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  • Destenie Nock

SMART Goals: Set Goals You Will Actually Reach

Updated: Apr 3, 2020

SMART goals are specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic, and time-bound. Use this to help you reach your goals in the New Decade.

February 18, 2020 By Destenie Nock


So January officially marked the start of a new decade! With the new year comes New Year's resolutions, and I am assuming with the new decade those resolutions will be ten-fold. How many times have you set a New Year's resolution only to abandon the dream a few months in because you got tired or because you had less time than you thought? Well that changes now because this blog contains a simple recipe for setting goals you will actually reach.

The first step in reaching your goals is writing them down. When we commit our ideas and goals to paper this solidifies it more in our mind. The second step is making sure that the goal we have written is a SMART goal. SMART goals are specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic, and timely. By setting SMART goals you will clarify your ideas, focus your efforts, use your time and resources in a more productive manner. All of this leads to an increased chance of achieving what you want in life. The picture below will help you determine how to set a SMART goal. More detail about setting SMART goals are below the picture. After you follow the steps below for setting SMART goals the third step in reaching your goals will be to put your goals in a place you can see them every day.

Figure 1: SMART Goals in a nutshell

After writing your goals down ask yourself if the goals you set are SMART using the descriptions below.

1. Specific

Your goal should be clear and specific, otherwise you won't be able to focus your efforts or feel truly motivated to achieve it. A specific goal will be able to answer the five W’s (What, Who, Why, When, Where). What do I want to accomplish? Why is this goal important?

  • Example: Imagine that you are a student who wants to get an A in class. A specific goal could be, "I set aside at least 2 hours per week to studying for each class, in addition to doing the homework, this semester so that I can get an A in the class.”

2. Measurable

It's important to have measurable goals, so that you can track your progress and stay motivated. If you cannot measure progress towards success then it will be hard to stay focused and motivated.

To set a measurable know ask yourself “How will I know when it is accomplished?”

  • Example: Assume that you are a graduate student working on their PhD. One of your goals might be to read more research papers. This goal is not measurable because “more” is not a number you will know you have accomplished. A better goal would be to read at least 2 research papers per week.

3. Action-Oriented

We all have to take steps to reach our goal. What specific actions will it take for you to reach your goal?

An action-oriented goal might answer the following question “What do I need to do tomorrow to be one step closer to reaching my goal?”

  • Example: Imagine your goal is to finish the research paper you have been working on for the last year. This goal is kind of action-oriented, but to make it a better goal we need to have a clear definition of the steps we need to take to reach our definition of success. Actions needed to publish a paper might include writing the introduction, methodology, results and conclusions. After you draft the paper your next set of actions could be sending it to your co-author, editing the paper, and finally submitting it to a journal.

  • Tip: Action-oriented goals are best when broken down into things you can accomplish in a week, or a day. If you get stressed thinking about your next action-item it might be too big of an action.

4. Realistic

If your goal is not realistic and attainable then it is most likely a dream disguised as a goal. In other words your goal should stretch your abilities and inspire you to grow, but still remain possible.

An achievable goal might answer the following question “How realistic is the goal, based on other constraints, such as financial factors?”

  • Example: Imagine your goal is to finish the research paper you and your team have been working on for the last year. This goal is kind of measurable, but to make it a better goal we need to have a clear definition of success and make sure it is achievable. If your measure of success is to publish it in a top tier journal in the next month, this would not be a realistic goal since most top tier journals have slow turnaround times, and you will probably have to go through more rounds of edits with your colleagues. A more achievable goal would be to submit your paper to a top tier journal in the next 2 months.

  • Tip: Realistic goals should be in your power to control. You need to beware of setting goals that someone else has power over. For example, "Getting a job!" depends on who else applies, and on the interviewer’s decision. But "Get the experience and training that I need to be considered for the job" is completely in your control.

5. Timely

Without deadlines other things will be more likely to fill your time. Every goal needs a target date, so that you have a deadline to focus on and something to work toward. Setting time aside to reach your goals will help prevent everyday tasks from taking priority over your longer-term goals.

A timely goal will usually answer these questions: When? What can I do six months from now? What can I do six weeks from now to help me reach this goal? What can I do today to help me reach my goals?

  • Example: Gaining the skills to become a professor after graduate school will require additional training and experience. You will need to publish papers and gain interviewing skills. How long will it take you to acquire these skills? Do you need training outside of your research team?

Now let's try to recognize if a goal is SMART or not.

Are these goals SMART or not? (The answers are below the Note about the author).

  1. I will get fit this year.

  2. I will read 3 papers on energy planning and equity models by Friday.

  3. I will write 2 paragraphs for the introduction of the paper I have due in English class.

  4. This week I am not going to be stressed out.

Note about the author: Destenie Nock holds a PhD in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is a Post-Doctoal Fellow in the Engineering & Public Policy (EPP) Department and and Adjunct Professor in Civil & Environmental Engineering (CEE) at Carnegie Mellon University. In 2020 this will transfer to a tenure-track Assistant Professor position in EPP and CEE at Carnegie Mellon. She earned a MSc in Leadership for Sustainable Development at Queen's University of Belfast, and two BS degrees in Electrical Engineering and Applied Math at North Carolina A&T State University. She is the creator of the PhD-ing It Blog site which posts articles about graduate and undergraduate advice, and research updates in energy and sustainability. In her free time she enjoys hitting the gym, painting, and cooking with friends.

Thanks for reading. To keep up to date on blog posts, subscribe below, or follow me on Twitter @DestenieNock.

Answers to SMART Goals Exercise.

  1. "I will get fit this year" is not SMART because it is not specific, measurable, or action-oriented. A better goal would be "I will go to the gym for 30 minutes at least three times a week.

  2. "I will read 3 papers on energy planning and equity models by Friday." is specific and measurable, and timely. This goal may or may not be realistic depending on your schedule, and the length of the papers.

  3. "I will write 2 paragraphs for the introduction of the energy planning in Africa paper I have due in English class." This goal is everything but timely. When did you want to have these two paragraphs done by?

  4. "This week I am not going to be stressed out." While this goal is timely it is not action-oriented or realistic. There are many things that lead to you being stressed out. What specific and measurable steps can you take to reduce those stresses? Maybe you go to your favorite yoga class, or you finish the homework assignment by Friday so you can enjoy the weekend.

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