What’s the Secret to Accomplishing Your Personal Goals?

Many of us went into the pandemic lockdown, more than a year ago, with plenty of ideas about what we’d like to do with our extra time at home: perhaps you hoped to write a screenplay, to become an expert backyard archer, or to bake a cake that looks exactly like something that isn’t cake. But if you’re like a lot of people, dreaming about the goals you’d like to accomplish can be far from taking actual steps to achieve those goals. As the effect of COVID on our daily schedule begins to wane, how can we realistically move closer to goal accomplishment?

The key, of course, is how you set your objectives, before you even take the first step toward action. For the best chance of success, choose goals that are SMART — that is, specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-based. (On the internet you’ll probably be able to find several alternatives for each of the components to the SMART acronym, but these are the ones I use.) Here, you’ll learn what makes each of these aspects of goal-setting important — and then, we’ll get into the crucial element of goal-setting that “SMART” misses entirely.

First, when choosing the endpoint to your particular crusade, be as specific as possible. Don’t simply express your intention to change in a certain way, or to get vaguely better at something you do. Identify the amount of change you intend to enact. For instance, take weight loss. Telling yourself you plan to lose five pounds is a much more specific, actionable goal than just saying you’re generally trying to lose weight. Or perhaps you’d like to become a better runner? How about setting a certain distance you’d like to be able to run, such as, say, the length of a half marathon? Or instead, you could choose to train until you can run a specific distance in a particular amount of time. Picking clear, specific goals helps you avoid the desultory goal-achievement efforts that can arise from vague objectives.

Your specific goal should also offer you a second benefit: that of being measurable. How easy would it be to lose weight, or to know that you’d lost it, if you never stepped on a scale or tried on a piece of clothing that once didn’t fit? That’s what it means to choose a measurable goal: to give yourself access to enough information to track your own progress. If you never record your mile-running time, you’ll never know when it gets faster; if you don’t pay attention to how many pages you write each night, you won’t know when you’ve gotten close to finishing your term paper. When you keep track of your goals in a clear way, you can answer to yourself. You’ll know if you haven’t done enough, or if you’re on course to finish on time.

The next two components of SMART goals are achievable and realistic. They’re related, but not the same. (Some takes on SMART goal setting use “relevant” instead of realistic, but I’ll assume that any goal you choose will be relevant to your own unique desire to improve.) An achievable goal is one that’s well within your range of accomplishment. For instance, writing your first novel over the course of a two-week vacation probably isn’t something you can easily achieve, but writing and revising a 10-page short story might be. Or, in terms of weight loss: losing a hundred pounds very quickly might be out of reach, while losing 10 pounds in the same time period should be much closer to possible.

So if an achievable goal is one that’s believably within your grasp, how is a realistic goal different? Setting a realistic goal means coming up with an effective method to go about achieving it. It means learning enough about your objective to identify a successful path forward. Becoming a more comfortable public speaker by taking an improv class — that’s realistic. Trying to do so by practicing speeches in front of your bathroom mirror, all alone? Probably less so. Or alternately, if your goal is to be able to bench press 150 percent of your own body weight, try increasing the weight you lift gradually over time, rather than going to the gym every day without a clear exercise schedule.

And the final component to SMART goal setting — or at least the final part of the acronym — is time-based. Your movement toward your goal may be slow or rapid, but in order to properly hold yourself to it and track your progress, you’ll need to set a deadline. “Read more books” is a vague goal that’s unlikely to motivate you especially well; “read more books this month” is much better. (And if you specify what “more” means, you’re doing better still.) Another fine example might be learning to swim: Telling yourself you want to learn to swim “someday” sounds more like a hope than a goal, and won’t motivate you as much as planning a trip to your aunt’s lake house this summer and promising yourself you’ll learn how to swim to the raft and back by that time.

As I mentioned above, there’s one more component of goal-setting that doesn’t fit neatly into SMART as it’s traditionally defined, and it begins with a second A: accountability. By this, I mean being open with your friends, colleagues, and family about your objectives. Setting specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-limited goals is one thing, but establishing them in view of people you know is quite another. You might feel shy about admitting to your co-workers that you’re trying to lose weight, or you might not want to talk with your volleyball team about your desire to read the complete works of Marcel Proust. But hiding this information will hobble your chances of successfully following through.

Consider the support you might receive from your colleagues if you’re open about your weight loss plan: Some of them might help if they admit to sharing the same goals. Or at the very least, being accountable in this way might mean leveraging the motivating power of embarrassment. If you admit to the volleyball team that you plan to finish all seven volumes before the end of the summer, you can ask them to hold you to your word — and as the weeks pass by, no doubt you will find yourself making more time to read, so you can tell them how you’re doing. Some goal-accomplishment tools or apps provide accountability by making you commit to an unwanted outcome if you fail to make enough progress. You might, for instance, agree to donate money to a political candidate you dislike if you don’t follow through on your promises to yourself.

In the end, goal accomplishment is more than just SMART; it’s also about establishing goals that are meaningful to you, but that lie well within your grasp — with some good research, appropriate planning, and a little effort, of course.



This article was written by Loren Soeiro, Ph.D., ABPP who is a psychologist in private practice in New York City, specializing in helping people find peace, fulfillment, and success in their relationships and their work. 

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