Setting goals is important if you want success in life. Without them you’re not likely to achieve as much than if your efforts were more focussed. Your goal might be related to what you want in life, how you want to live, or just something that will improve your day or week.
Turning your desire into a set of actions that you can act on today can be hard work. It’s too easy to create a goal that is too big or vague to act upon.
A great way of setting actionable goals is to use the SMART criteria1.
SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Based2.
The trouble with vague goals is that you don’t know where to start or where exactly to direct your efforts. By setting a specific goal, you are making it much more concrete and actionable.
For example, if you have a goal ‘to earn more money at work’, be more specific. How do you plan to increase your income? What type of actions will you take? Who will be involved? Where and when will it take place? A better goal would be ‘to get a pay rise at March’s performance review by increasing my customer service feedback/ratings’.
Without being specific, you’re somewhat in the dark as to how to approach the task. Clarifying the type of actions you will be taking enables you to focus on what will get you to your goal.
Being able to measure your progress is important for a number of reasons. How will you know when you’re finished? How will you know when you are half-way? If you haven’t finished yet, will you think you have accomplished nothing even though you might be 80% of the way there?
Compare the difference between these two goals:
- I want to look like the guy I saw at the gym
- I want to have a body fat percentage of 12% or less and a weight of 85kg or more
Not only is the first goal so vague that it could lead to non-physique actions, such as wearing the same clothes as the person in the gym or getting a spray tan or wax (if they are in competitions), but you never know when the goal is attained or how much progress is made. You might be able to say, after a while, “Yeah, I look more like him now”, but that’s as accurate as you can get.
By focusing on two metrics that you can watch the progress of, your attention is focussed on two main areas of the body to focus on and you can track every bit of progress you make. Can you think of a time where your goal wasn’t measurable and after a while of trying to make progress and you still hadn’t quite achieved it, you lost motivation and stopped trying? By setting a measurable goal, you can look back and compare your progress to now from when you started and be proud of your efforts. Your motivation keeps on going because you know your efforts have had a positive impact.
Setting achievable goals is important if you don’t want to let yourself down and lose motivation. If your goal is not realistic then you will feel like you aren’t making progress and you could be setting yourself up for failure.
In the above example, let’s say the goal belongs to a 100kg and 25% body fat male. Assuming his muscle mass doesn’t change during his transformation, he will have to lose 15kg of fat to attain the goal of <12% BF and >85kg mass. If he wants to achieve it to look his best for his best mate’s wedding in two months, going from inactive to achieving such rapid weight loss might not be realistic.
Setting a goal that is a bit too unlikely to be achieved might set you up for disappointment and reduce your likelihood of setting and pursing future goals. For this reason, I recommend you set a smaller, additional goal that is easily attainable — achieving it gives you a boost of motivation and encourages you to continue onto your bigger goal.
Why have you set your goal in the first place? Is it going to get you to where you want to be in life? Is achieving this particular goal more or less important than the other goals you have? Is it the right time to pursue this goal? Is the effort worth the benefit you will get out of achieving the goal?
Continuing on from the gym example, perhaps you really want the some physique as the person you saw in the gym (or a friend, or whatever), but perhaps it’s really not worth all of the effort to get it. Perhaps you like food too much and a prerequisite goal might be to reduce your habit of snacking or eating sugary foods. Perhaps you are skinnier than the person in the gym and after a month of gym sessions you really don’t think it’s worth the effort.
Perhaps the reason for the particular body you want is not they it fits your identity or you want to be healthier, instead it might be to impress someone else. Is this goal relevant enough to impress that person? Is there an easier way to impress them? Do you even want to impress them at all?
Setting a time limit on a goal makes it more urgent and reduces procrastination.
We all know what it’s like to get homework at school or university like ‘read this book because you have an assessment on it in two months’. Two months? Pfft, it’s not due for ages, let’s not bother until it’s closer to the due date. Contrast that with ‘complete this test at home — it’s due first thing in the morning’. Shit. Better pay attention and get the work done quickly. None of the “I’ll just do it next week” excuses.
It’s not just about time limits either. It might include a certain time when you can start. Perhaps you’re away on holiday right now, assessing you goals and preparing for when you return home. In that case, you might only be able to start in two weeks. Either way, be specific about when you can start and when you want to finish.
In the gym example, back to the assumption that the goal belongs to a 100kg male wanting to look better for a wedding, a two-months deadline might not be enough pressure. He might have been watching The Biggest Loser and thinks he can knock off 5 kilograms a week so he only needs three weeks to be ready. This is the sort of mistake that can lead to failing to complete a goal by a predetermined deadline.
A better approach in situations where the timeline is long is to set small intermediate goals. Instead of 15kg of fat loss in two months, try 8kg by the end of the first month and a further 7kg by the end of the second. Even better, split the first month into four weeks of 2kg — this way you know within one week whether or not your efforts are enough to meet your goal.
By setting SMART goals you are laying down the road of least resistance towards your target and are more likely to achieve it.