How to Accomplish Any Goal: The SMART Guide to Making Your Dreams a Reality

by | Oct 6, 2014

It’s easy to set goals. Sometimes it’s even easy taking those initial steps towards achieving them. Maybe we want to learn to play an instrument so we buy a guitar and sign up for lessons. The first few days are fun, but somehow life gets in the way, and it becomes more and more difficult to find time to practice.

Or maybe we want to learn a foreign language. We buy several books that promise we will be fluent in a matter of months, but after memorizing a few phrases, our interest wanes and our goal is abandoned.

What are we doing wrong? How do we maintain that original interest and energy that motivated us during those initial stages? In today’s post, I’ll share a fantastic fail-safe five-step approach called the S.M.A.R.T. method that has helped me transform my goals from dreams into reality.

The Most Important Part of Accomplishing a Goal: The Journey

Usually if we are having trouble achieving our goals, it isn’t because we are just too lazy or aren’t smart enough. The problem has to do with our plan (or lack thereof) for achieving them. The Nobel Prize winning author Ernest Hemingway once observed, “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

Take myself as an example. I mentioned foreign languages in the first paragraph because learning a foreign language was one of my biggest goals for many years. And I didn’t just talk about learning a foreign language. I was very determined to teach myself another language. Throughout high school, I dabbled in French, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, and even classical Latin.

But I never mastered any of them. I jumped from one language to the next, wondering why I could never become fluent. I tried to rationalize my failure in all sorts of ways: “Perhaps only people who move to the foreign country can truly learn the language. Perhaps I’m just not smart enough and should give up and pick a different hobby.”

But I was not willing to admit defeat. One day in college, I discovered the S.M.A.R.T. method to goal-setting and realized I was going about language learning all wrong. Within two years of changing my approach, I had reached an intermediate level in Spanish. I now enjoy chatting with friends in Spanish, watching movies, reading books, and even writing blog posts. And I’ve already started on my second foreign language, Italian.

What was so revolutionary about the S.M.A.R.T. method? Essentially, this method forced me to develop a concrete plan towards achieving my goals. It helped me break down my goals into easy, actionable steps, transforming the goal from something that I’d like to accomplish to something that was actually attainable.

The S.M.A.R.T. Method to Achieving Your Goals

The letters in S.M.A.R.T. stand for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. You can use the S.M.A.R.T. method to evaluate and refine your goals. Here’s how it works in practice:

1. Specific

First, you need to make sure you have a detailed idea of what you want to achieve. When I said to myself, “I want to learn a foreign language,” that was actually a very vague and very broad goal. Which language did I want to learn? To how high a level? Did I just want to be able to speak the language or also read and write? This is why I had wandered from one foreign language to the next. But once I evaluated my goals against the SMART criteria, I was able to clearly outline what I wanted to accomplish: “I want to learn to speak, read, and write Spanish to an advanced intermediate level in two years.” Now my goal was focused and clear.

In a nutshell: Think about the goal you are working towards. Is it too vague or do you have a clear idea in your head of what success will look like? Try to make your goal as concrete as possible.

2. Measurable

Second, it is important that you have a way to chart your progress. After all, how on earth was I going to be able to determine whether I had truly learned the foreign language or not? In contrast, setting a clear measurement like “I will pass this intermediate Spanish test” or “I will be able to have a conversation in Spanish for one hour without resorting to English” would give me a clear picture for knowing whether I had reached my goal or not.

In a nutshell: When working towards a goal, you need to have some way to measure your progress. You need to be able to determine whether you are still on track or whether you are falling behind and need to modify your current plan of action. Though your goal may still seem a long way off, even the smallest steps you take are bringing you closer to success.

3. Achievable

Above all, it is important to make sure that you are not setting a goal for yourself that is impossible to attain. If I had said to myself that I wanted to speak Spanish at an advanced level with a native-like accent in two years, that would have been silly. There was no way I could possibly have achieved that goal given my circumstances: the fact that I wasn’t living in Spain or Latin America, that I had never learned a foreign language before, and that it is ridiculously hard to develop a native-like accent if you are a foreigner. Essentially, I needed to establish realistic goals or I was simply setting myself up for failure.

In a nutshell: Though we should never shy away from challenging ourselves, we do need to be sure we are not demanding the impossible. Set goals that you know are practical. I recently read an article about how to relearn an instrument after not playing in years. The author suggested that rather than forcing yourself to practice for an hour each day, just try to play for twenty minutes at first. Doesn’t that goal seem so much more feasible than having to carve an hour each day out of your busy schedule? Once those twenty minutes have become a daily habit, you can then try to set yourself a bigger goal.

4. Relevant

This is a very interesting part of the S.M.A.R.T. criteria. Relevant means that your goal should add some kind of practical value to your life.  It means that you should have a strong need or desire to accomplish this goal. Usually, we are driven by either extrinsic or intrinsic motivations (or both).  An extrinsic motivation means that there are outside circumstances making it urgent for you to achieve your goal as soon as possible.

For example, you might need to study French in order to pass a language requirement in school. Basically, you are working towards your goal in order for the reward that you will receive (an A in the class), but not truly out of a love for the skill you are seeking to master. In other words, if you took the extrinsic motivation away, you probably would have no desire to continue learning French. An intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is one that is within you. If you are intrinsically motivated, it means that you find pleasure in working towards your goal (it becomes a hobby for you). You do not need any external rewards. Your passion drives you forward.

In a nutshell: Think about why you want to accomplish a goal. Do you have extrinsic or intrinsic motivations (or both)? For me, I was passionate about foreign languages and loved studying them. And knowing a second language is also a very useful skill. If you lack extrinsic or intrinsic motivations, it will be harder for you to follow through. List the reasons that are motivating you. This will help you set a realistic goal that is relevant to your circumstances. Refer to this list when the going gets tough. Remembering why you wanted to achieve the goal in the first place will help you keep moving forward.

5. Time-Bound

Finally, we need to make sure we set deadlines for ourselves. Setting a period of time for accomplishing our goals forces us to stop procrastinating and to spend a little time practicing each day. It helps to create a sense of importance and urgency. For example, I set the goal of reaching an intermediate level in Spanish in two years time. I also made sure to break that goal down into smaller short-term goals: finish this Spanish workbook in three months, have my first conversation in six months, etc.

In a nutshell: Make your goal even more specific by attaching it to a deadline. Give yourself a clear target to work towards. By breaking your long-term goal into smaller short-term goals, you can easily measure your progress and celebrate weekly and monthly victories. Plan out what you should realistically be able to accomplish by next month or even in the next few days.

What will the SMART method help you to achieve? For me, it finally helped me to realize my dream of speaking a foreign language. I plan to continue to use it whenever I have a goal I am working towards.

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