Set SMART Goals

SMART is an acronym that represents a framework for creating effective goals. It stands for five qualities your goals should have. They should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. The SMART method is one of the most popular and effective tools for creating realistic and achievable goals. You might be at the helm of a 300-person organization or you might be a small business entrepreneur. Or, you might be somebody who simply wants to shed 20 pounds. Regardless, learning how to set SMART goals can improve your chances of success.


Making your Goal Specific (S)

  1. Decide what you want. Your first step in any goal-setting framework must be to decide what it is you hope to achieve. Try not to be to general and make sure that you are making the goal for yourself, not to impress someone else.
    • Whether your goal is long-term or short term, most people start out with only a general idea of what they want. You move from the general to the specific by adding details and defining your terms.[1]
    • For example, maybe your initial goal is be healthier. Knowing that will be your basis for creating a more specific goal.
  2. Get specific. "Specific" is the "S" in SMART. You have a much greater chance of accomplishing a specific goal than a general goal.[2] So, your task at this stage is to translate your thoughts from step one into something more precise.
    • Following the example in the previous step, you would ask yourself what "healthier" means to you? What in your life needs to be better?
    • The goal has to be concrete and clear. Including numbers such as "I will go to the gym twice a week", can help. Nebulous and fluffy goals like "feel better" or "look better" are not easy to determine progress. Pick a goal that will bemeasurable. Examples:
      • Lose or gain (x) amount of weight.
      • Be able to run a 5K
      • Cut sodium intake in my diet
  3. Determine who else is involved. A good way to make certain your goal is specific enough is to answer the 5 "W" questions: Who, What, When, Where, and Why. Start by asking who is involved.[3]
    • If your goal is to lose weight, the answer is probably just you. But, some goals will require you to work with others.
  4. Ask what you want to accomplish. This is the basic question of what goal you hope to achieve.[3]
    • If you want to lose weight, be more specific! How much weight do you hope to lose? This means figuring out what is a healthy goal weight for you.
  5. Determine where this will happen. Identify a location in which you will do the work of striving for your goal.[3]
    • If you want to lose weight, you could exercise at work (going for a walk during lunch hour), at home (doing a home body weight workout or using weights), and at a gym.
  6. Think about when this will happen. Establish a realistic time frame or deadline for achieving your goal.[3] This will come more sharply into focus later in the process of goal setting. For now, just think about the big picture.
    • If your goal is to lose 20 pounds, you might be able to achieve that in a few months. On the other hand, if your goal is to get a degree in physics, a reasonable time frame for that might be a few years.
    • This may also mean figuring out when you work out: before work, after school, when the pool is open,
    • This may also mean considering how often to work out?
  7. Determine which requirements and restraints will be part of the process.[3] In other words, what will you need to do to achieve your goal? What obstacles will you face?
    • If your goal is to lose weight, the requirements might be exercise and a healthy diet. The obstacles might include your own aversion to exercise. Recognize this, and consider how and why do you want to overcome that?
    • Other obstacles: You may not have money for a gym, or a bad knee, or it is not a great neighborhood to walk outside at night. How can these be worked around?
  8. Reflect on why you are setting this goal.[3] Jot down the specific reasons and benefits of accomplishing this goal. Understanding the "why" can be crucial to knowing if the goal you've set will actually satisfy your desires.
    • For example, imagine your goal is to lose 50 pounds. You reflect on your reason for that and determine that it is because you hope to have more friends. But getting more friends has no direct correlation with weight loss. In that case, work on trying to be more outgoing, rather than on your appearance.
    • But if losing 50 pounds will greatly benefit your health, and you know why, write the reasons down.

Making Your Goal Measurable (M)

  1. Create a "yardstick" for measuring outcomes. Your task now is to establish a criteria for success. This will make it easy to track your progress and know when you have achieved your goal.
    • Your criteria can be quantitative (numbers based) or descriptive (based on describing a certain outcome).[3]
    • When possible, put concrete numbers in your goals. This way you'll know without question if you're falling behind or if you're on track.
    • For example, if your goal is to lose weight, you might make your goal quantitative by saying you want to lose 30 pounds. Knowing your existing weight, it will be easy to determine when you've met your goal. A descriptive version of this goal might be "I want to be able to put on a pair of jeans I wore five years ago." Either way, your goal is measurable.
  2. Ask questions sharpen your focus. There are number of questions you can ask yourself to make sure your goal is as measurable as possible. These include:
    • How much? For example, "how much weight do I hope to lose?"
    • How many? For example, "how many times a week do I want to go to the gym?"
    • How will I know when I've accomplished the goal?[3] Will it be when you step on a scale and see you've lost 30 pounds? Or 40?
  3. Track and measure your progress. Having measurable goals makes it easy to determine if you are making headway.
    • For example, if your goal is to lose 20 pounds, and you've lost 18, you know you're almost there. On the other hand, if a month has passed and you've only lost a pound, this might signal that it's time to change your strategy.
    • Keep a journal. This is a great way to keep track of the efforts you've made, the results you've seen, and your feelings about the process. Aim to write in it for about 15 minutes a day. This can help you keep things in perspective and can also release stress you might be feeling about your efforts.[4]

Making Sure the Goal is Attainable (A)

