If you’ve ever been to a leadership training, worked in an organization, or lived with Tony Robbins, you’ve probably learned about SMART goals. You know: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely. In other words, criteria to consider when setting goals for yourself that increase the chances of you reaching that goal.

Yet, after years of receiving countless eye rolls, brush offs, and scorned looks, what I’ve found is that, when asked, very few people are actually able to create a SMART goal. Sure, they’ll say they can. They’ll act as though they’re so simple a first-grader could do it. They’ll roll their eyes. But, when I ask them to create one on their own? Let’s just say that actions speak louder than words (or eye rolls).

The SMARTer the goal is, the better the chance of reaching it. Unfortunately, many people don’t set themselves up for success because they aren’t clear enough about what they want, don’t know how to recognize if (or when) they achieve it, or treat the goal like a chore instead of something that matters to them.

Here are three common ways that people fail to make goals SMART and how to turn them into SMART goals (we’ll use the example of an un-SMART goal, “Improve meetings by having a clear agenda,” to illustrate):

Not being specific enough

This doesn’t just apply to the “S” – it applies to all five elements of SMART. Creating a proper SMART goal requires laser-sharp details such as numbers, dates, who, when, where, and what. If someone else can’t identify at least three of these details when reading your goal, then it’s probably not SMART.

Notice the difference if we apply specificity to the goal for our meeting: “By September 7, 2019, I will lead five consecutive meetings with an agenda that contains items to review, allotted times for each item, meeting roles and responsibilities, and distributed at least 48 hours before the meeting.”

Being process-oriented instead of outcome-oriented

Many people focus on how to achieve the goal instead of defining the goal. The goal is the outcome, not the process of getting there. If you fast-forward to your “Timely” (which, if you’ve been specific enough, will be an exact date down to the day), ask yourself:

  • What will have changed?
  • What will the outcome look like when you have arrived?
  • What differences would someone else observe compared to when you started?

Going back to our goal for meetings, guess what? Even after being specific, the goal isn’t yet SMART because it focused on the “how” (agenda) instead of the “what” (improve meetings). Let’s assume your real goal was to end meetings on time, and the agenda was a “how.” A more direct SMART goal could be “I will have five consecutive meetings start and end on time by September 7, 2019.” Notice how this already sounds clearer and more powerful than the previous version.

Choosing an uninspiring goal

People often view setting goals as a box to check or something they “should” do. Yet, when I ask people about something they truly want or desire, they start to get excited. Instead of thinking of a goal to pick, simply think of something you really want. Consider:

  • What change would make my organization (or life) better?
  • What’s an area of my organization (or life) I’d like to improve?
  • What’s something I truly want?

Returning to the goal for our meeting, it is only truly “Relevant” if it’s something we desire. If starting and ending meetings on time is ultimately what you desire, then great – you’re all set. However, if what you really desire is more engagement, timeliness could just be another “how” that supports that greater goal. Instead, consider aiming for something like: “By September 7, 2019, I will have five consecutive meetings in which we identify two ideas on how we can increase productivity.”

Notice how the goal is still clear and powerful, but also feels more energizing and likely “Relevant.” You’ll know your goal is SMART because you, and other people, will literally feel the difference when it’s read aloud. Again, it’s not as easy as many people think. Coming up with a SMART goal often takes time and experimentation. Be patient – the results will be worth the effort.

One last note: the previous examples don’t imply that we can only have one goal or that we should shun strategies. In fact, after you nail the SMART goal comes the fun of strategizing how to get achieve it, which I’ll cover in other posts.

Want feedback on your SMART goal? Put it in the comments below to get some feedback!