A notebook and pencil

SMART GOALS: Strategies For Organizing Your Thoughts And Plans

Fall is a time for change for all of us. Whether we are going back to school, taking on new projects, preparing for holiday celebrations, or just getting ready to bundle up as we say goodbye to summer heat, all of us are experiencing changes of all sorts. In times of transitions, we may start to consider our hopes for the new season along with where we are in life with the larger goals we may have set for ourselves. It can be helpful to embrace this period of transformation for ourselves, but it’s important to learn more about how to be successful in accomplishing our goals. It’s not uncommon to have grand imaginations of all we want to achieve and then fall (no pun intended) short when it comes to bringing our daydreams to light.

When we’re setting goals for ourselves, it’s important to make them SMART. SMART Goals are a specific strategy for organizing our thoughts and making concrete plans for attaining our plans. By using each of the letters in the SMART acronym, we are challenged to think more critically about the process of achieving a goal, not just about the outcome we desire. Whether your goal is personal or you even have projects you are working on with others in school or work, you can apply any or all these ideas to what you’re doing. SMART Goals can also be used in various domains in life: you might use the acronym when considering applying for jobs or you may use it to make time for exercise or meditation in a busy schedule. It can be just as critical to think through your goals for self-improvement as it is your academic or professional goals!

To further understand SMART goals, let’s break down each of the letters:

S - Specific

The first letter stands for “specific”. Specificity with goal-setting can often be an important first step as you’re creating a sense of what you want. As much as it can be helpful to have broad desires for yourself like “I want to be healthy” or “I want to get a good job”, without a sense of specific desires, it’s hard to go in any particular direction. Being specific means getting as detailed as you possibly can. Sometimes it can be helpful to think about the basic “W” questions:
Who? Who is going to do X? Who can I reach out to for guidance/help/mentorship? Who would be the most helpful with Y?
What? What exactly needs to be done? What are my hopes at the end? What would make doing X easier?
When? When am I going to start? When should I expect Y to occur?
Where? Where can I find the resources I need? Where do I need to go to learn more about X?
Why? Why is my goal important to me? Why is now the best time?

M - Measurable

Next, comes the word “measurable”. To get the finish line, you need to know what your markers will be along the way. Some projects might lend themselves more easily to measurement than others (i.e. it’s easier in some ways to measure physical health through weight, BMI, strength, etc. than mental health), but that’s not to say you cannot be creative. One of the easiest measurements you can always bring into a goal is time. If you have a goal of getting better at an instrument, you can’t always give yourself a number ranking on your abilities - however, you can incorporate into your goal specific windows of time. Maybe in a week you decide to practice 30-minutes every other day. Maybe in the case of wanting to increase mental health, you spend one hour each week to yourself meditating or engaging in other forms of self-care.

A - Attainable

Coming smack in the middle is “attainable”. Attainability focuses on if we have the resources needed to get to our goals. Considering attainability can be difficult at times because this is where a lot of the logistics come into play with our goals. What do we have and what don’t we have? Some goals may need to be put on hold while you focus on what will be necessary beforehand. Larger goals of becoming a doctor might have to wait until you first achieve other goals like graduating from college. You may also have to be honest with yourself about potential barriers along the way, some which you may be able to overcome and some which you may have to adjust your goals to.

R - Realistic

As we continue on, we find ourselves at “realistic”. In many ways, realistic and attainable goals go hand in hand. As discussed above, attainability gets to whether or not we have the capacity to achieve our goals at the current time; the realistic aspect gets to whether or not this moment is the best time for our goals. There may be factors that might make our goals better saved for another time or maybe where we are at, our current goals might not be a good fit for what we want from life. If you have worked as a nurse for 15 years, it may not be realistic to set goals of becoming a professional dancer with no experience.

With an example like that, the idea of being realistic might seem simple, but consider this scenario as well: if you have just had a child and continue to work full-time, it might not be a realistic goal to take on a start-up or have another child just yet. Tending to realistic goals means asking yourself a lot of the hard questions about not only your access to resources but your own individual capacity. Sometimes being realistic is also reminding yourself that it’s okay if now is not the right time or if you can only handle so much. An integral part of being “smart” in pursuing goals is being kind towards your own limits.

T - Time-specific

Finally, it’s crucial that we have a strong sense of “time” in regards to our goals. We need to have some sense of a time table in mind - whether that means an end date for the whole project or a timeline of when we will accomplish each step along the way. This tends to be an area where many of us struggle since a lot of the goals we have in life don’t come with deadlines. It can take a lot of practice to start to hold ourselves accountable to “made-up” deadlines, but by creating a structured schedule to how we accomplish our goals can keep us on track so that we don’t fall off or end up forgetting something along the way. One of the best ways to stay organized is by actually blocking off time and creating physical agendas for ourselves - whether we write them down in a notebook or create digital calendars for ourselves using apps like Google Calendar or Microsoft Outlook.

In tending to your goals, you may spend more time focusing on one aspect of SMART goals than others - and that’s okay! The most important thing is not making sure you’ve spent perfectly equal time on each theme but rather that you are using whatever tools help you to succeed. The SMART acronym is meant to be a reference to get you organized and on track in whatever way it can.