How to set SMART Goals (and win BIG this year)
Let’s be honest: people suck at goal setting.
Even when we really want to do something, we have a hard time achieving it.
(Need proof? Just consider that the vast majority of New Year’s resolutions fail by February.)
But, it’s not our fault. Nobody teaches us how to really achieve what we set out to do. They don’t teach us how to make smart objectives.
That’s because the problem with how you set goals is that they rely too much on human willpower — which we have a very finite amount of each day. Relying on it all the time takes away from that willpower until it’s depleted entirely.
Fortunately, there are other ways to set goals so that you can actually achieve them.
Examples of turning bad goals to good goals
EXAMPLE #1: HEALTH
- TERRIBLE GOAL: “I want to get fit.”
- BAD GOAL: “I want to lose 10lbs.”
- GOOD GOAL: “I want to eat 3 healthy meals per week and go to the gym 2x/week for 15 minutes.”
Notice how we’re focusing on the process at first, and starting off conservative: Anyone can eat just 3 healthy meals in a week. And anyone can go to the gym for 15 minutes. Set yourself up to win.
The next step is to make it easy: on your calendar, set 1 hour on Sundays to buy 3 healthy meals and leave them in your fridge, packed and ready to eat. Also set two 1-hour slots for the gym (leaving time for travel).
Here’s how this looks for other big goals:
EXAMPLE #2: FINANCES
- TERRIBLE GOAL: “I need to get better with money.”
- BAD GOAL: “I want to save $1,000 this year.”
- GOOD GOAL: “I want to have $40 per paycheck automatically transferred to my vacation savings fund for 1 year.”
EXAMPLE #3: SOCIAL SKILLS
- TERRIBLE GOAL: “I want to have better social skills.”
- BAD GOAL: “I want to work on my storytelling so I’m not so awkward at parties.”
- GOOD GOAL: “I want to take the improv class in my city every Monday night for 6 weeks.”
There’s a simple formula for transforming big goals into actionable steps…
SMART goals are the cure for vague, aimless New Year’s resolution goals like:
- “I want to go to the gym every day.”
- “I want to get rich.”
- “I want to travel more.”
On the surface, they all seem like good goals. However, they fall prey to the big three sins of goal-setting:
- They unspecific. Sure, you “want to travel more,” but what does that really mean? When are you going to get it done? Where are you going to go? Vagueness is the enemy of good goal-setting.
- They’re unrealistic. Oh, so you want to “get rich” this year? Are you willing to put in the hard work and sweat equity it’ll take to negotiate a raise, find a higher-paying job, or start a side hustle? Most likely not.
- They’re based on willpower — not systems. Human willpower is limited. Sure, you might start out going to the gym every day, but as time goes on you’ll have to use the finite amount of willpower you have to keep it up. Eventually, you abandon the goal altogether.
Setting a SMART goal will help you avoid all of these pitfalls. Let’s breakdown how to do it.
SMART Objectives are:
So how do you convert a goal like “get fit” into a SMART objective?
I created this checklist to use every time you have a new goal.
Checklist for writing a SMART Objective
Specific: What is the precise outcome I’m looking for?
- What will you achieve?
- What does it look like? (What do you see in your mind when you picture yourself working towards your goal?)
- What is the action step?
Measurable: How will I know I’ve accomplished the goal?
How will you know if you’ve reached your goal or not? There are different levels of “healthy” or “financially sound.” Avoid words that may have vague meanings like, “learn” or “feel” since you can’t measure them. Instead, use action verbs like “run,” “save,” or “write.” Then, turn those words into quantifiable benchmarks.
You need to be able to answer the question, “Did I get it done? If not, how much further do I have to go?”
- How will you know when it is done?
- What are some objective benchmarks you can hit along the way?
- Would someone else be able to tell that it’s complete?
- Is it quantifiable?
Attainable: How realistic is this goal?
My mentor BJ Fogg talks a lot about Tiny Habits — little things that start us on the path to success. The best way to achieve a goal is not to rely on motivation, but instead make it ridiculously easy for your future self to do the right thing. Instead of committing to running 5 days a week, start with one day and move up from there.
- Are there available resources to achieve the objective?
- Do you need a gym membership, a new bank account, new clothes?
- Am I set up to do this even when I don’t have “motivation”?
- Are there any time or money constraints that need to be considered? Am I being too ambitious to start out? (Remember you can always be more aggressive with your goal later on.)
Relevant: Is this a priority in my life right now?
Ask yourself, in the scheme of all the things you want to try, do you really care about this? When I went to my cousin’s wedding in India a few years ago, I saw one of my friends order his food in fluent Hindi, and I thought, “Hmmmm…I should take Hindi lessons.”
But when I got back to NYC, I put it on my to-do list, only to skip over it for MONTHS. The truth is, I really didn’t care enough to try and learn Hindi. It wasn’t important enough. When I acknowledged I wasn’t going to do it and crossed it off my list, it freed me up to focus on doing the things that I really wanted to do.
