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  • Writer's pictureRyan Wilson

SMART goals

How many times have you decided to make a change in your life and two weeks later, nothing has changed?

If you are like the rest of us, the answer to that question is – a lot! We all set out to “make better choices”, “eat healthier”, “Exercise every day this week”, “call my friends more” etc.

Failure to change has been a big issue in business, government, and day-to-day living and has inspired hundreds of books and magazine articles about how to “fix” the problem. In 1981 George T. Doran introduced a catchy acronym to help business managers remember the important concepts that will drive success – S.M.A.R.T.  It turns out, it can be used by pretty much anyone who wants to create change in their life.

In order set ourselves up for success, it is best if we start with these ingredients:

S- be Specific

When we say we will “meditate more”, “eat less junk” etc, we are being so vague that we would not really know if we met the goal or not.

Changing our language to be as specific as possible helps. For example, “I will meditate  for 5 minutes 3 times/ week” or “I will carry an apple to snack on every day “, helps us focus our attention on the specific behaviour we are trying to change, increasing our chances of successfully changing it.

NOTE: It is important to frame goals as what we WILL DO as opposed to what we won’t. Notice we did not say “I will not eat more than 3 chocolate bars / day”, we framed it in terms of what we will do to replace the unhealthy habit. There is something about using positives than negatives that motivates us and our brain to follow through more. 

We are also more likely to successfully stop a bad habit when we replace it with an incompatible good one, like instead of I will stop biting my nails, I say I will use hand lotion when I feel like biting my nails, or instead of I will stop smoking, I will chew gum when I get the urge to smoke.

M – Measurable

“I’m going to exercise more”, “I will work harder at school/ work”, “I will be more present

with my kids”. How would we know if we actually met these goals or not? Why does it matter?

Part of whether we successfully change something in our life depends on our confidence that we can make that change. If we are confident we can make a particular change, we keep at it for longer and think about it more. Being able to objectively say if we have met a goal or not is an important part of building our confidence, so we can celebrate our successes.

By clearly saying / knowing exactly what behaviour we want to change, it brings our attention and focus to it. This can help us see connections we didn’t see before, for example, maybe by carrying an apple to snack on, we notice how much money we are saving because we are no longer buying coffee and a donut 3 times/ day. So even though we may be tracking how often we are eating a healthy snack (Apple), we may learn something about our spending habits.

It also allows us to problem solve more easily if we do not meet our SMART goal, allowing us to break the goal down into smaller steps so we are more likely to succeed.

So getting back to our original examples, we could change them as follows:

  1. “I’m going to exercise more” -> “I will exercise for 15 minutes 3x/ week”

  2. “I will work harder at school”-> “I will study for 20 min every day”

  3. “I will pay more attention to my kids”-> “I will set aside 10 min every night at bedtime to ask my kids about their day”

In short, “What gets measured gets managed” – Peter Drucker

AActionable by us

This means that it is something that is in your control to do.

So we would say “I will invite John and Emma for dinner” as opposed to “I will have dinner with John and Emma”, because what if you invite them but they say no, then you can’t meet your SMART goal for that week.

R- Relevant & Realistic

Choosing a goal that matters is one of the most important steps in the whole process. Our lives are busy enough as it is, without creating make-work projects. Without a relevant goal there is little motivation to complete it, and then we often beat ourselves up for not meeting it anyway, moving us backwards instead of forwards.

At the same time, the goal we pick needs to be realistic. For example, suppose I had the life-long dream to run in the Boston Marathon. The marathon is in 3-days, and I have done NO TRAINING, in fact I haven’t gone for a run in 5 years. The goal might be relevant (meaningful to me), but is it realistic for me to expect to be able to run 26 miles 3 days from now? Probably not. On the other hand, I could plan to run in the marathon the following year and start using realistic and meaningful weekly goals that will prepare me for the big day! Starting with a 1/2-mile run 3/week might be much more manageable.

When creating a goal answer the following 2 questions:

  1. Does this really matter to me, right now?

  2. Is it realistic? If the goal is part of a larger dream/goal, have I broken this down into a realistic step?

T – Time Limited

Setting a “due date” is another really important step. Without a timeline day-to-day life can creep in, and becomes more important than the goal you have set out.  Due dates should be realistic, but should also be challenging enough to force action now! Due dates for each goal also gives us the chance to see how well or how poorly we did with the goal and gives us the chance to make changes.

Creating good SMART goals requires a lot of practice. Don’t be afraid to experiment. By making measurable and time-limited goals you can check and see what worked and what didn’t, and look at why it did or didn’t work.


Everyone has good intentions, but starting the New Year with “I’m going to lose weight” is a goal that is doomed to failure for many reasons. Let’s at least assume that the goal is Relevant and meaningful. What is missing?

“I’m going to lose 20lbs” is better, because  its specific (20lbs weight loss),  measurable (we can use a scale to measure lbs), and actionable (you have control) but without a  timeline is equally likely to fail!

“I’m going to lose 20lbs in 3 months” is now a time-limited, achievable, goal, which helps you keep focus, and can prevent day-to-day life from creeping in and taking over. It also forces you to take action, now.

Breaking larger goals into smaller steps will also help. Rather than wait 3 months to take a measurement and see if you lost the 20lbs, set new SMART goals like: “I’m going to lose 2 lbs per week”. Limiting the goals to very short times allows us to make changes when things aren’t working and celebrate our successes more often when they do work.

Although this last part was not initially included in SMART goals, it can make a HUGE difference. Share your goals with people who will ask you about them at your due date or set goals with others and be accountable together. We will often allow ourselves off the hook when only we knew we set a goal, but when someone else might ask us about it, no one wants to admit failure.

Feel free to email or Twitter us with your questions and/ or comments. Let’s start a community where we can be accountable to each other for living our values one step at a time. Share your SMART goals on Twitter at @DrAdrianaWilson, email us or leave a comment. (FYI- You can use an anonymous handle if you are feeling self conscious).

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