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How to set SMART goals and make them actionable

Last updated

16 November 2023

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Shawnna Johnson

We typically measure success by our ability to meet or exceed the goals we set. Often, it’s not our fault we fail to reach a goal. We can easily miss the mark if a goal is vague and lacks a plan. And that’s incredibly frustrating. 

That’s where SMART goals come in. This acronym can help you set achievable goals. Let’s get into learning about SMART goals and go over some examples.

What are SMART goals?

Goal setting is important. It offers a sense of direction and motivates you to improve professionally and personally. Good goal setting typically requires you to be specific with what you want to accomplish. It also needs to be achievable. So, no seeking world peace in a week. 

SMART goals provide an excellent framework for realistic goals. 

The acronym stands for goals that are:

  • Specific

  • Measurable

  • Achievable

  • Relevant

  • Time-bound

These steps help you focus on how you’ll achieve your goal. 

Let’s look a little deeper into the components of the SMART goal process.

S: Specific

Being specific means that your goal is unambiguous. It answers the following questions:

  • Who?

  • What?

  • When? 

  • Why?

  • Where? 

Consider this the mission statement of your goal, which shouldn’t be broad. 

Here’s an example: 

You want to be successful in your company. For this to be a SMART goal, you must be specific. Success is too broad. Instead, your goal might be, "I want my company to promote me to manager by the end of the year so I can earn more money."  

This answers who (I), where (XYZ Co.), what (manager), when (year-end), and why (to earn more money). A goal like this means you know exactly what you’re aiming for. And that makes it much easier to develop a plan. 

M: Measurable

Every goal needs to be measurable, whether that’s a number, a percentage, or something else. 

Rather than a vague goal to increase sales, setting a goal to boost sales by 20% means you can actually monitor your progress. If the plan isn’t going as expected, it’s much easier to tweak it if you know what you’re working with. 

Let’s go back to the promotion example. You want to earn more money (who doesn’t?), but more isn’t measurable. Your actual goal is to earn what managers make at your company. 

So your new SMART goal might be: "I want to be promoted to manager in XYZ Company by the end of the year and earn $60,000." 

A: Achievable

Focusing on achievable goals means giving yourself a dose of reality. If you want to start getting up at 5AM to go for a run, consider the fact you hate existing before 10AM. 

Putting up unnecessary roadblocks can be really demoralizing, so it’s crucial to meet yourself where you’re at. 

Of course, we’re returning to the promotion example. You’re likely on track for the role if you're qualified for the position. If you’ve just started in an entry-level position, it’s a lot to shoot for. 

For achievability, consider the tools and qualifications you’d need to get the promotion. Adjust your goal accordingly. 

For example, perhaps you need more education or job experience for a promotion. How long will that take? Can someone mentor you? What do you need to make this happen?

Setting achievable goals doesn’t mean they should be too easy. While a win is always nice, striking a careful balance and pushing yourself is important.

R: Relevant

Setting relevant goals is vital in determining effort and whether it’s actually something you should be aiming for at all. This is especially necessary in your professional life as your goals should align with the company’s. 

Imagine you work for a toothpaste company. You want to create a new gummy candy line. Unfortunately, that’s not gonna work for Colgate’s business goals. 

It’s also wise to consider the timing of your goal. Yes, you want that promotion, but aiming for it during a personal crisis isn’t the smartest. 

T: Time-bound

Once you’ve met the other criteria, ensure your goal has a realistic time frame. You want a sense of urgency but enough time to work on it. 

If you’re working on a large or lengthy goal, review your goal every so often. That way, you can get ahead of any bumps in the road and change direction where needed.

For that promotion, imagine you need a specific course to secure the role. While your goal is to get the job by the end of the year, the course isn’t available until next year. So your end date needs adjusting accordingly. 

What’s the science behind SMART goal-setting?

In the 1970s, psychologists Edwin Locke and Gary Latham began studying the process of goal setting. They focused on specific, achievable goals.

