to understand. Each part makes sense and it seems relatively easy to apply. Using SMART is a very strong place to start when setting a goal because it addresses the behaviors that often cause us to stumble.
SMART goals give you leverage because the process of defining your goal using each part of the SMART method helps you get clear on all aspects of your goal. And if you’re applying each part according to your DNA (in terms of how you relate to the world and what you know to be true about yourself), then you will find yourself more naturally motivated to work toward the goal because it means something to you on many levels.
Why It Often Doesn’t Work
As simple as this method seems, it doesn’t account for all the variables that you bring to how you understand and apply the SMART method. You might interpret or even misinterpret any one of the steps in this method.
The Specific step in this method is one that’s very easy to get wrong. It doesn’t take into account your intention for the goal. For example, if you set a goal to weigh 140 pounds by the end of the year, the intention behind the goal is that you’re going to get your health on track by eating healthy and getting exercise most of the year.
So what happens if you eat terribly for 11 months, then work hard for a few weeks and get your weight down to 140 pounds right at the end-of-year buzzer? Sure, you’ve achieved the goal, but it didn’t match the intention behind the goal. You ate lousy all year and got it together in the last month. Goal achieved? Maybe, maybe not.
On the other hand, if your goal was to weigh an average of 140-145 pounds for the entire year and to finish the year weighing 140 pounds or less, that is much more specific and would require deliberate effort all year long to accomplish it rather than throwing a Hail-Mary pass in the last month for a 140 pound touch-down.
What about Relevant? The tricky part of this step has to do with what is causing us to want to set a specific goal in the first place. If your goal is to get a job in finance because you love working with numbers, then you should be okay. But if your grandfather was in finance, your dad was in finance, your older brother was in finance, and now everybody expects you to get a job in finance, but you would really love to be a lion trainer for a circus, Relevant isn’t relevant.
Let’s take a look at one more. How about Measurable? If you’re learning a foreign language via self-study, you might want to be “conversational” in 6 months. How exactly do you define being conversational? A three year-old can be conversational. So do you want to talk like a three year-old? In order to measure your progress, you might need to define the 50 or 100 most common words or phrases spoken in your language of study. Can you learn them in six months? How many would you need to learn in a month? That would be roughly 17, if your goal is 100 phrases in six months. That would work out to learning roughly a phrase every two days. You can definitely measure your progress when you’re clear enough about what you are trying to accomplish.
I think a better strategy for real motivation requires:
- An internal desire or passion for accomplishing a specific goal.
- A clear understanding of the steps you must take in order achieve your goal.
- A reasonable belief that you are capable of achieving your goal.
- Some sort of pressure or consequence if you don’t achieve it.
The point of setting a goal is to give you a way to focus on what you are hoping to achieve and make it a priority. But setting goals properly takes practice. When you don’t reach your goal, it’s important to figure out what obstacles prevented you from reaching it and adjust your behavior and tweak your goal. So just setting a date for achieving your goal isn’t going to do anything magical for you. However, if you at least get the above four items right, plus set a date for completing or achieving your goal, you’ll have a much better chance of being motivated enough to accomplish it.