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How to Set SMART Goals and Achieve Them

With 2021 around the corner, you may already be thinking about some of the goals you want to set in the new year. Maybe you plan on losing the weight you gained in quarantine or picking up the hobbies you meant to start when you began working from home. Both of these are great ideas, but they’re futile goals because they’re too vague to ensure success.

A study by the University of Scranton found that only 19% of people were successful in achieving their New Year’s Resolutions. While this means that the majority of us will struggle to meet our goals, it shouldn’t deter you from setting them in the first place because the researchers also found that those who made resolutions were 10 times more likely to make a positive change in their lives after six months than those who wanted to change and didn’t set any. Goal-setting isn’t the problem. It’s how it’s done that affects the success of our outcomes.


SMART is an acronym and mnemonic device that is meant to guide the practice of goal setting. It was first used by little-recognized George T. Doran in Management Review in 1981 and since then, it has become a well-established tool across multiple domains. SMART stands for “specific,” “measurable,” “attainable,” “relevant,” and “time-bound.”

Professor Robert S. Rubin of Saint Louis University wrote in an article for The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, “SMART goals have experienced an ‘acronym drift’ of sorts” revealing that considerable variation has arisen among what each of the letters represents. A swift internet search will yield many different results of what SMART really means. The S can sometimes stand for “significant” and the A for “achievable”. Other authors have even expanded the acronym to include additional criteria; SMARTER, for example, focuses on “ethical” and “recorded” as well.

Despite the varied representations that have appeared throughout the years, one thing remains clear: goals should be SMART. Ensuring goals conform to a SMART criteria, whatever they may be, requires reflection and intentionality, which can only contribute to their success. If we want to achieve any goals at all, for the new year or for ourselves, we must be sure to set ones that we reflect on and intend to see through to their completion.

S: Specific

What exactly is it that you want to achieve? Goals that are specific have a greater chance of success because they allow you to focus your efforts. They are clear, well defined, and unambiguous. Ask yourself these questions to make your goal more specific.

  1. What do I want to achieve?

  2. Why do I want to achieve it?

  3. Who is involved for me to achieve it?

  4. Where and when will I achieve it?

  5. Which resources can help me achieve it? Which limitations make it harder to achieve?

Example: “I want to walk around my neighborhood for 15 minutes each day to lose weight” is more specific than “I want to lose weight”.

M: Measurable

Having a measurable goal ensures that you will know when you achieve it and track your progress along the way. Seeing how much you improve from the previous day, week, or month can be a powerful motivator. Consider how you can measure your goal and identify the markers that will demonstrate to you how far away completion is.

Example: “I will read 50 pages every night so that I can finish my 350 page book by next week” is measurable while “I will read more” is not.

A: Attainable

A SMART goal is one that you know is realistically achievable. A goal that is too lofty is a waste of your time, efforts, and resources. Attainability requires that you understand your resources and the necessary time and effort for succeeding. You should feel challenged, but not enough that you quit. An attainable goal is exciting for you yet realistic to your circumstances.

Example: Try “I plan on cooking one meal from scratch every day this week” instead of “I want to stop ordering take-out”.

R: Relevant

This criterion makes you consider whether or not the goal matters, which may or may not be the most important factor in setting a goal. Try asking yourself if the achievement will be relevant to any area of your life, perhaps, your health or your career. Each of your goals should align with your values and the ultimate vision you have for yourself. What purpose does achieving this goal serve you? If you cannot answer the question, the goal is not relevant to you and, therefore, it is not SMART.

Example: “Next year, I will put 5% of my paycheck into a savings account every month” may not be relevant to a teenager; however, it is an excellent goal for someone with a stable income who is seeking to become more financially responsible.

T: Time-Bound

Finally, SMART goals have target dates. If there is no deadline, there may be no sense of urgency to achieve the goal. A time frame provides motivation to initiate and attain the goal.

Example: “I want to travel” is not timely. “By the time I am 40 years old, I will have traveled to 10 different countries” is bound by an end date, which allows you to make plans accordingly.

Whether you’re setting goals for 2021 or for yourself, be sure to apply the SMART framework. By setting goals within these parameters, you’ll find more clarity, accountability, and, hopefully, more success in achieving them.

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