The SMART system is arguably the best way to set useful and achievable goals, a crucial part of being more productive. Standing for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely, this acronym was first mentioned in a 1981 article authored by George T. Doran, and later popularised by consultant Peter Drucker as part of his Management By Objectives system. So how does the SMART system work? And can it be made even better? Let’s look at each of the traditional five components in turn, and then see if there are a couple more we can add.
Most of us have dreams and visions for the future. But are yours just vague ideas, wishes and hopes, or have you distilled your plans into a specific form that states exactly what you want to achieve? This is the meaning of the first component of the SMART system – Specific. Once you actually work out the details of what you want to achieve, your internal goal-achieving machinery rumbles into action, and starts offering ideas and suggestions (often via your intuition) about how to move forward.
Let’s pretend that you are one of the polar explorers at the start of the twentieth century (maybe Scott or Shackleton). You’re sitting at home reading about the newly discovered continent of Antarctica, and you think to yourself “Wouldn’t it be good to be the first human to ever reach the South Pole?”. Notice that you didn’t think to yourself “Wouldn’t it be good to be the first human to walk aimlessly around Antarctica until I run out of food or freeze to death?”. When you have a specific goal, you are more likely to reach it. But how do you know when you get there? It needs to be measurable.
The second letter in the SMART acronym requires your goal to be measurable. What good is having a specific goal, if you are forever chasing it but never know when you achieve it? Let’s say you want to be rich, famous or both. What does being rich or famous mean to you? How will you know when you get there? The problem with both of those goals is that they are relative to something else, and hard to measure. Better to have a measurable goal of a certain amount of assets (if you want to be rich), or define a way to measure fame (ranging from appearing on the front page of your local newspaper, to winning an Academy Award for Best Actress).
Let’s return to our polar expedition. You’re getting ready to depart, when you start wondering about how you are going to know when you actually reach the South Pole. Use a GPS? Nope, not invented yet. Look for a sign-post? Again nope, no-one has been there before. I know – a compass! You remember that when you reach Magnetic South, everywhere is north of you – no matter which way you turn, your compass will continue to point north. So, you now have a way to know when you achieve your goal. But is it achievable?
It took me a while to get my head around the difference between the ‘A’ in SMART – Achievable, and the ‘R’ – Realistic. The best way to think about it is that an achievable goal is able to be done within the current context of your life – the skills and economic resources that you can access to help you reach your target. Let’s say you have a giant pile of dirt to move, and your best friend owns a bulldozer – that’s probably achievable. Now consider the same pile of dirt and all you have access to is a teaspoon.
You’ve decided that you want to be the first person to reach the South Pole, and you remember to pack a compass to tell you when you reach it. But is that dream achievable? In other words, do you have access to the finances, connections, transport and expertise to get you to your destination and return you safely? Let’s say that you’re great at networking and organizing, and can marshal the resources required for a successful expedition. But you, a polar explorer – are you sure that’s realistic?
Returning to that giant pile of dirt we talked about in the last section, how realistic is it to move it all with a teaspoon? Most people would answer ‘not very’, although it could represent a prolonged experience of mindfulness! It’s much more realistic to hotwire your friend’s bulldozer and get it all moved in an hour. So, while the ‘A’ – achievable – is about you and your abilities, the ‘R’ – realistic – is about external realities and how the real world works. For example, you might want to live in a colony on Mars, and you might have joint PhDs in rocket science and habitat maintenance – but no matter how much you want it, it’s just not currently realistic!
Our intrepid explorer is about to depart for Antarctica. You have all of your polar exploration gear loaded on board your ship, some hardy and thrill-seeking souls who you have convinced to come with you, and a whole pack of sled dogs, when you suddenly think to yourself “Even with the best training and gear available, is there a place where we can get ashore? And is the South Pole even reachable? Perhaps it’s at the top of an unclimbable mountain. Or surrounded by uncrossable glacial ice?” And then you remember that Antarctica is somewhat warmer in summer than in the middle of winter. So hopefully your plan is realistic. But that also brings us to the next letter of the SMART acronym – timely.