- Why am I doing this?
- Is this a priority for me?
- Will it compete with other goals in my life?
Time-oriented: When will I be finished with the goal?
Give yourself a deadline to reassess your goal. And put it on the calendar! I like to re-evaluate my goals every 3-months to make sure they are still Attainable and Relevant.
- Is there a deadline?
- Did I put it on the calendar?
- Will I know in 3 months if I’m on the right track?
SMART Goal Examples
Using this framework, you’ll be able to turn any vague lofty goal into an actionable SMART goal.
Bad goal: “I want to be healthier.”
Why it’s bad: It’s vague and not measurable. How do you know when you’re healthier?
SMART goal: “I want to eat three low-fat, low-calorie meals per week and go to the gym at least once a week.”
Why it’s good: Now you have an actionable system with solid metrics to help you see if you’re on track. You’re not just getting healthier. You’re eating three healthy meals and going to the gym each week.
Now do the same for your goal. How can you make it specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-oriented?
Actually achieve your goals with habit loops
Once you’ve set a SMART goal, habits are the systematized solution to making sure you follow through and actually achieve your goal.
According to Charles Duhigg, habit expert and author of The Power of Habit, every habit you build has three parts to it:
- Cue. This is the trigger for a behavior.
- Routine. This is the behavior in action.
- Reward. This is the benefit you receive from the behavior.
Altogether, this creates something called a “Habit Loop,” which allows your habits to stick.
And at the heart of any good Habit Loop is a good reward. In fact, it might just be the most important aspect of building good habits.
That’s because it has the biggest impact on whether or not we stick with the behavior.
Let’s take a look at an example: Working out.
A typical approach to this might look like this:
- You go to the gym.
- You work out on the machines for 30 minutes.
- You go home.
Here’s what it would look like if you implemented the Habit Loop:
- Cue. You head to the gym when you wake up.
- Routine. You work out at the gym.
- Reward. You get a delicious breakfast when you’re done.
See the difference? One will likely result in you giving up the habit after a few weeks (or even days), while the other greatly boosts your chances because you’re rewarded for your behavior.
It subverts having to rely on willpower, because you reward yourself for achieving your goals.
THAT’S the power of a good reward.
Of course, it can work negatively for you as well. For example, smoking cigarettes.
A habitual, pack-a-day smoker is someone who has ingrained a Habit Loop that causes them to smoke cigarettes. Here’s what that Loop looks like:
- Cue. You wake up, or it’s lunch time, or work just got done, or you’re stressed — most anything can be a cue for smokers.
- Routine. You smoke a cigarette.
- Reward. You receive a euphoric buzz from nicotine.
Luckily, rewards can be used to counteract this. For example, whenever you get the urge to smoke a cigarette you go on a walk, or listen to music, or drink a soda. Whatever healthy reward can be used to replace your routine of smoking a cigarette.
Bonus Tip: Use a Commitment Device
A commitment device is a method of locking yourself into a habit or behavior that you might otherwise not want to do.
And there are essentially two types of commitment devices:
Positive devices. These are devices that give you a positive reward for performing different tasks. The idea is that when you associate that task with the commitment device, you create a positive feedback loop that makes it much easier to cement new habits.
- Listening to your favorite podcast while you work out.
- Watching a show on Netflix while you clean your living room.
- Drinking your favorite soda while you’re washing your dishes.
Negative devices. These are devices where you take something away or risk having something taken away to encourage you to follow through with a behavior or habit.
The idea is that you force yourself to focus on the task by taking away the thing that is preventing you from focusing, or you do something that makes you risk losing something to force you to complete your task.
- Telling a friend that you’ll give them $100 if you don’t go to the gym every day for a month.
- Unplugging your television so you won’t be tempted to watch it.
- Throwing away all of your junk food in order to eat healthily.
While they’re called positive or negative devices, that doesn’t mean that one is better than the other! They’re just ways of describing how the commitment devices work. And whether or not you choose a positive or negative device depends entirely on your preference and what you want to achieve.
Commitment devices are incredibly effective too. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Harvard released an article a while back penned by three doctors in behavioral economics that extolled the virtues of commitment devices.
“[Commitment devices] have been shown to help people lose weight, improve their diets, exercise more, and quit smoking,” the article says. “One randomized experiment, for example, found that access to a commitment device increased the rate at which smokers succeeded in quitting after six months by 40%.”
One effective commitment device is to use a social media scheduling dashboard like Hootsuite or Buffer to schedule an embarrassing tweet or Facebook status to be posted at a certain hour. This commitment device is good for time- or location-based goals. As long as you get to the dashboard before it posts, you can prevent it from posting.
For example, say you want to get into the habit of waking up at 6am. You could schedule a tweet to be sent out with an embarrassing message or photo of yourself at exactly 6:05am. That way, if you’re not up by 6, that message will post.