Growing up, my bedroom was full of half-baked craft projects and partially used notebooks. On weekends, the floor would end up covered with sewing detritus or magazine cut-outs or song ideas on several handfuls of loose paper. I’d spend whole days busy with various ideas, but by Sunday night I’d have no finished product to show for all that creative mess.
I’d emerge from my room in the evening, hungry, after being holed up for five straight hours.
“What did you make?” my mom would inquire.
“Well, it took forever to get the colors right, and I ran out of stick glue so I had to use white glue which dries super slow, but then while I was waiting I started writing a new character for my story…”
I would explain the mitigating factors that prevented me from actually completing anything while Mom finished cooking. After dinner, I’d put the sprawl of supplies back into their bins until the next weekend.
Back then, I thought I was an artist—and I was and still am—but as a kid I was wishing to create art instead of making artistic creation a goal.
Goals and wishes can seem very similar. Both goals and wishes express that I want something to be true that’s not currently true. Samesies. However, the important difference between a goal and a wish is whether I take action steps toward a defined outcome (that’s a goal), or not (that’s a wish).
My problem in those childhood endeavors wasn’t my work ethic, it was my lack of any focused objective. “Make cool stuff” was too vague a statement for me to accomplish. Furthermore, I had no way of knowing when I was actually done with something, so I would keep working on a project, adding and editing and rearranging, until I inevitably got bored with it. My wish to create was getting me lots of practice with nothing to show for it.
Fast forward to today. Now, I set goals weekly, and I’m the most productive I’ve ever been in my life. I’ve stopped just wishing to make cool stuff. Instead, I practice an easy goal-setting method that’s proven really effective for me. I’ve outlined it here—“S.M.A.R.T.” goals.
The acronym S.M.A.R.T. stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-based. There are variations, but this is the one that works for me.
“Specific” means that the goal is focused and clearly defined, with explicit outcomes that determine success. No nebulous ideas allowed. To figure out if my goal is specific enough, I answer this question: how will I know when I’ve reached my goal, or in other words, what does completion look like?
For example, “write and publish blog articles” is way too vague. Instead, I might revise that goal to “spend three hours writing for my blog per week and publish one article every Wednesday.” Notice that there are two elements here: one is a number of hours and one is a simple yes/no.
This component answers the question “how many?” or “how frequently?” or “how much?” Because these are measurable quantities, I can track my progress. In the above example, I made this explicit with “three hours per week” and “one article every Wednesday.” This is super helpful even when I don’t hit my goal, as I feel a distinct difference between “I wrote two hours instead of three this week” and “I didn’t write enough this week.”
Also, this measurable component allows me to adjust future goals based on past experiences. In our blog writing example, if I did write for three hours in a week and still did not finish an article in time to publish it on Wednesday, I can choose to either bump up the number of hours next week or to write faster.
“Attainable” means that the goal is challenging but reasonable, taking into account my schedule and other resources. During this step of goal-setting, I troubleshoot potential roadblocks before they happen, such as travel plans interfering with my scheduled writing time, and I get real about whether I need to revise my weekly goal. Like, can I realistically expect myself to do three hours of writing during the week I’m on vacation with my family at Disneyland, or should I either revise that goal or suspend it until the next week?
This component also reminds me to choose goals that I can personally achieve without outside circumstances determining the ultimate result. As an example, the goal “write a blog that goes viral” would depend on factors beyond my control, but the goal “publish one article per week to my blog and optimize it for search engines” is totally up to me.
This step is a big one—I make sure that the goal is aligned with my bigger picture, my values, my life’s purpose. If the goal isn’t relevant to me I can’t justify spending my energy on it, no matter how high a priority it is for anyone else. The questions here are:
“Would hitting this goal impact my life and/or others’ lives in a meaningful and positive way?”
“Does this goal represent a worthwhile use of my time and efforts?”
“Will this outcome move me forward in the direction I want to go?” and
“Is my ‘why’ fulfilled in some way by this goal?”
For me, it’s totally fine if my answer is a simple “yes” for each of these questions. I don’t get too detailed or deep with it because I’ve learned that my initial gut reaction is excellent guidance.
“Time-based” is the component I’m most thoughtful about. While small ongoing goals can be measured in hours or occurrences per week, larger goals require different metrics. These big, longer-term goals tend to have more defined endpoints, so I break this step into parts—weekly goals, milestone goals and the overarching goal.
I’ll use a different writing example here. An overarching goal might be “finish my book by the end of 2019 and send it to a literary agent.” It’s a biggie, so I break it down. One milestone goal might be “finish the first half by August 1.” From there, I break it down further, such as “complete the book outline by April 15” and “write the first draft of the first chapter by April 30.” With this time-based statement, I stay connected to the discipline and focus required to meet my goal.
Once I’ve gone through all five components, I write my S.M.A.R.T. goal in my planner, where I’ll see it throughout the week. I usually have about five ongoing small goals, but when it comes to big goals I limit myself to one at a time. (That’s one active goal at a time. I allow myself to put projects on pause to shift my focus when necessary, such as when I’m in rehearsal for a play.)
To put this all into practice, I ask myself what actions I need to take per week—or even per day—to make solid progress, and I consider what behaviors I need to establish or maintain in order to ensure success. Do I wake up an hour earlier? Do I give up playing Toon Blast? Do I schedule check-ins with an accountability buddy or coach? Do I make calendar appointments for my writing time? Making these decisions and executing on them is way easier when I can tie my efforts to my clearly defined goal.
When I chart my course this S.M.A.R.T. way, I feel more centered and motivated, which translates to very satisfying productivity in exactly the direction I want. And my inner kid Stephanie is super happy to finally have something to show for all her hard work.
As Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll wind up someplace else.” Using this goal-setting method, I know precisely where I’m going, how I’m getting there, and what progress I’m making along the way. While this technique is popular in the business world, which is where I learned it, I find it useful in just about all areas of my life.
Have you used the S.M.A.R.T. method? I’d love to hear about it. And if you haven’t used it before, are you stoked to try it?
Or, do you have a different favorite goal-setting practice? If so, do tell. I’m always interested in how talented, smart, busy people get things done.
P.S. This is a photo of me and my family at Disneyland, where we are totally on vacation right now. Goals, honey. Goals.