One of the major components to happiness and personal satisfaction is having control over your own destiny. It can be all too easy to fall into the trap of simply drifting, directionless, in life’s currents. This sort of meaningless drifting can leave you feeling like a slave to the events taking place around you. Fortunately, it isn’t difficult to seize control over you life. It simply requires the will… and a good strategy.
The problem that many people face in trying to regain control over their lives is that many never sit down and concretely define what that would look like. Without setting concrete goals for ourselves, we have only a vague idea of what direction we want our lives to take. And without an objective evaluation of our successes and our failures, we don’t have a clear picture of which actions are conducive to driving our lives in the directions we want them to go.
If you find yourself adrift, your goals are the compass pointing you in the right direction. The tools I’ll give you below will be your oars.
Setting SMARTER Goals
SMART is a mnemonic with its roots in corporate project and performance management. Each of the letters represents a specific criterion that a goal should satisfy to increase the likelihood of achieving it. Most commonly, SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. The ‘E’ and the ‘R’ in SMARTER were added later, and are not so much additional criteria as they are steps to take to guarantee the achievability of current and future goals. In this case, ‘E’ stands for Evaluate and ‘R’ stands for Reevaluate. So, now that we’re all on the same page, let’s take a look at a strategy for setting and meeting your SMARTER goals.
1. Make your goals specific.
Whether your goal is weight loss, career advancement, or something else entirely, setting specific goals will create a much stronger sense of subconscious urgency than setting vague ones. Think about it in terms of driving directions. If I tell you to “turn at the 4-way stop,” you only have a fifty-percent chance of turning the right direction. Being specific with your goals gives you a much greater chance of success.
If your goal is to lose weight, how much weight do you want to lose? If you’d like to run faster, what is your goal pace? And over what distance? Not only does setting specific goals make you more likely to achieve them, but it ties well into our second point…
2. Make your goals measurable.
Unless you have a way to objectively measure your goal, how will you know when you’ve succeeded? In that sense, “I’d like to be successful,” is a bad goal because there is simply no way to determine when you have achieved it. On the other hand, “I’d like to be the CEO of a Fortune 500,” is a better goal because it will be evident when you have achieved it. You wouldn’t try to lose 30 pounds without every stepping on a scale, would you?
3. Set a stretch goal.
Having your goals be achievable and realistic is important. For instance, I am simply not built with the speed required to win the Boston Marathon. However, there’s nothing stopping me from qualifying to run it. My current pace hovers around 8:00 per mile, and I’d need to get down to 7:15 to qualify. It is a stretch, but stretches are far more motivating than extraordinarily realistic goals. How motivated would I be with a goal of racing 7:59? Not very. It’s the same regardless of the goal. The more you want it, the harder you are going to work to achieve it. And the best way to create that want is to put your goal just out of reach.
4. Keep your deadlines realistic.
When you choose a timeline for your goal, make sure that it’s realistic. To return to our aspiring CEO a moment, we’ve established this as a specific, measurable goal. But what timeline is realistic? One year? Ten? Keeping your timelines realistic will reduce your frustration and contribute to your chances of success. And, as long as we’re on the topic of timeliness…
5. Make your goals scalable.
Think about each goal not just in terms of what you hope to accomplish by next year, but also in terms of intermediate deadlines. I typically recommend that you break your goals down into your long-term objective, a 90 day goal, and a daily goal at a minimum. Your daily goal should reinforce the habits that you need to form to keep you on the path toward long-term success. Your 90 day goal is there to give you a near-term objective to strive for on a macro level (beyond your daily goal). It should give you a natural point to evaluate your actions to determine whether they are helping you reach your long-term goal. And, of course, your long-term objective is the point at which you have ultimately achieved what you set out to do.
6. Determine the why of your goals.
There are two major forms of motivation always at play: intrinsic and extrinsic. Extrinsic motivation refers to factors like money, competition, or even the threat of punishment. Conversely, intrisic motivation comes from within and is the much stronger of the two forms of motivation. Think a moment about your goals? What is it about that goal that drives you? The more emotional attachment you can give to a goal, the more you internalize it. If you are truly emotionally invested in a goal, you are more likely you are to stick with it through the tough times.
7. Make sure your goals are in harmony.
Having a list of goals gives you a lot to work on, and can help keep you moving forward. At the same time, you need to check your goals from time to time to be sure that pursuing one goal won’t prevent you from reaching others. To pick on our CEO one more time, if his other goal is, “spend more time at home,” there are likely going to be problems. Being a CEO is hard work, requiring long hours (or so I hear). Similarly, having a goal of “losing weight” (requiring a calorie deficit) and another of “gaining muscle” (requiring a calorie surplus) is going to prevent you from reaching either. If you have conflicting goals, spend some time deciding which is most important, then pursue that to completion before taking the others back up.
8. Write your goals as affirmation statements, and review them daily.
The best tool that I can give you for achieving your goals is the affirmation statement. Writing a short, positive, personal statement reflecting your goal and reviewing it throughout the day can have a powerful impact on how you internalize your goals. Follow the guidelines in the linked post above, I could write a statement like, “I am so thankful now that my pace is 7:15 per mile.” Write your goal affirmations on an index card that you can place in your wallet or pocket. Since repetition is such a powerful psychological tool, try and review your affirmations at least twice a day.
9. Try to visualize your goal as already completed.
The brain is a wonderful and complex thing. Countless studies have been performed that show tangible benefits to the simple act of visualizing yourself completing an act or realizing a goal. In fact, especially in athletics, visualization has started to gain widespread acceptance as a valuable training technique. The same techniques can be applied to achieving your goals. As you read your daily affirmations, try to picture yourself having reached your goal. By doing so, you create impulses that align with your goals. After a while, the impulses will become subconscious and you will naturally drive toward your goals. Think of it as creating mental muscle-memory.
10. Analyze your successes and failures.
Once you’ve reached your deadline, evaluate how you did. Never forget that it’s okay not to reach your goal on the first try. If you fail, look at what you could’ve done differently and tweak your goal for a second try. Or maybe you failed to reach your goal because it really isn’t as important to you as you initially thought it was (point 6). Or… more likely, you succeeded and it’s time to give yourself a new set of goals.
What about you? Are there any techniques you’ve found especially helpful when pursuing your goals?