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Goal Getting

What Are SMART Objectives? (And How to Use Them)

Written by Aytekin Tank
Founder and CEO of JotForm, sharing entrepreneurship and productivity tips at Lifehack.
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Imagine you’re planning a road trip to a place you’ve never been. Before leaving, you would probably open up Google Maps and plan your route. The same principle carries over to personal and professional goal-setting. Mapping out your journey with SMART objectives is a strategic way you get where you want to go, when you want to get there — and to avoid time-consuming wrong turns along the way.

As the CEO of my own company, my most precious resource is time. I’m tasked with the role of leading my team to our organization’s goals, and I want to make sure we don’t waste time getting off track. SMART objectives help me accomplish that, and they can help you, too.

What Are SMART Objectives?

SMART objectives are a framework for accomplishing your goals[1]. SMART is an acronym consisting of five key elements on the road map toward efficiency. If an objective is “smart,” it will be:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

These elements create an action plan for where you want to go and an assessment tool for measuring progress along the way.[2]

smart objectives

    George T Doran, a consultant and former Director of Corporate Planning for Washington Water Power Company, developed the framework of SMART goals[3] to help managers lead their organizations toward their goals. However, SMART objectives are an effective method for anyone who wants to accomplish something — professional or personal — in the most efficient way.


    By clearly defining the steps and resources you need to move toward your accomplishments — and signaling progress as you go — SMART objectives keep you motivated and on track, increasing the odds you’ll get where you want to go in the long term.

    How does this play out practically? Perhaps you’re tasked with increasing the SEO traffic to your company’s website. As is, this objective is quite vague. How much do you want to increase the traffic, and by when?

    SMART goals add specificity to your objectives, making your desired outcome, along with your action steps, as concrete as possible.

    How to Use SMART Objectives to Increase Your Efficiency

    As with any new routine, implementing SMART objectives requires a bit of time and intentionality, but in the end, they should save you some hassle. With the right steps and mindset, you will be able to move closer to your goals without wasting valuable time or energy.

    The first step to implementing and applying SMART objectives is thinking big. Take some time to zoom out and reflect on the big picture. What’s your overall vision for your project or organization?

    Once you establish an idea of where you want all your hard work to lead you five or ten years down the road, you can use SMART objectives to brainstorm the most effective steps to get there.


    For more information on creating SMART goals, you can check out this video:

    1. Be as Specific as Possible

    When you’re venturing out on a road trip, you probably have an idea of where you’re going. If you don’t have a clear picture of where you want to go, you won’t know how to get there. That’s why it’s vital to be as specific as possible about the end result you’re seeking.

    Think of this specificity as creating a mission statement for your goal.[4]

    For example, my colleagues and I recently decided we wanted to streamline our customer service process. Ideally, this would result in happier customers, a respectable goal on its own. But what would this improvement look like, tangibly?

    Customer reviews are one way to concretely determine whether our customers are thrilled with our product and service. Therefore, to make the goal more specific, we decided we wanted our five-star ratings to increase.

    With a specific improvement in mind, we were able to develop practical action steps to get there. We also gained new motivation to make our customers’ experience great.

    To create a specific goal of your own, write out exactly what you’re trying to accomplish, with the most specific wording as possible. Avoid words like “increase” or “improve,” which are vague, and choose a specific action instead.


    2. Make Your Goals Measurable

    To make your objectives “smart,” you need a way to track your progress and understand when you’ve met expectations. That’s why measurable goals are particularly important.

    Using my example, my team and I knew we wanted our positive ratings to improve, but by how much? How would we know when our work was paying off?

    We decided increasing our five-star online reviews by 30 percent would be an accurate way of measuring our progress. We had improved our sales by this much before, so applying the same objective to our reviews seemed reasonable.

    When you create your own SMART goals, make sure to establish a benchmark. Associating a number, amount, percentage, or frequency with your goal creates a “bullseye” target for you to hit. It’s your quantified picture of success to help you achieve goals.

