How to Set SMART Goals Effectively

In the previous post we learned the stages of change. One of the main tasks of the preparation stage is goal-setting. And the SMART goals model is one of the most effective ways to set goals. SMART stands for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable or Achievable
  • Relevant to the bigger picture
  • Time-bound

In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, SMART goals are basically the same, but in ACT SMART stands for:

  • Specific
  • Meaningful (which is similar to relevant)
  • Adaptive—will the goal improve our lives?
  • Realistic (similar to attainable)
  • Time-framed

The video below explains these components in detail, integrating both the standard and ACT definitions, along with examples of how to set SMART goals.

How to Set Effective Smart Goals

This transcription was auto-generated by YouTube. I’ve only added minimal editing, so I apologize for any errors, run-on sentences, etc.

Setting goals can seem like it’s relatively easy and the hard part is how do we reach our goals once we’ve set them, but one of the things that can make our goals challenging to achieve is that the goals we set for ourselves aren’t very well constructed. And if we can learn to frame our goals better in the first place, we make it more likely we’ll be able to achieve them.

Now you might have heard of smart goals. And we’re going to talk about more than just smart goals in this video, but they’re a good place to start. Smart is an acronym that stands for specific, rather than broad or general goals. Measurable so we can track our progress. Attainable or achievable, in other words our goals need to be realistic. Relevant, why are we setting this goal and how is it relevant to us? And time bound: having some sort of time frame or timeline tied to the goal.

So one of the most important parts of setting goals is that we make them specific. Consider goals like, I want to be healthier; I’m going to drink less; I want to advance my career; I want to be a better parent; I’m going to stop procrastinating. I like to think of these as aspirational goals. They give us a general sense of the direction we want to head, but they’re too vague and general to tell us where we actually want to end up, so it’s impossible to figure out the steps we need to take in order to get there. And we’re going to need to make these goals more specific if we want to be able to act on them.

So instead of I want to be healthier, something a little more specific would be I want to eat healthier, or I want to exercise more, or I want to lose some weight.

Instead of I want to advance my career, I want to get a promotion, or I’m going to get a higher paying job.

Instead of be a better parent, I’m going to spend more time with my kids and be less distracted and more patient when I’m with them.

Instead of I’m going to stop procrastinating, whenever I have something at work that I’m avoiding, instead of watching YouTube videos I’m going to get started on it. Or I’m going to clean the kitchen after dinner before I start watching tv.

Now measurable often goes hand in hand with making a goal more specific. I want to eat healthier by only eating out or ordering in once a week. Or I’m going to go to the gym three days a week. Or I’m going to lose 10 pounds. Instead of I’m going to drink less, I’m only going to drink on the weekends, or I’m only going to have one beer or one glass of wine a night. So these examples all include a means to measure our progress and success.

Now attainable or achievable. And the key here isn’t is our goal attainable in general or is our goal possible to achieve, but can we achieve this goal. And this is why in acceptance and commitment therapy the r in smart goals stands for realistic. And that’s the key here. Are we setting goals that are realistic for us given our current situations, abilities and resources, time, energy and so on.

Is it really realistic to think I’ll go to the gym three times a week if I hate the gym and haven’t been in years? Maybe a more achievable and realistic exercise goal is to walk for an hour three times a week, or to go to the gym once this week.

If I don’t like to cook and I’m really busy and I eat out or order in every night, instead of a goal like I’m going to eat out or order in just once over the next week, a more realistic and achievable goal might be I’m going to cook at least one meal for myself over the next week.

It can feel good to set ambitious goals. But we’re often just setting ourselves up to fail, which can then hurt our motivation to set similar goals in the future. And it’s better to start small and then build upon success rather than start too ambitiously and have to deal with failure.

And it’s also important that we set goals based on factors we have control over. Sometimes we think our goals are reasonable and achievable but it turns out they rely too much on factors outside our control.

