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The goal setting system used by the most successful people

If you’re reading this, I almost guarantee you’ve heard or read this quote before

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Bonus points if you’ve seen this quote plastered on some landscape photo and shared with little to no context on LinkedIn by someone you would never take advice from.

You set out to accomplish something with the best intentions and slowly drift away and lose focus. More times than not, you’ll revisit and wish you hadn’t stopped and think about where you’d be if you had kept up. You’re not alone.

Here’s how it normally works with me:

Lofty Goal -> Sense of excitement getting started -> Trough of disappointment -> Lose focus since there’s no real due date -> Forget about it -> Come back to it and wonder what the hell i was working on -> Think about how much further ahead i would be if I didn’t stop.

This isn’t an article on bashing goals. Quite the contrary, it’s about using a system to crush those goals. This isn’t some harebrained system coined by a keyboard warrior on the internet (yours truly), this is a system adopted by GE in the 80’s to hit some lofty goals.

So how do we cross the bridge from making wishes to setting goals?

SMART goals. Yeah yeah, I know. Another jargony acronym to remind you of how to do things. However, this really helped me address some of my biggest shortcomings when setting goals for myself, both personally and professionally.

A SMART goal is:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Actionable
  • Realistic
  • Time bound

I think a large part of why people, myself included, don’t detail their goals better is because they’re so swept up in a wave of motivation to accomplish something, they set an ambitious goal and get to work. Not taking the time to set the proper foundation. No matter how much you love a project or process, it’s going to get tough, you’re going to want to quit, push it off, or work on it when ‘you feel like it’. Having a plan to fallback on when the going gets tough can make all the difference.

Think of your SMART goals as a fuse. Lighting the fuse is the first step, but without powder it just fizzles and disappoints, like some dud firecracker. Your planning is your powder. Without it, you’re almost guaranteed to fizzle.

Breaking down a goal into these different components can make all the difference and do wonders for your mental state. Having a plan laid out cuts down on the mental reps or cognitive load required to push through the difficult stages of a goal or project.

I’m a huge proponent in decreasing friction or mental overhead for optimizing a process.

Let’s start breaking down the different elements of SMART goals to craft better goals.

Specific

This part is pretty important. For a SMART goal to have a chance at success it needs to be specific.

Bad Example: “I want to get in better shape”

Good Example: “I want to lose 10 pounds by November 1st”

This will act as the keystone to your goal. It’s what holds it all together. Everything else builds from here. The act of thinking about your goal in enough detail to make it specific can make all the difference, both in crafting a worthy goal and getting the proper mental state needed to accomplish it.

Craft your goal like you’re wishing on some cursed monkey’s paw that will give you exactly what you ask for.

If you have no idea what that means see: Monkey’s Paw Or The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror II

To help with crafting a specific goal, answer: Who, What, Where, When, Which.

You might have been expecting Why to show up in the 5 W’s, but knowing Why falls more under the Relevent section of a SMART goal.

For each of these, really dig in to get at the heart of your goal.

  • Who: Who exactly does this involve? teammates, boss, partner, etc.
  • What: What are you really trying to accomplish? The more specific the better.
  • When: The last part of SMART goals is where we’ll really drill down into this part, but start thinking about this now. I’ve found it beneficial to plant an idea into my subconscious so it can roll around a bit.
  • Where: This is more of a nice-to-have. Unless location is a specific part of your goals, for example: I want to keep working from home, you can gloss over this one.
  • Which: Think about the resources or limits that are involved? Something like building an app isn’t really feasible without knowing how to code. Think more along the lines of ‘learn how to code to start building my app’ would be a better approach.

Measurable

What gets measured gets managed

-Peter Drucker

How are you supposed to know if you’re making progress if you’re not measuring anything?

How are you going to evaluate pass or fail for this goal? What are the metrics you’ll use? Adding milestones along the way can both help quantify your progress, but also give a big mental boost to keep going.

Hitting these checkpoints and milestones can be that dopamine hit your monkey brain needs to keep trucking. Just be sure not to overdo it, otherwise you’ll find yourself adding easy goals just so you can feel accomplished.

Things to think about when crafting the measurable part are :

  • How much
  • How many
  • How do you know when it’s done?

Achievable / Attainable

Is this actually possible?

Crafting goals that were never attainable in the first place can be draining on your mental state.

Shoot for something lofty, but not impossible. You don’t want something too easy. The exception is if you’re just starting out in something brand new. Oftentimes just getting on the board can make all the difference.

You need to push yourself a little bit and turn the screws.

The idea here is to inspire and light a fire under your ass, not to get discouraged or try something that’s destined to fail.

If you don’t have all the skills and resources to attain your goal, think about what you need to do to get them. I don’t think I could create the next app with 1 billion users, but I know I could create something that delivers value to it’s users.

Relevant

Does this seem relevant?

Does this fit into my big picture?

Does this serve the greater purpose?

Think about why you started with this goal in the first place. As mentioned above, now is the time to address your why. This can be difficult since it’s one of the least quantifiable. Do whatever you can to make this as black and white as possible.

Time Bound

I think this is one of the most difficult, but important parts of the SMART goal.

This will set the cadence for everything that follows and will make or break your success.

Everyone hates deadlines, but we need that goal post to have something to work forward to. Time Bound shares a lot of traits with Achievable / Attainable in that it needs to be lofty, but possible.

There are only so many hours in a day, and even less productive hours in the day. Try to think about what’s doable and what you might be able to accomplish. Think about Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for it’s completion”. If you want to go more in depth on Parkinson’s Law and how you can use it to get more done in less time here’s another article I wrote addressing that. How You’re Sabotaging Your Productivity

Time is a ruthless beast that no amount of money can tame or console.

It’s important to strike a healthy balance. You want to push yourself a little bit. Just not so much you burn out, or never stand a chance at accomplishing your goal. This can be really difficult and takes a lot of time and practice to be able to accurately estimate how long it takes to accomplish a task.

One thing that’s helped me is to meticulously track time to see how long it really takes to accomplish something and where some of my common time leaks are (looking at you email and slack).

A pen and paper with start / stop times works just fine. I really like using Harvest and their mac app to see that highlighted ‘H’ with a running timer in my task bar keeping me focused and giving me an idea on how long I’ve been working on a particular task.

Don’t forget to stretch

One last thing to add to your SMART goals to make them as effective as possible is a stretch goal, something challenging and ambitious. Think of the SMART goal as a component of a stretch goal. This can keep your goals from becoming too trivial and turning into a to-do list.

The relates to a wonderful Bruce Lee quote

A goal is not always meant to be reached; it often serves simply as something to aim at. -Bruce Lee

The journey for accomplishing your goal can be as insightful as accomplishing it. The danger is in always setting out to accomplish insurmountable tasks just to learn some ‘lessons’ along the way all the time.

Wrapping Up

Do you feel SMARTer now? Like with any new process, don’t expect it to work perfectly the first time.

It can be difficult to get started and really adapt into your workflow, but can make a huge difference in accomplishing your goals.

I hope this helps not just for setting better expectations when creating new goals, but to absolutely crush your goals.

Leave a note with some systems and methods you’ve used for accomplishing your goals.