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It is all well and good setting goals for the things we want. In school through university and even in business we see goals or have them pushed upon us for no particular reason. When I had difficulty keeping up with work at university the help available basically just made me more aware of my real time usage and encouraged me to be more accountable for it.

Current education largely dictates that goals are good, but fails to provide any means to use them for greater effectiveness. Everyone has vague desires for their future that could be described in the context of simple goal-setting, but that exercise alone does nothing to make it happen. What we need is a straight-forward and useful way to realise our goals.

One method from the consultant’s toolbox is called SMART goals. This is a fairly simple methodology for setting goals and objectives along the path to reaching them that has proven to be fairly effective as long as you don’t take it too far. Infinite planning doesn’t make things happen any better than vague dreams of the future, so there has to be a pragmatic balance with a view to getting things done.

SMART is an acronym. Essentially, all goals should be:

Specific

“Learn Spanish” is not good enough. Think about the reasons why you want to do it. The main reason to learn a language is usually to read something or to talk to people. A much better goal would be, “I want to be able to talk to native Spaniards without difficulty”. This brings us to our next point.

Measurable

Again, “Learn Spanish” isn’t good enough. We can’t measure that as we haven’t defined what we mean. Perhaps you want to read a native book or enjoy a native film without subtitles. under M for measurable, we place the acceptance criteria that proves we have achieved the goal.

In the conversation example, talking to natives is something we can measure. Let’s say the criteria for success is to pick up a conversation with a stranger in a bar and talk without corrections for 5 minutes. Stating the goal in a way that can be achieved in and measured removes it from the realm of dreams and allows you to put a process together to arrive at the result.

Achievable

We’re covering a lot of the same ground here, too. If we can measure something then it is at least theoretically possible to achieve it. But what if the challenge is too great or the scope of the problem is too big to easily manage? If a goal is absolutely unachievable then you are wasting your time and causing yourself distress over nothing. If on the other hand it is just too hard right now, then we can do something about that. We can break down large goals into small, achievable SMART objectives.

Let’s say you have a year to achieve a financial goal and no idea how to go about doing it. If you split it up into monthly or even weekly objectives, many of which could be the same, like “save £50 per week”, or “do something for my blog every day” (remember to be specific and measurable).

Time-boxed

The last point concerns setting and making deadlines. Your goal should be stated in such a way that there is a pass/fail condition on achieving it by a particular point in time. We should end up with a goal that looks a little more like this:

Learn to speak Spanish. Prove it by holding a normal conversation with a native in a bar for at least five minutes. Achieve it by going through a new LiveMocha lesson every week with daily speaking practice. All to be done before 5 March 2011

That is a SMART goal. It gives you something specific to do now and in the longer term; it provides a resource to get it done and a method of using it; and it provides a deadline by which time we have to find a Spaniard in a bar and have a chat. As long as we follow our own instructions we should be able to achieve this by sheer discipline as long as the time estimate is reasonable. If not, you can always stretch it out over a longer period or break it down into smaller objectives that better fit your preferred learning style. In principle though, this is something most people should be able to do if they commit to doing it. And that’s what SMART goals are all about.