What good is having a goal, or a number of them, if you never achieve any of them? In other words, goals without a time-frame aren’t goals, they’re just dreams. Time-frames can be a double-edged sword, however – make them too short and goals become overwhelming and unachievable. Too long, and you don’t feel any degree of urgency to complete them – they are over the horizon, more a mirage than reality. The trick is to make your goals attainable but challenging – finding that sweet spot that motivates you to do your best, without incapacitating yourself through overwhelm.
It’s 1910. You are departing for the Antarctic. But as you’ve already figured, you need to arrive at the right time of year to have a chance of reaching the Pole. So, you needed to plan ahead, in readiness for this day. But what about those other explorers you’re racing? To make your expedition a success – reaching the Pole and returning safely home – you needed to set a number of timed goals, in an orderly manner, one building upon another.
In other words, you needed to break down your grand vision into a number of smaller steps, each leading naturally from the other, in order to arrive at your destination. And while you had to do them as fast as possible – to try and beat your competitors – you also had to do them thoroughly and responsibly, so that your mission was a success. So each of them needed an ambitious, but achievable, deadline. The sights and smells of Europe slip away behind you. You are excited – you have planned this expedition meticulously, using what will become the SMART system…..
Which brings us to the end of the traditional SMART steps. As you probably know, Scott’s expedition was not a success, due to a combination of factors – weather, human factors and bad luck among them – but his story does provide a very pertinent example of having a vision, and taking the necessary steps to reach it.
Some versions of the SMART system include extra steps, and I’d like to introduce you to two of them – evaluation and reflection.
The next letter of the enhanced SMART system is E – for evaluation. The SMART system in its original form, while an excellent way to achieve goals, is a linear process – you move through the five steps, starting with a specific concept and ending at a timely achievement.
But what about the lessons you’ve learnt along the way? And what if you plan for the goal you’ve achieved to be a recurring one – like starting a successful business or writing a book? The next step – Evaluation – captures those lessons and allows you to learn from them. And perhaps improve the process for the next cycle.
To add this to the system, consider how the SMART process worked for you in the achievement of your goal, and record it in your journal. Even better, keep a record of each step in real-time – write down what you did, and how it worked. Then, if you need to achieve a similar goal in the future, review your notes and make changes as needed to improve the process. But how did achieving your goal make you feel? That’s where the last step – reflection – comes in.
Reflection (+/- Relevance)
As the great 19th Century American philosopher and educationalist John Dewey said, “We do not learn from experience……we learn from reflecting on experience.”
And so it is that the final letter of the new and improved SMARTER acronym is R – for reflection. There are two types of reflective activity that people talk about – reflection IN action, and reflection ON action.
The first is akin to mindfulness, where you are fully in the moment and aware of your thoughts and feelings, and how they influence your actions and those of the people around you.
The second, reflection on action, occurs after an activity is completed. It is an inherently internal activity, where you find some quiet time to think about the thoughts, feelings, actions and decisions that occurred at some prior time. This time is when you internally review what went well, what went less well, how the activity made you feel, and what you might do differently next time.
Reflection can also trigger a process of emotional and mental growth, especially when you allow yourself to be brutally honest about who you are, and why you do things the way you do.
Related to goal-setting and achievement, reflection allows you to be the best you can be, by viewing each experience as an opportunity for learning, growth and improvement.
We’ve just taken a look at one of the best ways to reach your goals – the SMART system, and made it even better by adding two extra steps at the end. Remember to use SMARTER goals to achieve what you want out of life:
- Be Specific about what you want to achieve.
- Make your goals Measurable, so you’ll know when you get there.
- Focus on Achievable objectives – those you can do with your current resources.
- Ensure that you are being Realistic.
- Think about when you want to have your goal achieved – in other words make it Timely.
- Remember to Evaluate the effectiveness of your plan after you reach your destination.
- Practice the process of Reflection on action to trigger self-awareness and personal growth.
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