I once set a goal for my channel to increase my number of views that seemed absolutely reasonable based on the rate my channel was growing. But to a large extent my views are a function of how often the algorithm decides to suggest my videos. And the algorithm decided to reduce how much it was suggesting my videos. And so not only didn’t my view count grow, I get fewer views than I did a year ago when I set this goal, despite having a lot more subscribers and videos and releasing them more frequently.

So I failed miserably at my goal. But it wasn’t due to a lack of effort. I devoted a lot more time to my videos and I think they’re better now than they used to be. My goal failed because the metric I chose to measure my goal is not something I have that much control over. It relies too much on the algorithm. So it would have been much better to frame the goal in terms of something I did have control over, like to release a new video at least every other week, or to spend at least 30 hours a week working on them.

Now let’s talk time bound. Smart goals were conceived for setting project or performance related goals. In a business context and it’s easy to set business related measurable and time-bound goals, but in the case of personal goals the time-bound aspect is often immediately. I’m going to go to the gym three days a week starting this week. Or I’m only going to drink one beer a night starting today. Or starting tonight I’m going to clean up the kitchen after dinner before watching tv.

We can add an arbitrary length of time, like for the next month, but often personal goals are about sustaining change, in which case it’s better to not specify a duration. So instead of I’m going to go to the gym three days a week for the next month, just I’m going to go to the gym three times this week. And then if we do that great now we do it again next week. And if we don’t succeed, then we reevaluate our goal and maybe we need to change it a bit. Or if the goal still seems reasonable we might need to come up with a better plan to help us achieve it.

And time frames are often the part of a goal that we have the least control over. If I have a goal to get a better paying job, why add in, I’m going to get a better paying job in the next six months? We want to get started on our goal right away, and we can make the steps in our plan to reach that goal time bound— I’m going to update my resume this week; I’m going to reach out to the following people in my professional network by the end of next week—because we do have control over the time frame of these steps. But to actually land a better paying job within the next six months, well there are a lot of factors outside of our control that can prevent us from being able to reach our goal within that time frame. So really the only time down part of our goal needs to be, I’m going to start working on my plan right away.

And the same goes for a goal like I’m going to lose 10 pounds over the next four months. What if we only lose five pounds in four months are we going to feel bad about that? Or if we notice that we’ve only lost one pound over the first month, are we going to become discouraged and lose motivation or maybe even give up?

Which is why I prefer goals that leave lots of room for success while still motivating ourselves to achieve as much as possible. So having some sort of composite goal, a goal with different tiers. Something like tier one: I’m going to track my calories every day. And tier two: and try to lose some weight—and so any amount of weight loss will count as success. And tier 3: and I’ll do my best to lose 10 pounds over the next four months. So I still have a goal of losing 10 pounds to strive for but even if I don’t reach that i’ve built in other less ambitious but more achievable goals that still allow for success.

Now let’s talk about relevance. Is our goal relevant to their bigger picture? Does it tie in to our overall life goals, priorities and aspirations? If it doesn’t, we’re not going to be that motivated to work towards achieving it.

In acceptance and commitment therapy the m in smart goals stands for meaningful. In order for our goal to be relevant it needs to be meaningful to us. It needs to be related to a domain of our lives that we’re currently prioritizing, such as work or relationships or family or health and so on, and it needs to be in line with our own values, and not just be something we think we should do or that other people are telling us to do.

For example if we set a goal to go to the gym five days a week, but right now the work domain of our lives is what’s most important to us, and we’re spending as much time as possible working trying to advance our careers, we’re going to struggle to prioritize our health related goal of going to the gym so often.

Or if we set a goal to get a promotion at work because we think we should be making more money or be further ahead in our careers, but what we value most right now is our leisure time and spending time with our families, it’s going to be hard to prioritize work and money when our values lie elsewhere. So it’s probably not the best goal to set for ourselves right now.

So we want to make our goals relatively smart. Specific enough that we can take action on them, and measurable and time-bound enough to be able to track our progress. And attainable not just in theory, but realistically achievable for us, based on things we can control. And perhaps most importantly we need to make sure that our goals are relevant and fit into the bigger picture and our overall life goals, and that they’re meaningful to us.

In the next post we’ll look at how to create action plans to help us reach these goals. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.