    3. Be Realistic

    It’s important to stretch yourself when you’re chasing a goal. However, since time is of the essence for most of us, it’s crucial to be realistic. Can this goal actually be achieved with your existing time and resources, or does it need to be scaled down and integrated into a larger plan?

    When my team and I set out to improve our user ratings, I had to examine the likelihood we could actually accomplish it. If I had doubted our ability to do so, I would have tweaked the objective. For example, I could have stretched the deadline or decreased the measurement of success.


    Looking back at past progress and analytics is one way to double check that your SMART objective is realistic. Are you hoping for a spike in traffic to your company’s website? If your past few months have shown an increase of just two or three percent, a goal of 10 percent growth might be a stretch.

    Save yourself time and frustration, and aim to be as realistic as possible.

    4. Choose Goals That Are Relevant to Your Business

    Another common time-waster is creating goals that are irrelevant to an individual or organization’s core values or strategy.

    For my colleagues and me, happy customers are the primary benchmark for success. We built our product and company to save our customers time and improve their lives, so a goal of improving customer ratings made sense. It fit with the direction we were already going.

    When you’re developing SMART objectives of your own, ask yourself whether your goal lines up with your organization’s strategic plans and with industry trends. In other words, make sure your desired objective matters. You want your hard work to pay off.

    5. Choose a Specific Time Frame

    The final step in creating SMART objectives is allotting a specific time frame to your goal. Every objective has mile markers and a destination, so make sure to ask yourself the question, “When will this be done?”

    Adding the boundaries of a particular time frame will keep you focused and on schedule. In our case, we were aiming for a 30-percent improvement in reviews within three months. This deadline created a sense of pressure that motivated us to work hard, but it also felt realistic.


    With the time frame in mind, our objective went from “increase positive reviews” to “grow five-star ratings by 30 percent within three months.”

    Pros and Cons of SMART Objectives

    Like setting SMART goals, because they have specific characteristics to them, managers are able to get clear benefits and drawbacks from them. Some of the distinct advantages are:

    • They clarify the end vision. Goals without clarity or a specific direction don’t help you grow. Because this system demands you to be specific and to clarify every step of the way, you’re not wasting valuable time and have a clear path.
    • They help you focus. Similarly as the previous point, because the goal is in your face, you know what has to be done. This helps to avoid distractions. Furthermore, the system inherently gets you to take larger goals and break them down into smaller ones.
    • It pushes you forward. When setting long term goals through this system, it motivates you to move forward and work towards it. Whenever you’re losing motivation, think about your goal for extra motivation.
    • Instills self-discipline. People who lose focus or get distracted often lack self-discipline. Because this system aims to tackle those issues, you learn to discipline yourself slowly but surely.
    • Makes visualizing success easier. Progress is easier to see, gauge, and evaluate when you can see it. Because SMART systems provide something so narrow, you can easily do this.
    • It helps you to focus on one goal at a time. Goals themselves can even be distracting at times too. Because these goals can be broken into smaller ones, it’s easier to set goals into small and intermediate achievable goals, reducing the gap between start to finish.

    All the same, there are some distinct disadvantages when it comes to this system. Things like neglecting the spirit of goal setting, wisdom, and even being happy with what you are doing. SMART goals can be tricky to balance and it helps to know the disadvantages of this system. Here are some:

    • It can get addicting. Similarly to to-do lists, the system can become easily broken if you task yourself with too much. While to-do lists in this fashion have very easy tasks on them, you can still fall into this pitfall with goals. Too many goals, or neglecting to set goals in certain areas can lead to problems. And getting addicted can lead you to exhibiting those behaviours of focusing on one area of your life at a time.
    • It can starve you spiritually. Goals inherently create pressure on you, even if you work well under it or some of it. SMART goals tend to be worse since they are time-bound and therefore provide a constant pressure. Setting too many of them can put you into a frame of mind where you constantly need to perform. You can end up losing your sense of self as a result. This of course can expand to an entire team.
    • Identity confusion. Expanding further on that point, being under constant pressure can lead you to questioning who you really are. You can lose yourself and identity from setting too many goals. A team can go through an identity crisis as well as they struggle to figure out where the team should go and even how they fit into the team.
    • Goal setting failure. While failure is part of the process, one of the biggest flaws is that the SMART objectives – like SMART goals – don’t account for it. The “A” in each one means Achievable. Therefore, before setting that goal, you need to make abundantly clear that you can achieve this goal with the slightest of effort. Therefore, when a team or an individual does experience failure, it can end up as quite a shock on someone’s system.

    What Managers Should Consider When Implementing SMART

    Aside from following the SMART criteria (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound), there are some other considerations to be making. Some things to consider are:

    • Avoid negative framing goals. Saying “stop losing clients” as a goal doesn’t inspire people as it has negative connotations to it. Instead, thinking of it like “generating X leads for the business” is more positive and clear.
    • Take time to evaluate and re-evaluate. Since you’re aware of the disadvantages now, it’s important to be checking the team and yourself on a regular basis. Make adjustments to goals and ask plenty of questions.
    • Have control. SMART goals specifically give the goal setters themselves the ability to achieve the goal. As soon as a goal is set around something a team or you don’t have complete control over, it’ll be harder and not ideal for this system.

    SMART Examples

    • Specific – A good example is a goal that is intuitive to anyone with basic knowledge of the project. Something like finishing a specific part of a big project.
    • Measurable – An example of that would be something that can be measured by whether it’s completed or not. It can entail a certain action like “complete the report so the manager can approve it.”
    • Achievable – Something that can be done with the current resources of the team. An example would be again completing a report or working on a certain aspect of a big project.
    • Relevant – It should be relevant to the company’s overall vision and objectives. If your company values customer satisfaction, a relevant goal would be to understand more about customers and creating products or services they would enjoy.
    • Time-bound – A goal should have a time limit. The goal would be time bound if you specified the goal to be done within a week or a month.

    How Do SMART Objectives Differ to Personal Development Objectives?

    SMART objectives tend to focus on the company as a whole and on an individual level the goal-setter’s own performance. On the other hand, personal development objectives focus solely on the individual and could have some relevance to the company as a whole but it emphasizes the enrichment of an individual’s life and career.

    Furthermore, SMART objectives are easier in nature as they don’t demand you to stretch your goal. Rather it directs someone to a specific task and to complete it. Personal development objectives encourage people to stretch and to challenge themselves further and set goals that are more out of reach.


    How Do I Get Employees to Write Their Own SMART Objectives?

    Getting employees to write SMART objectives is simple. Keep in mind the following aspects and it should be easy to have employees write SMART objectives:

    • Remind employees to keep in mind their limitations – Getting goals that are challenging and engaging are nice but SMART objectives aren’t about that. You want to be keeping them somewhat grounded and using what tools and skills they currently have. Guiding them towards that thinking can lead to them understanding their limits.
    • Still offer room for flexibility – Organizations change on a regular basis. As such, goals will be changing as well. Remind people to be fluid with their goals and to keep in mind that unimportant aspects now could be relevant later.
    • Using performance management software – This software makes setting, agreeing, and even tracking these goals easier for everyone.
    • Explain the importance of SMART objectives – Not every employee knows why they’re doing this. Some people set goals for the sake of setting them. By taking time to explain why goals matter and to write meaningful goals, employees can get an understanding and be more willing to engage.

    The Bottom Line

    If you’re creating specific, measurable, and achievable SMART objectives of your own, you’re creating a road map to your success. The good news is that taking time to create these goals is a major part of the journey. As the famous author, salesman, and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar once said,

    “A goal properly set is halfway reached.”

    More Tips on Creating SMART Objectives

    Featured photo credit: Anete Lūsiņa via unsplash.com


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