A comprehensive guide to writing SMART goals
March 21, 2021
This post was originally published on February 5, 2019, and updated most recently on March 21, 2021
Chances are, either you or someone you know tends to get flustered at the start of every project. And why not? When you’re watching every task entailed in a project pile up into one giant to-do list-monster, it’s all too easy to feel overwhelmed. Where do you start? What comes next? And in which order?!
The key to succeeding in any project — whether that’s building an app, writing an article, or improving your performance at work — is to maintain your sense of purpose.
Establishing clear objectives from the beginning helps you prioritize your time and achieve your overarching goal. And from a management point of view, it gives your employees a clear pathway to project completion and a sense of accountability.
There is more than one way to skin a cat — i.e., set clear goals — when it comes to project management. But the gold standard when it comes to easy objective-setting is something known as SMART goals. SMART, in this case, stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
How SMART goals can help you
First, a very quick history lesson.
Methods for creating management objectives go all the way back to Peter Drucker and his 1954 book The Practice of Management. But it wasn’t until 1981 that George T. Doran — a consultant and former Director of Corporate Planning for Washington Water Power Company — unleashed SMART goals into the world.
In a paper in the November 1981 issue of Management Review, he wrote: There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives. He then went on to discuss the importance of objectives and the difficulty of setting them. Enter SMART goals, version 1.0.
“Ideally speaking, each corporate, department, and section objective should be:
- Specific – target a specific area for improvement.
- Measurable – quantify or at least suggest an indicator of progress.
- Assignable – specify who will do it.
- Realistic – state what results can realistically be achieved, given available resources.
- Time-related – specify when the result(s) can be achieved.”
As you can see, his version is slightly different from the more commonly-adopted version above it. But the essence is the same.
How to create SMART goals
Before you dive in, the first thing you should do is create your own SMART worksheet. This will help you organize your thoughts and break down your overarching project into bite-size chunks that are easier to tackle. Make a vertical column for your goals and horizontal rows for each aspect of the SMART formula.
You will also want to have a few preliminary conversations with your teammates and/or boss. Get as much input from those around you as possible. Sometimes it takes a second, third, or even fourth opinion to really determine whether a project or personal goal is achievable or realistic. The more perspectives you have here, the better.
If you’re approaching this as a manager of a team, including your team in the goal creation process is a great way of demonstrating that you are receptive to feedback. Once these goals are implemented, it will also be much easier to get buy-in since everyone was given the opportunity to provide feedback beforehand.
Once you’ve compiled the information you need, it’s time to start making your goals SMART.
First of all, you need to be specific about each goal. What do you want to accomplish? When do you want to complete this? Who needs to be involved? And most importantly, why?
You could also add details like relevant locations or a list of obstacles and requirements — the more specific, the better.
An example of a bad, non-specific goal would be, ‘I want to finish this project.’ A good example would be: ‘Many of our customers aren’t hearing about our offers because they’re not opening their emails. I want to work with a marketing agency to increase open rates and explore other methods of communication.’
How do you know you’ve successfully met your goal? Measuring success isn’t just about creating a finish line; it’s also about creating a way to track progress along the way. You want to be able to see how far you’ve come, whether you’ve hit your targets, and where you can improve.
To do this, you need to work out your metrics. For example, if you’re a content marketing agency, one of your measurable metrics could be the ‘number of emails opened.’ If you’re a restaurant, it could be the number of tables served or simply money taken at the end of the night.
Pro Tip: Investing in a project management tool can provide you with loads of data to work with and things like Gantt and burndown charts to visualize it quickly.
Being optimistic is a lovely trait, but it could spell trouble for a lofty project. To make sure you’re not overreaching, plan out exactly how you’re going to reach each goal.
Do you have the right talent with the right skills? What restrictions are you facing in regards to time and resources? Are there any foreseeable pitfalls in the way? How can you accommodate or overcome all of these details? Working these out in a constructive, positive way will help both you and your team feel motivated and accountable.
This is another easily overlooked but hugely important one. Does your project align with the overall mission of the company and its overarching objectives?
For example, if your team is thinking of launching a new car app for your client, but they’re in the aerospace business with no plans to diversify into the automobile industry, then your goal is not particularly relevant. This may seem like a silly example, but you’d be surprised how often people create goals/projects that don’t support the larger mission they’re working toward.
What’s the deadline, and is it realistic? Each deliverable needs a due date and an assignee with the time to complete said deliverable. With a thought-through timeline keeping things on track, you can reach your goals with the right balance of structure, urgency, and accountability.
Pro Tip: Working out task durations and dependencies can be a tricky order if your project or goal is a big one. A good place to start is with a PERT chart, which can help you work out the time it’ll take to complete each task.
Drawbacks of SMART goals
Although SMART goals offer amazing structure to your team and your work in general, there can be some drawbacks. One of the main ones being that it can stifle creativity. Just like when a writer is only allowed to write in spreadsheets or a designer can only format in word processing tools, SMART goals add a rigidity that can hinder creative, out-of-the-box thinking. Sometimes it’s best to complete your goals then give them to your more creative team members as guidelines to let their imaginations start running.
Another possible setback is flexibility. SMART is very straightforward and doesn’t allow much room to go back and change something once it’s been determined. You might have to run another meeting entirely to reset goals if an aspect of the project changes unexpectedly.
How to put your SMART goals to work
Once you’ve defined your SMART goals, it’s important to track and manage your progress as you go.
Theoretically, you could use spreadsheets and word docs for this. But these tend to be time-consuming, clunky, and arduous to update manually. So we recommend investing in cloud-based project management software that does it all for you automatically, in real-time. This way, you, your boss, your stakeholders, your team — and whoever else you’re working with — can tackle goals quickly, more collaboratively, and with more transparency.