The French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery once said that “a goal without a plan is just a dream.” To understand that sentiment we need to recognize the difference between a goal and a dream. A dream is a fantasy, something we want that we believe will make us feel happy or fulfilled. A dream however never manifests itself in any sort of real fashion, existing only in our thoughts. A dream is just a vision of what could be, but to which we take no steps toward realizing. To paraphrase Saint-Exupery, a goal is a dream with a plan. A goal is a concept that we achieve by taking the necessary steps to accomplish. None of your dreams will ever come to fruition, save by chance alone. A goal is something towards which you actively work, and although you may fail, you at least control the factors over which you have any sort of influence.
Have you ever had a dream, and then written down that dream and set yourself a goal of realizing that dream? Most of us have but very often we fall short of that goal for one reason or other and as a result we feel dejected. This post is aimed at providing helpful advice on achieving goals. Following this plan will not allow you to achieve all of your goals, but it will dramatically increase your odds of success.
In order to achieve our goals, we must have SMART goals. As you may have guessed by the all-caps, SMART is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relatable, and Time-bound. I first heard about SMART goals when I was training to become a strength coach, but since then I have realized that this is a common trope used by Human Resources, motivators, and more. Nevertheless, I hope that by walking you through the process of SMART goal setting, that you can apply these principles towards your own goals and get busy achieving whatever it is that might help you feel happy.
Since I first learned of this concept while training to be a strength coach, my examples will largely focus on athletic or health related goals, but it should not be difficult to apply the same principles elsewhere in your life. We begin with Specific. Specific goals are important because they define exactly what it is that we are trying to achieve. When I was a coach, one of the first things I would ask my new clients was: “why are you here?” Their answer without fail was always: “to get in better shape.” Well, duh. Everybody is at the gym to get in better shape but there are thousands of different permutations of what exactly “better shape” looks like. Better shape can mean losing 20 pounds, being able to do a chin up, increasing your bench press by 50lbs, improving mile time, and so on. After that I would always pry a little bit more and ask the clients to be more specific. I would always give them examples to force them to think, but ultimately what “better shape” would be was completely up to them. It is possible and probable that the specific idea of “better shape” would morph over time, but it is important to have a specific landing place. When we set our goals, we need to know exactly what it is that we are aiming for, otherwise how will we know when we arrive. If your goal is to become a better writer, make it specific and say: I want to publish a novel. That is the specific goal you are working towards. If you want to start a private business, begin with the specific goal of registering your LLC and securing your funding. There, that is the specific goal that you are aiming for. The target will shift as your priorities change and as you hopefully achieve your goals and then set more, but without specificity we are aimless.
Measurability is the next component of effective goal setting. If we do not have a way of measuring our goal, how do we know we have achieved it. It is poor practice to simply say that we want to get better at something as part of our goal. Of course, you want to get better, but by what standard or metric is “better” measured? For example, in the gym there were many ways that progress could be measured. The most common goal was that clients wanted to lose weight. The obvious and easy way to measure our progress on that goal was by measuring pounds. If your goal is to run a faster mile, we measure that in minutes and seconds. If your goal is to become better at sales, we can measure that in deals closed or dollars booked. Even if your goal is more abstract, like to be a better parent, you can still find creative ways of measuring that. An example would be measure, the number of nights in a week that you read to your kids before bed. Compare that to what it was before you set this goal and you have a measurable to ascertain your progress with your goal. Whatever your goal is, find a way of measuring your performance and more importantly your progress.
We often run into issues when we set goals that are excessively lofty, unfeasible, or sometimes even impossible to attain. An important factor in setting goals is to make sure that our goal is attainable. This will directly influence our self-esteem, our pride, and our feeling of accomplishment. This may seem counter to what most motivational speakers would say. They might encourage you to set the absolute highest of goals, saying that if your goals don’t scare you then they aren’t lofty enough. They will tell you that to set the bar below everything, but the absolute highest form of attainment means that you are a loser and a wimp. That is patently false and realistically speaking it only sets you up for disappointment. If a college sophomore basketball player came to me and told me that his goal was to play in the NBA, I wouldn’t laugh at him, but I would make an accurate assessment of that induvial, their athletic gift, work ethic, physical measurements etc. It is entirely possible that that individual might have pro potential, but the vast majority will not. Across all sports the NCAA reports that only 2% go pro. That means obviously that 98% of them do not make it to that league. I am sure at one point they all dreamed of playing pro sports, as did many of us who didn’t even make the cut as NCAA athletes. As time moves on however, one begins to realize that those dreams are probably not going to happen. If their end all be all goal was to go pro, chances are they will be disappointed and crushed with the disappointment. If however they reprioritize and do a deep analysis of self, they may realize other goals. Maybe they won’t go pro, especially if they have ridden the bench. But maybe they can work their ass off in practice and set the goal of getting more minutes off of the bench. That would be an example of an attainable goal. It is a goal that encourages and motivates them, will bring them joy upon accomplishment, but is not so far out of reach such that they are setting themselves up for failure.
The statement that goals should be relatable might sound obvious but shouldn’t be overlooked. What does your goal mean to you? How is achieving this goal going to improve your happiness, your well-being, your life, or the lives of those you care about? I could set myself a goal of becoming a certified skydiver. That sounds like something that might be a lot of fun but is honestly not terribly important to me, nor can I see it having any true meaning to my life. If we are going to take the trouble of setting a goal, of searching within to discover exactly who or what we want to be, measuring that goal and constantly working towards it, then it had better be worth our time. If a goal is random or unrelatable it adds no real sense of happiness or improvement into our life. Ergo, the two most likely outcomes are that we will fail to accomplish said goal or, that we will achieve the goal but be no better for it. Make sure your goals are relatable, that they align with the values of who you are and who you want to become or what you want to do.
Finally, a goal must be time bound. This ensures that we hold ourselves accountable. If I say that I want to add 5 extra chin-ups to my total but fail to specify a date in time to complete this goal, then I could just flounder around for years, never coming closer, but still be in no rush as I have no time constraints. One must be realistic in setting establishing a timeline for their goals. If you have spent the last 5 years doing no exercise at all and have found yourself getting considerably overweight, it is unrealistic to set a time goal of running a marathon in 6 weeks. That can still be the ultimate goal, but consult with a professional who can give you an honest assessment of your current state and help you figure out when a reasonable accomplishment of that goal could be set. Instead, maybe start with the goal of walking a 5k in 6 weeks. I might break it down smaller still into week by week goals. Begin by simply trying to walk, however long or fast you feel you are able, for 5 days in that first week. Try to go just a little faster or a little farther the following, and so on. I want to add to the understanding that goals should be time bound by reiterating that there should be micro goals along the process that help you move closer to your ultimate goal. People are often dissuaded by setting a lofty goal that might seem far off. To set a goal of running a marathon in 6 months is not unrealistic, but it can be daunting. Again, don’t think about that marathon, think about your day to day and week to week progress, and over time you will find that your improvements have compounded and you have arrived at your final goal.
I hope you find this information helpful. We often discuss the importance of gratitude for what we have, and being content in ourselves on this blog. With that said, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t look for areas that we can grow and improve as people and members of society. Love yourself for who you are right now, but challenge yourself to grow and set a goal that can make you better in any way.