Goal setting: be SMART about it

There's more to setting goals than putting check boxes next to your aspirations.

When I was about halfway through my doctoral program, I realized that I was really overwhelmed.

I had been stressed for a long time, and I was certainly aware of how the pressures of grad school were feeding into my overall anxiety, but I had been working hard to set goals for myself and try to meet them. I just wasn’t succeeding. What was making me so stuck?

It was around this time that I started using journaling to manage my life. I don’t mean the dear diary kind of journaling, but rather a method known as bullet journaling or dot journaling. This method is intended to help centralize your goals, tasks, and notes, and introduces a helpful element of mindfulness to the process. This month’s newsletter is not about journaling (though I highly recommend it), but what I realized through beginning to track my goals and reflect on the process of achieving them was crucial:

I was absolute garbage at setting goals.

What makes a good goal?

I’ll start with what makes a bad goal, because I was setting a lot of goals that had these characteristics:

  1. goals that rely on someone else accomplishing their part

  2. goals that are too large, broad, or vague

  3. goals with overly-aspirational timelines

  4. goals with no timelines at all

There are plenty of other ways a goal can go wrong, but these were the sorts of goals I realized were setting me up for not just inevitable failure, but lots of self-blame. I would make one of those mistakes listed above with about 80% of the goals I set for myself, and then they would linger, un-checked-off and filling me with dread and a deep sense of inadequacy. If I couldn’t even meet my own goals, then how was I supposed to jump through the external hoops required to graduate?

I eventually realized, thanks to thoughtful reflection on my journal, that the problem was not some internal flaw in my work ethic or capabilities, but a flaw in the method. I wasn’t setting SMART goals.

SMART goals

What makes a goal SMART? The acronym was first coined in the 1980s, and has been popularized in recent years. It’s a mnemonic to help remember the elements of good goal setting. A good goal should be:

  • Specific

  • Measurable

  • Achievable

  • Relevant

  • Time-limited

What does this look like in practice?

Specific

When setting a goal, you don’t want it to be too vague and general. I want to get better at research is not a very specific goal. To hone in on a more specific goal related to your broader ambition of (to pick an example from my own graduate career) getting better at research, ask yourself what areas of research you think need improvement. What skills do you need to develop? Where are the areas in which you feel you are struggling most? What external limitations are there to the process that might be contributing?

Once you have a clear picture of what accomplishing your broader ambition actually looks like, you will likely end up with a number of more specific goals, which will all contribute to the overall desire.

Measurable

Now that you have more specific goals, let’s talk about how to make them measurable. Let’s say that I’ve identified a number of specific goals that will help me get better at research. One of these might be building a better theoretical understanding of the underlying physics of my work. I needed to learn quantum field theory as a graduate student, in order to be able to push my research ahead. So let’s use that as our specific goal: learn quantum field theory.

That goal is specific, but how will I know when it’s done? This is the importance of crafting measurable goals. You want to know when you can check it off your list. To make your goals measurable, ask yourself how the goal can be quantified. Is there a certain number of things that must be accomplished? A competency test you can take? A final product that will come out of the process? The most important question here is the following: how will I know when this goal is achieved?

You want to make this as easy on yourself as possible — give yourself a clear metric for your goals, and then checking them off will be enormously satisfying.

Achievable

You’ve now made your specific goals measurable by asking yourself how you will know when you’ve finished. For my example of learn quantum field theory, I select a specific textbook and alter my goal to the following: read and take notes on the text, and complete 50% of the end-of-chapter problems.

But how do I know if it’s achievable? In this case, the goal seems achievable, but let’s talk about places where problems could arise.

Cost: is the textbook I’ve selected really expensive? Is it not available from a library? Does it require expensive software not provided by my university? If cost is factor, you could seek external funding, but recognize the added work that will add. Is there an alternative that doesn’t have a cost barrier attached?

Time and energy: if I chose to set this goal for a particularly intense semester where I was already teaching, enrolled in classes, working on research projects, and traveling for conferences, the goal of reading through an entire textbook and doing 50% of the problems suddenly seems a lot less achievable. Sure, you could technically do it. Probably. But recognizing that we have finite resources to devote to our work is important: in this case, maybe this goal is not achievable right now.

This is where knowing your priorities can come in really valuable. If this is truly the most important thing you need to be working on right now, where can you back off on other expectations? What can be put on hold to accomplish this more important goal? If this is not the most important thing, can it wait? Or can you do something less ambitious that will still help you move forward? This process is not always linear — you may find you need to return to your initial ambition and start again.

External barriers: one of the most frequent mistakes I see in goal setting falls under this category. If your goal relies on someone else accomplishing a task, it is not achievable (by you). Don’t set goals like “get my advisor to give me feedback on my draft,” because ultimately that result is out of your hands. Instead, your goals should be to get your draft turned in to your advisor and to follow up at specific intervals to check on the status. That is all that is in your power, so don’t expect yourself to work miracles.

Relevant

This is one of the hardest categories to recognize in goal-setting, especially in a culture that emphasizes a general, scattershot approach (Do all the things! Do them all well! ). Take a hard look at your goals at this point in your process and ask yourself: do I actually need to do this right now? Will it serve my current, broader career goals? Am I even the person who should be doing this, or is there someone else who take this on instead?

It’s really easy to find yourself stretched too thin because you’re trying to do everything. In my case, I ended up choosing to postpone my quantum field theory learning by a year in order to focus on more urgent tasks that I needed to accomplish before my preliminary exam. Note that I chose to postpone it — giving the task a definitive start date — not to ignore it. That brings us to the last element of goal-setting.

Time-limited

To avoid having un-checked-off goals languishing on your to-do list for years, set a clear and finite time frame. Ask yourself when the goal should start (see the above discussion about relevance) and when it needs to be finished. Be really critical of the deadlines you set for yourself. Most things have more wiggle room than you expect, and most things take longer than we estimate to accomplish, so account for that in your goal-setting. Set a deadline. Then, add 50% to that deadline. Yes, 50%. I promise, you will need it, and if you don’t need all of it, then congratulations: you just got some free time!

Another helpful element to include here is milestones along the way. If you have long-term goals whose time limit is weeks, months, or even years away, set sub-goals with deadlines spread throughout. These serve as great check-ins, plus accomplishing these sub-goals will help empower you to push through to the end. Big jobs are always easier to accomplish in small steps.

Iterate

Like all processes, setting SMART goals has a learning curve. So don’t expect yourself to get the hang of it right away. Give it a try, assess how the process goes for you, and use those observations to inform the next set of SMART goals you set. We’ll talk more next month about the review process — it’s always good to reflect back on your progress toward your goals.

Now go set some SMART goals for yourself!