At some point in our education, work or private lives, we have all failed to achieve some of the goals that we had set for ourselves. Perhaps we were trying to learn a new language, achieve better grades, launch a business, or just wake up earlier in the morning to hit the gym. Maybe we set out with good intentions, we may have even followed a system for defining goals. But then a few weeks pass, and it becomes apparent that not much progress has been made.

We will inevitably fall short of our goals sometimes, and when this occurs we tend to put the blame for our own failures on external circumstances. For example, an unforeseen task got in our way, our priorities changed, or our mission spun 180°. Furthermore, a poorly contextualised goal creates unease and friction that all but ensures we will not cross the finish line.

There are various mechanisms for establishing goals and ways to achieve them. Indeed, such methodologies can be employed for many types of goals. However, if we are talking about the business management world, setting the right goals and using a good methodology are essential as they can exponentially grow our business and inspire us to put in the maximum effort day after day.

The SMART objectives

There are many different approaches for effective goal setting, and the one with the most favourable research supporting it is called SMART, an acronym derived from the characteristics that well-defined goals typically possess.

 “S” is for Specific

Our goal must be clear and specific, otherwise we will not be able to focus our efforts or truly feel motivated to achieve it.

When formulating our objective, we should try to respond to these four questions:

  • What do I want to achieve?
  • Why is this goal important?
  • Who is involved?
  • What resources or restrictions apply?

“M” is for Measurable

It is important for our goals to be measurable, that way we can monitor our progress and stay motivated. Tracking progress can help us to focus, meet deadlines and experience the thrill of steadily closing in on our objective, or it can show us the necessary steps to correct our course of action if we are getting off track.

A measurable objective should answer questions like:

  • How much?
  • How many?
  • How do I know when it has been achieved?

“A” is for Achievable

Our goal also has to be realistic and achievable if we are to succeed. In other words, it should be demanding and put our capabilities to the test, yet still be achievable. When we create an achievable goal, chances are that we will identify opportunities or resources that we may have previously missed, which can help us advance towards our goal.

An achievable goal will typically answer questions like:

  • How can I achieve this goal?
  • How realistic is the objective, bearing in mind other factors such as financial constraints?
  • Do I know all the things I need to succeed? Can I learn them?

“R” is for Relevant

This step involves making sure that the goal is important to us and is also aligned with other important objectives. Sometimes we need help to achieve our goals, but it is important to retain as much control over them as possible.

A relevant goal should answer “yes” to most of the following questions:

  • Does it justify the effort required?
  • Is this the right time?
  • Is it compatible with other endeavours and needs?
  • Am I the best person to achieve this goal?

“T” is for Time-bound

Each goal must be given a specific date by which we expect to achieve it, that way we have a deadline to focus on and start working towards. This aspect of the SMART criteria helps to prevent day-to-day tasks from taking priority over long-term goals, while making it easier to maintain this balance.

A time-bound goal typically answers these questions:

  • When?
  • What can I do in the next six months?
  • What can I do in the coming six weeks?
  • What can I do today?

The importance of SMART language

It is possible to use the SMART methodology to define goals and yet still have difficulty achieving them, lose motivation or get distracted. This can sometimes be related to the language we use to describe our goal.

Language informs our actions. The words we use to frame our intentions can either give us an edge or derail our efforts. One of the most common examples is focusing too much on negative objectives.

Though we frequently create goals associated with something we would like to stop doing, in reality these negative goals are actually demotivating. In fact, negativity can cause people to avoid challenges. To maintain motivation and accomplish SMART objectives, it is important to use positive language.

Here are some specific examples:

  • Replace verbs that convey obligation with verbs that convey willingness.

For instance, replace “by the end of the week, I should complete and send the final website design to my supervisor” with “by the end of the week, I will have completed and sent the final website design to my supervisor.”

  • Change “soon” to a specific point in time.

Our goals lose their power and become more like hopes and wishes if they do not have a completion date. For example, I can change “I will email the rest of the team with the status of the project soon” to “I will email the rest of the team with the status of the project by Wednesday at 4 p.m.”

  • Change “I need” to “I want”.

Saying we “need” to do something frames our goal in a negative way, as expressing something as a need renders us less able to make a decision about it. On the other hand, saying we “want” to do something is a much more positive way of maintaining control and motivation. For instance, changing “I need to get up at 6:30 every morning so I can hit the gym before work” to “I want to get up at 6:30 every morning so I can hit the gym before work.”

  • Change “never” to a specific and positive action.

There aren’t many things that make it more difficult for us to perform a task under pressure than this. If we say we will “never” do something again, we put enormous pressure on ourselves and make it more likely that we will fail to meet the objective or procrastinate indefinitely. Instead, we should choose an action to replace what we want to stop doing. For instance, changing “I will never arrive late for meetings” to “I will implement a 15-minute buffer before meetings to make sure I arrive on time.”

Author: Joan Margarit, Marketing and Communication Analyst.

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