How to Set Goals – SMART Goals

I was nervous. And a little sweaty.

It was my first “real” job at a management consulting company, and if you know what management consulting is, then you’ve heard of the company.

I was meeting with Grant, my “career counselor,” for the first time. That’s like a mentor in the company usually 1-2 levels ahead of you. A career counselor helps you:

  • Navigate the corporate landscape
  • Get promoted or not get promoted
  • Perform annual reviews and checkpoints along the way

He is a good guy and I’m still in touch with him to this day, 13 years later.

Grant was telling me about starting out on projects, finding projects, and setting goals to be in a position to be promoted. It was all overwhelming!

One of the best things, most valuable idea, I took from my time at that company was goal setting.

The idea of SMART goals was new to me, and that’s what we’ll talk about today.

A bunch of the other people that were in my orientation at the company had MBAs or other graduate degrees. Not me — I just had a regular ol’ four-year degree and no business background at all. So SMART Goals weren’t on my radar as an engineering student.

The SMART Goal concept came out of General Electric, which is why most of my fellow employees with MBAs studied it in B school.

A Look at Bad Goals

Most people set bad goals. Here are some:

  • Lose weight
  • Exercise more
  • Work harder

Vague.

Non-specific.

Uninspiring.

And goals like that never work.

We can thank GE for making goal setting better…

In the 1940s, GE rolled out a formalized goal setting system. It’s the model for goal setting around the world at this point. It’s been rigorously tested, used over and over, and perfected…mostly perfected anyway.

Vague goals don’t work because they are so easy to make, and easy to ignore.

So you end up with a goal but no plan to achieve the goal.

Rewind to the 1960s: All GE employees wrote out their objectives for the year and put that in a letter to their manager. Harvard Business School historians wrote in 2011:

“Simply put, the manager’s letter required a job holder to write a letter to his or her superior indicating what the goals for the next time frame were, how the goals would be met, and what standards were to be expected. When the superior accept this letter — usually after editing and discussion — it became the work ‘contract.'”

SMART Goals

SMART goals are:

Specific

Measurable

Achievable

Realistic

Timeline

The SMART system works so well because once you go through the thought process of creating a SMART goal, it’s clear how it’s going to happen. You critically think about the process of achieving the goals.

You know the next steps and when you need to do them. Vague goals allow you to skip these super important steps.

It’s harder to set a proper SMART goal than a plan “bad” goal. It takes longer to think through all the details to plan things out. It’s likely that you’ll think of a plan, then realize you were wrong and need to change it.

More on that in a minute…

Setting a SMART Goal for Running a Half Marathon

Using the half marathon example, let’s look at the SMART goal system in action. 

Before I go into the details, let’s think about setting a non SMART goal for this:

I’ll run a half marathon.

And it’s really easy to see that you can completely ignore that goal and never set out to do the training that you need to do. Very few people can run a half marathon without training — and few people can accomplish any meaningful without working on.

Specific

“Run a Half Marathon.”

Measurable

“The distance is 13.1 miles.”

Achievable

“I can run 2-3 times a week, increasing the distance 5-10% per week.”

Realistic

“I can set aside time 2-3 times a week to make time for training. I’ll run in the mornings by waking up earlier 2-3 times a week.”

Timeline

“The race is in 6 months. I can start running this week with a mileage of 10 miles a week. Each week the mileage will increase by 5 – 10%.

  • Month 1 – Average of 15 miles per week
  • Month 2 – Average of 20 miles per week
  • ….
  • ….
  • Month 6 – Average of 28 miles per week”

What’s the Point of ALL These Details?

You can see that you really get into the details:

How, When, What, etc…

You’ll find yourself visualizing it, too, which is a powerful exercise on its own.

You could create a calendar for a training program like this where each week would have the 2-3 running days with the mileage for that day.

So, you know how far you would run on Day 42 or Day 97. 

“I can’t plan that far in the future”

Don’t freak out about planning so far ahead. Plans change and things happen so flexibility in the plan is okay.

Being adaptable to a changing environment is always a great skill to have.

So if you catch a cold in the middle of the half marathon training, then you can revise the plan. I good strategy would be to pick up where you left off, then think about whether you can increase the mileage just a little bit faster over the next few weeks.

The training schedule is often flexible since the milage is increasing by 5 – 10%. That allows for slack in the schedule.

I’ve seen too many people say:

“I don’t make plans like that because I don’t want to be tied to a rigid plan and schedule. I need to be free to do other things.”

Plans don’t have to be rigid. You should be flexible, but you get a great benefit from planning even if you don’t stick with the plan exactly.

In my old corporate job as a project manager, I created project plans and schedules that dozens of people signed off on for projects with budgets as large as $10M. We changed every single project plan.

Every schedule changed. Period.

So you can create a schedule, just know that things will change.

Your Action Items

  • Set a short term goal that you want to accomplish in the next week. Be sure it’s a goal that you can get done in one week.
  • So if it’s something bigger, then divide it down to smaller tasks so it’s something you can do in a week.
  • Use the SMART Goal framework to set your goal. Set aside some time, about 20-30 minutes, to work through the process.
  • Build slack into the schedule and be realistic about how long tasks take. A good rule is to estimate the amount of time it will take, then add 50-100%. I have a habit of estimating tasks with the best case scenario — e.g. “It takes 10 minutes to get to the grocery store…” — but in reality it takes 16 minutes on average. It’s pretty common so that’s why you’ll want to give yourself extra time.
  • Work towards achieving your goal this week.
Interested in improving your productivity? I have a new pilot course coming out soon where you can work directly with me to accomplish something great. Send me an email if you’re interested in hearing more. doug (@)nichesiteproject.com with Productivity Course as the subject.

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1 comment… add one
  • Steve Lanning

    Great post, Doug,
    When I had the National Association of Business Coaches, our best meetings with our members were held at the Arthur Anderson facility outside of Chicago. This was where one of my Chicago friends and board members had AA as a client and we always had some interesting meeting rooms!

    But what made the meetings all worthwhile–and one of our most popular sessions–was “How to Work with Clients to Set SMART Goals.” I sold NABC in the 2000s and, like your mentor, several of the members are still in touch with me!
    So good to read you, Doug. You have a lucid writing style about you that is at once both professional yet ‘homey’ as if the reader has always known you.
    Warm regards,
    Steve

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