In 1981, George T. Doran introduced the SMART acronym in a Management Review article: "There's a S.M.A.R.T way to write management goals and objectives."  

Through decades of work, Locke, Latham, and Doran demonstrated the power of SMART goals. They revealed that specific and challenging goals led to higher performance than general or easy goals.

Since then, hundreds of additional goal-setting studies have supported their findings: SMART goals result in a higher completion rate, greater chances of success, and improved motivation.

The importance of SMART goal setting

We cannot understate the importance of setting SMART goals. Making your goals specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely pushes you toward your goal.

If your goal is missing an element, it may be irrelevant, impossible, or never-ending. 

SMART goal examples

You can use SMART goals in any area of your life, from personal to professional. You can also use them to set goals for others, like team members, students, or family members. 

Anyone in any position can write and use a SMART goal. 

Incorporating the specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound elements sets you up for success.

1. Business goal

You can break down business goals in several ways. Quite often, businesses create SMART goals that flow through the organization. Each manager or department sets goals to achieve the overall business goal.

Let's say you want to reduce your company’s environmental impact. A SMART goal may be something like ”company XYZ will reduce its consumption of fossil fuels by 20% by 2025.” 

2. Team goal

Team goals can be a subcategory of a company or business goal. 

In the fossil fuels example above, the materials management team will likely use the same timeframe and reduction amount. The team could aim to: 

  • Source locally

  • Switch to hybrid or electric vehicles

  • Purchase vehicles with higher gas efficiency  

Sales teams may look to reduce their travel over the next year and rely more on virtual appointments and meetings to help the business meet its goal.

3. Professional goal

A professional goal could relate to any achievement or goal that you want to work toward in your career. Let’s say you want to open an environmental impact business by November 2025.

First, determine if it’s achievable and specific enough. Do you need a specific education? How about funding? These may impact the date to aim for. 

Additionally, your professional goal could help your team and business achieve its goals.

4. Personal goal

A common example of a personal goal is to lose weight. Of course, just saying you want to lose weight doesn’t meet the SMART requirements. A SMART goal would be “I want to lose 20 pounds by October 31.”

What to do after creating your SMART goals

Setting your goals is great. Unfortunately, you still have to do the hard work. SMART goals should be a part of daily activity. If you’re including other people, involve them in the review process. 

Share your SMART goals 

If you involve team members and stakeholders at the onset of the process, they can help. It can be a team-building activity and keeps everyone working toward the same goal.

Create your plan of action

An action plan is as important as the SMART goal. Define how you’ll achieve your goal with milestones, actions, resources, and reviews.  

Don’t try to bite off more than you can chew: Pace yourself and focus on sustained progress.  

And remember, while your goal shouldn’t change, your plan is very susceptible to change. Making course corrections as you go is completely normal. If something isn’t working, it’s time to reevaluate your plan.

Check progress regularly

The bigger the goal, the more frequently you should check your progress. This identifies issues and draws attention to areas needing extra focus. 

Regular progress reports remind team members and others of the importance of the goal. 

A SMART goal's “measurable” element is one way to check progress.  

3. Evaluate your success

If you met your goal on time, congratulations! Be sure to celebrate your wins - you earned it. 

Evaluate your successes and any shortcomings. Learning what did and didn’t work during the process can help you set better goals in future.

FAQs

My role doesn’t lend itself to setting SMART goals; what should I do?

Every role has a purpose, so any job can have a SMART goal.

Let’s say you’re a receptionist for a busy medical practice. Your role includes: 

  • Greeting patients

  • Checking patients in for appointments

  • Gathering insurance information

  • Collecting payments

Here are some ideas for improvement:

  • Perhaps you can reduce the amount of time it takes to interact with patients

  • Can you improve the time it takes to process patients and get them ready for the doctor?

  • Do patients say you’re polite, prompt, and helpful?  

A customer service survey could help you understand your current customer service score, and that could be your improvement goal.

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