What Are SMART Goals? Definition, Elements & Importance

Everyone knows they should have goals, but few actually know what makes a good goal in the first place. Luckily, there is something known as the “SMART goal” framework, which can help you effectively set goals worth achieving and help you efficiently focus your time and effort in the pursuit of your ultimate dreams.

What Are SMART Goals?

SMART goals are goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound. When applied to goal-setting, the SMART approach provides a framework that helps you focus your efforts, track your progress, adjust as necessary and achieve your goal. Each goal you set should follow the SMART framework or risk setting undefined and unattainable goals.

Too often, people set goals that are vague and don’t have a defined plan to reach them. To help, the SMART goal framework takes a specific vision of what you hope to achieve and put actions and metrics in place, providing a reliable plan to systematically achieve your goal. Without the SMART framework, your goal is nothing more than a hope or a dream.

5 Elements of a SMART Goal

Each goal you set should follow the five elements of the SMART goal framework. The key elements of an effective goal are: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-Bound. These elements work together to direct your effort and energy and helps to clarify your vision, quantifies an achievable action plan, and creates deadlines to meet your specific goal.

Let’s look at each one of these elements in greater detail:

1. Specific

SMART goals must be specific, clear and well-defined. Knowing your “why” is the key to understanding your motivation and will fuel you to stay on track. The more specific and detailed a goal you set, the more likely it will be accomplished. When goals are not specific enough, you set yourself up to fail because you don’t have a clear direction or understanding of what success actually looks like.

Example of Specificity

Vague goals such as “be healthier” can be difficult to achieve because they don’t provide enough direction. What does healthier mean? What actions are required? How do you know when you’ve accomplished your goal?

To get specific, you must dig deep into the why behind wanting to get healthier. What exactly are you trying to accomplish? Do you hope to start a family? Is it so you can tick off a bucket list item, such as running a marathon or trekking to Macchu Picchu? Is it so you can model healthy behavior for your kids?

Once you understand your why, it’s time to dig deeper into your goal and get specific. There are many ways that one can be healthier, such as exercising more frequently, losing weight, eating more non-processed foods, or practicing meditation. Pick a specific goal that aligns with your motivation then make your goal clear and unambiguous. 

Your general goal of “being healthier” can now be more clearly stated as “I will lose weight”. 

2. Measurable

SMART goals must have criteria for measuring progress. By breaking down a goal to specific metrics, you make your goal tangible and can then set productive habits and patterns, assess your progress, and know when you’ve achieved it. Seeing incremental progress towards a goal will also excite and motivate you to stay the course and achieve your goal.

Measurable doesn’t mean setting an unmeetable standard. Leave room for growth. For instance, committing to exercise 60 minutes 7 days a week when exercise has not been part of your daily routine is not achievable as it leaves no room for flexibility. Set a measurable goal, but one that sets yourself up for success.

Example of Measurability

Taking the example above, losing weight occurs through one of two actions, exercising or eating healthier. A measurable goal could then mean exercise three days a week or exercise a total of five times a week. Another measurable goal could be eating whole foods five days a week.

Further, a healthy weight loss pattern is typically one or two pounds a week. You can then set a total amount of weight you want to lose and continuously measure progress so that you can establish a positive feedback loop. 

Your specific goal of “I will lose weight” could then potentially be written as “I will lose 15 pounds by exercising and eating whole foods five times per week.”

3. Achievable

To set yourself up for success, SMART goals must be attainable. This means you should set a goal that pushes you outside of your comfort zone but isn’t so lofty that you become demotivated and set yourself up for failure.

If your goal feels overwhelming, consider breaking it down into a smaller goal that you can realistically complete. In the case of someone who has never run before, running a marathon in a month sounds like an amazing feat but may not be achievable. Consider an interim goal such as running three times a week for twenty minutes, adding a minute per week.

Example of Achievability

Let’s continue the example of losing weight. It might sound great to get in athletic shape and drop your body fat to 5% or less. While this sounds lofty, it might also be unachievable, causing yourself to become demotivated as you realize you’re not progressing fast enough towards the goal you set.

Instead, why not try to set a goal that will be tough to attain, but is something you can actually achieve. For example, rather than trying to lose so much weight you get into athletic shape, if you’re 15 pounds over a healthy weight for your height, why don’t you set a goal of losing 15 pounds? This will be tough enough but it is also something you can actually achieve.