  1. Assess your limitations. You want to make sure that the goal you have set can actually be achieved.[5] Otherwise, you may become discouraged.
    • Consider the restraints and obstacles you've identified and whether you'll be able to overcome them. To achieve any goal, you will face challenges. The question to consider here is whether it's reasonable to think you'll be able to accomplish the goal in the face of these challenges.
    • Be realistic about the amount of time you have to devote to your goals as well as your personal background, knowledge, and any physical limitations. Think about your objective realistically, and if you do not think you can reasonably achieve it given your current life situation, set a new one that is attainable for you in the present.
    • For example, imagine your goal is to lose some weight. If you can commit even a small amount of time to exercise each week and are willing to make some dietary changes, losing 20 pound in 6 months is probably achievable. Losing 50 pounds might or might not be, especially if there are obstacles that could prevent you from exercising regularly.
    • It's a good idea to write down all the foreseeable constraints you face as you make this assessment. This will help you develop complete picture of the task you face.
  2. Assess your level of commitment. Even if a goal is theoretically achievable, you must be committed to making the efforts necessary to reach it. Ask yourself the following questions:
    • Are you prepared to make the commitment to reach your target?
    • Are you willing to dramatically alter or at least adjust aspects of your life?
    • If not, is there a more achievable target you are willing to work for?
    • Your goal and your commitment level should match up.[6] You might find it easier to commit to losing 20 pounds for starters, but 50 pounds might seem more overwhelming. Be honest with yourself about the changes you are willing to make.
  3. Set a goal you can achieve. Once you've considered the challenges you face and your level of commitment, adjust your goal as necessary.
    • If you decide your existing goal is achievable, you can move one to the next step. But, if you conclude that it's not really a reasonable goal, consider revising it. This doesn't mean you have to give up altogether. It just means adjusting your goal to fit your reality.

Making Your Goal Relevant (R)

  1. Reflect on your desires. Closely related to a goal's attainability is its relevance. This is the "R" in SMART. The question to ponder here is whether this goal will be fulfilling for you as individual.[5]
    • This is a moment to revisit the "why" question. Ask yourself whether this goal will truly fulfill your desires or if there's a different goal that's more important to you.
    • For example, imagine you are considering what you want to do after high school. You might be capable of getting your medical degree at a large, prestigious university. The goal is achievable for you. But, if your goal is to be a Broadway dancer, it does not matter what you could do. Getting into a pre-med program will hinder your dance career, and you would not succeed in the medical field, either.
  2. Consider your other goals and circumstances. It's also important to consider how your goal fits with other plans you have in life. Conflicting plans can create problems.[7]
    • In other words, its important to determine if your goal fits in with the rest of what is going on in your life.
    • For example, imagine your goal is to go to an ivy league college. But, you also want to take over the family business in the next couple of years. Especially if the business isn't located near an ivy league college, this creates a conflict. You will need to reconsider one of both of these goals.
  3. Adjust your goal for relevance. If you decide your goal is relevant and and will work well with your other plans, you can move on to the last step. If not, you'll need to make some more revisions.
    • When in doubt, go with what you're passionate about. A goal that you care deeply about will be both more relevant and achievable than one you're only sort of interested in. A goal that will fulfill your dreams will be much more motivating and worthwhile to you.[8]

Making the Goal Time-Bound (T)

  1. Choose a time frame. This means your goal should have a deadline or there should be a date set for completion.
    • Setting a timeline for your goal helps you identify and stick to the specific actions that you need to take to work towards that goal. It removes the nebulous "sometime in the future" quality that goal setting sometimes encourages.[3]
    • When you don't set a timeline, there is no internal pressure to accomplish the goal, so it can often end up on the back burner.
  2. Set benchmarks. Especially if your goal is very long-term, it can be useful to break it up into smaller goals. This can help you measure your progress and make it manageable.[9]
    • For example, if your goal is to lose 20 pounds in the next 5 months, you would set a benchmark goal of about one pound a week. This is less daunting and creates an incentive for consistent effort, rather than a big push to lose weight during the last couple of months. You can get an app that tracks your diet and exercise to make sure you're taking the necessary steps to reach your goal every day. And, if this turns out to be too much for you, you can go back and revise the goal to make it more achievable.
  3. Focus on the long term and the short term. Consistent progress toward your goals means keeping one eye on today and eye on the future. Within your established time frame, you might ask yourself:
    • What can I do today to reach my goal? If the goal is to lose 20 pounds in five months, one daily goal might be getting 30 minutes of exercise every day. Another might be switching to healthy snacks like fruit and nuts, rather than potato chips.
    • What can I do over the next 3 weeks to reach my goal? Here, the answer might involve creating a detailed meal plan or a workout schedule.
    • What can I do over the long term reach my goal? Here, your focus will be on keeping the weight off. Your focus will be on forming habits that promote a healthy diet and active lifestyle over the long term. You might consider, for example, joining a gym or sports team.


  • List the important milestones along the way to your target. You can pair each milestone with a reward. Small incentives can help you stay motivated.[10]
  • Try making a list of people and resources you'll need to achieve your goal. This can help you be strategic about taking the steps you need to take to attain it.


  • Don't make so many goals that it is impossible to prioritize them. You'll feel like you are not accomplishing anything, and you will likely feel overwhelmed. Do up to 1 big goal and about 1-2 small goals or 3 small goals.

Related Articles

Sources and Citations

  1. Fischhoff, B., Slovic, P., & Lichtenstein, S. (1988). Knowing what you want: Measuring labile values. Decision Making: Descriptive, Normative and Prescriptive Interactions, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 398-421. (Chapter 18)
  2. Morisano, D., Hirsh, J. B., Peterson, J. B., Pihl, R. O., & Shore, B. M. (2010). Setting, elaborating, and reflecting on personal goals improves academic performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(2), 255.)
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8
  5. 5.0 5.1 Lawlor, B. & Hornyak, M. (2012). SMART Goals: How the Application of Smart Goals can Contribute to Achievement of Student Learning Outcomes. Journal of Development of Business Simulation and Experimental Learning, 39, 259-267.