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SMART goals

The SMART theory of goal setting was based on years of academic research and originally became popular in the 1980s.

There are a number of variations to the theory, but the basic features of goals that work are:

  • Specific. Goals that are too vague and general are hard to achieve, for example ‘be a better parent’. Goals that work include specifics such as ‘who, where, when, why and what’.
  • Measurable. Ideally goals should include a quantity of ‘how much’ or ‘how many’ for example drinking 2 litres of water per day. This makes it easy to know when you have reached the goal.
  • Achievable. Goals should be challenging, but achievable. Goals work best when they are neither too easy or too difficult. In many cases setting harder goals can lead to better outcomes, but only as long as the person has the ability to achieve it. Setting goals which are too difficult can be discouraging and lead to giving up altogether.
  • Relevant. The goal should seem important and beneficial to the person who is assigned the goal.
  • Time-related. ‘You don’t need more time, you just need a deadline’. Deadlines can motivate efforts and prioritise the task above other distractions.

More tips for goal setting

1. Support and feedback

Having support from others and making goals public can improve the chances of achieving goals by enhancing commitment to the goal. Receiving regular feedback is also important, as it allows us to know when we are moving in the right direction, and change tactics if necessary. This can be done by receiving feedback from others (such as a teacher or work supervisor) or by tracking measurable items (such as food or alcohol intake).

2. Breaking down goals

It is useful to break down large goals into smaller steps that can be achieved relatively quickly. This can lead to a sense of achievement and keeping focused, as well as prevent becoming overwhelmed by large goals. For example, if the long-term goal is finding a new job, some smaller, more achievable steps may be to check advertisements on the internet or telephoning work contacts.

Last reviewed: November 2016

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