Conversely, if you really do want to get into athletic shape, break down this big hairy audacious goal (BHAG) into smaller, more achievable goals. Perhaps the first goal is to lose 15 pounds, and after you achieve that, you set the next attainable goal on your way to 5% body fat or less.

4. Relevant

SMART goals must also be relevant to your priorities. Setting a goal to run a marathon when your greatest dream is to write a book is not relevant and you won’t have the motivation to achieve it. Make sure your goals align with your priorities and help you achieve the ideal vision of your life.

Also, make sure your goal is relevant to how you’re currently spending (or want to spend) your time. For example, If you have a new job with difficult hours or if you’ve started a company that needs a significant time investment, this may not be the optimal time to take on a time-intensive goal such as marathon training.

Example of Relevancy

You’ll never have the motivation to achieve your goal if it isn’t relevant to anything you want, even if the goal sounds like a positive one. For example, wanting to lose weight just because you’ve heard it’s generally a good idea seems great, but will be hard to achieve because it’s not tied to anything relevant in your life.

However, if you want to lose weight specifically because you have an upcoming beach vacation or if you want to remain healthy as you get older so you can enjoy time with your kids and/or grandkids, you’ll be much more likely to stay on track and actually achieve your goal. If you’re setting a goal based on someone else’s agenda, you’re already set up for failure

5. Time-Bound

All SMART goals need a deadline. Setting defined deadlines around your goals gives yourself motivation and helps you stay focused on achieving them. Without a deadline, the pursuit of your goals will typically last forever and it will be hard to make progress. Deadlines also have the added benefit of reflection. It allows time to review progress, thinking about what worked and what didn’t.

Example of Time-Bound

Continuing with the example of losing weight, it’s not enough to say you’ll lose 15 pounds by exercising and eating healthy five days a week. You need to put a timeline on when you expect to complete your goal, otherwise, it may go on forever and you’ll never reach success.

For example, a strong SMART goal is, “I will lose 15 pounds in three months by eating healthy and exercising five days a week so I can feel good on my vacation.” There is no ambiguity around this goal and it is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.

SMART Goal Examples

Now that you understand the five elements of a SMART goal, it’s time to dig into some more examples. Below are some key examples of how vague goals can become achievable through the SMART goal-setting process.

Goal: Grow Facebook Followers

Assume you have a goal of expanding your Facebook presence to grow your business. Below we break down how you would craft this into a SMART goal.

  • Specific: Increase the size of your business’ Facebook group
  • Measurable: Grow your Facebook group membership by 50%
  • Achievable: Grow membership by 50% via posting relevant content 3x per week in your group
  • Relevant: Grow membership by 50% via posting relevant content 3x per week in your group to attract high-value customers
  • Time-bound: Grow Facebook group membership by 50% via posting relevant content 3x a week for the next 3 months to attract high-value customers

Goal: Save More Money

Assume you have a goal of saving to pay down credit card debt. Below we break down how this could be crafted into a SMART goal.

  • Specific: Save $25,000 in cash to pay down debt and become debt-free
  • Measurable: Save $1,000 a month to pay down debt 
  • Achievable: Verify that you can increase your income and reduce expenses to hit this $1,000 mark each month
  • Relevant: Save $25,000 and become debt-free by saving $1,000 per month so you can achieve financial freedom
  • Time-bound: Save $25,000 and become debt-free in 25 months by saving $1,000 per month so you can achieve financial freedom

Goal: Grow Your Consulting Business

In this example, your goal is to set a realistic growth target for your consulting business while also creating a specific action plan to help you achieve it.

  • Specific: Grow consulting business revenues 
  • Measurable: Grow consulting business revenues by 25% 
  • Achievable: Grow consulting business revenues by 25% via adding 5 new clients
  • Relevant: Grow consulting business revenues by 25% via adding 5 new clients so you can achieve financial stability
  • Time-Bound: Grow consulting business revenues by 25% within one year by adding 5 new clients so you can achieve financial stability

As you can see, there are many different types of goals that you can set. For more information on the various types of goals and which ones are best for you, check out my article on the 12 different types of goals and which ones are best for more information and specific examples.

