Setting S.M.A.R.T. Goals

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Jan 10, 2015

“In absence of clearly defined goals, we become strangely loyal to performing daily acts of trivia.”

Goals matter. Just about anything we do that is worthwhile requires a goal. Whether we are going to New York City or planting a garden or earning a university degree, it is virtually impossible to see the Big Apple or eat our own vegetables or turn the tassel without first having a goal. 

As Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.”

For several years all of us here at the University of Valley Forge have been using annual S.M.A.R.T. goals to facilitate the improvement of everything we do. S.M.A.R.T. is a mnemonic acronym which gives criteria commonly attributed to Peter Drucker’s “management by objective” concept. 

The November 1981 issue of Management Review contained a paper by George T. Doran called “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. Way to Write Management Goals and Objectives.” In 2003, Paul J. Meyer wrote a book titled “Attitude Is Everything” in which he also describes the characteristics of S.M.A.R.T. goals. Doran and Meyer’s thoughts regarding goals can be applied to every part of our personal and public lives. All of our goals should be:

Specific: Goals must be clear and unambiguous. President John F. Kennedy’s audacious goal was to put a man on the moon. Everyone understood that and it galvanized an entire nation. Everyone knew what was expected of them. 

A specific goal will usually answer the five “W” questions: What (do I want to accomplish)? Why (do I want to do it)? Who (is involved to help make it happen)? Where (will it take place)? Which (requirements and constraints will be included)?

How difficult it would be to arrive in New York City if we just wanted to go somewhere. How difficult it would be to harvest vegetables if we just wanted to grow anything. How difficult it would be to turn the tassel if we just wanted to learn something.

Measurable: Unless you can measure the goal, it is impossible to know whether you are making progress toward successful completions. Measurement keeps you on task and, with evidence, motivates you to keep going.

I think this is one of the reasons why I like the GPS (Global Positioning System) in my car. Right in front of me is the constant reminder of my progress toward my goal with either the remaining miles or the estimated time of arrival.

Attainable: There is nothing as discouraging as a goal that is realistically unattainable. Practical wisdom is needed to set goals that are ambitious enough to challenge us to excellence but not too great so that they discourage us. No one wins gold medals for jumping over 3-inch hurdles. No one wins anything for trying to jump over a 10-story building.

In “Built to Last” (2004), Jim Collins speaks of “B-HAGS,” i.e., Big Hairy Audacious Goals. Anyone who does anything great would do well to set “B-HAGS” but even “B-HAGS” must be attainable.

Relevant: For a goal to matter it must be relevant to the person or organization that makes it. If your goal is to develop the world’s largest company to make steel wagon wheels, you will probably not be very successful. Relevant goals must be aligned with our personal and organizational priorities.  

Time-Bound: Napoleon Hill said, “A goal is a dream with a deadline.” For a goal to be S.M.A.R.T., it needs a deadline. Deadlines establish a sense of urgency. Deadlines prevent goals from being overtaken by day-to-day crises. Deadlines help frame the goal in a way that anticipates its completion.

Don Lancaster said, “Most ‘impossible’ goals can be met simply by breaking them down into bite sized chunks, writing them down, believing them, and then going full speed ahead as if they were routine.”

The smart person would consider S.M.A.R.T. goals to make that happen.

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
University of Valley Forge, Phoenixville, Pa. 
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