Best Way to Set & Track Your SMART Goals

There are a number of analog and digital tools that can help you better set and track SMART goals. Written worksheets or goal-setting apps are both great ways to keep you motivated and on track in the pursuit of your goal. While physical worksheets are highly customizable to fit your needs, there are a plethora of goal-setting apps that provide a more seamless way to set and track goals.

Let’s look at both options in a little more detail:

SMART Goal Worksheet

A simple worksheet can be used to help frame your SMART goal and track your progress. Whether in a notebook or a spreadsheet, write out the goal, documenting why you want to achieve this goal and what it will mean for you.

Reflect on how progress would look and what steps you need to take. Then, finally set measurable actions with a timeframe to achieve them, recording your progress as you go. When the deadline hits, a handy record of your progress and notes will help to generate a new milestone if necessary.

SMART Goal-Setting Apps

There are many SMART goal-setting and productivity apps that are useful for building out habits and reminders as you work towards your goals. While some focus strictly on health and well-being, others are customized for project management or work-related goals. Each app uses a different strategy from “don’t break the chain” to negative rewards to personalized coaching.

A few of the top SMART goal-setting apps include:

  • Coach.Me: Allows you to select goals from a variety of pre-selected categories or create your own goal. Then, the app helps you set good habits on your way to achieving your goal, even offering weekly live habit coaching and a community of users.
  • Strides: Focuses on both professional and personal SMART goals. Specific goals can be selected from a variety of categories related to health, finance, hobbies, business and relationships or customize one to best suit your needs.
  • Productive: iOS-only app that helps you build routines related to your specific goal. This app uses the “don’t break the chain strategy”, which incentivizes you to stick to your routine for consecutive days.

A detailed review of these and other best goal-setting apps will help you find one that suits your SMART goals, personality and style. 

Benefits & Drawbacks of SMART Goals

SMART goals are a powerful tool to help make ambitious goals a reality. The SMART goal framework can be a constructive tool but it also has its drawbacks. Below we break down the benefits and drawbacks of SMART goal-setting so you can use them constructively while avoiding possible pitfalls.

Benefits of SMART Goals

  • Clarity of Vision: By using the SMART goal process, you are forced to define what is truly important to you and why. Transforming vague goals to specific actions requires personal introspection and understanding of self. Through that process, you clarify your vision and focus on what really matters. 
  • Discipline: Distractions are everywhere. Setting specific, measurable actions to be done in a routine manner helps you stay focused on what’s important. Just as marathons are run step by step, SMART goal discipline builds positive habits through repetition.
  • Recalibration: SMART goals are a constructive way to evaluate progress towards a goal and recalibrate accordingly. If you consistently miss a weekly goal, perhaps you need to start smaller or revise your goal altogether. SMART goals give you an opportunity to revisit and review in order to optimize your effort and energy.

Drawbacks of SMART Goals

  • Stress: SMART goals are helpful for staying on track but when circumstances spiral out of control, it can add additional stress to your life. Falling ill or an unexpected work or family event which prevents you from hitting your goal that day or week can add unwarranted pressure and feelings of failure.
  • Tunnel Vision: SMART goals help set a framework for success. A single-minded focus on a SMART goal can be detrimental though if this goal is at the expense of other priorities such as health, work or family. It’s important to maintain perspective on other aspects of your life and balance those in order to maintain a healthy focus on your goals.

How to Apply SMART Goals to Your Life

As you set SMART goals, make sure you have a clear vision of what you want your life to become and what you specifically want to achieve in each domain of your life. SMART goals can be set in any category such as personal, professional, health, or finance, but you don’t want to have so many goals that it divides your focus and you end up failing at all of them.

For this reason, choose one big goal for two to three domains – no more or you may become overwhelmed or set yourself up for failure – and break each of those two or three down into a SMART goal so you have specific steps to follow. Use a notebook or productivity app to track your progress, review the data periodically. Celebrate small wins.

Once you see consistent progress and momentum, keep going until you reach your deadline. Then decide if you want to deepen your efforts towards that goal or pivot towards another goal or domain. For inspirational words of advice on how to apply SMART goals to your life, check out my article on the best goal-setting quotes from proven luminaries.

Conclusion

Choosing the right goals is the key to leading the life you want. Whether mastering a skill, working to prime physical health, writing a book, starting a business, or any aspirational goal, SMART goal-setting helps you understand your motivation, detail a process, create action items and establish habits and practices to reach that goal.