You’ve probably heard that to thrive in life, you need to work smarter, not harder. According to JobStreet’s Decoding Global Talent report, unlike older generations who were willing to work long hours to reach their ambitions, Millennials and Gen Z don’t measure their competency based on the hours they clock in. They’re time- and energy-efficient, and equipped with an arsenal of productivity tools. Inspired? The secret to this smart working scheme may be literal: SMART goals.
SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound – five factors that affect how you complete your work objectives. Simply put, the acronym helps you map out your goal in a precise and practical way. It allows you and your team to keep moving forward, avoid miscommunication, promote accountability and transparency, and stay motivated, especially since everyone can see the progress.
As a goal-setting tool, it gives you a higher chance of accomplishing your aims well and on time.
George Doran introduced the concept in the 1981 article “ There's a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management goals and objectives ” inManagement Review. His goal was to simplify project management concepts via a mnemonic. He suggested creating an acronym to help corporate officers, managers, and supervisors write aligned and meaningful objectives: SMART.
But while SMART goals outline specific steps, Doran encourages flexibility in its interpretation. Over the years, various productivity experts have adapted the acronym. Doran himself explained that every goal should not have to include all five. For example, not all goals, such as wanting to be more social at work, are quantitative. However, the more factors you use, the clearer your goals become.
Any person or organisation can be ambitious, but setting achievable aspirations is a different ball game. Imagine running a marathon. When you think about the 42 kilometres, you may feel intimidated. But breaking it down into 6-kilometre intervals makes it less daunting.
When you or your team see goals set in a realistic and attainable manner, you feel much more motivated to perform them. And this is why SMART goals are more effective than vague resolutions.
Here are characteristics that make the SMART system a great tool to use ASAP:
There’s a benefit to sharing your goals – more so when you write them down. In 2015, a study on strategies by Dominican University Psychology professor Gail Mathews reported the following insights:
Think of SMART as a more intensive way of setting goals. For results-oriented Singaporeans, this process is useful for crafting long-term goals you can follow through on.
Former Education Minister Ong Ye Kung once said that one of Singaporean culture’s greatest assets is the ability to set long-term goals and achieve them. Seeing your goals organised with the SMART method helps clarify instructions, puts everyone on the same page, and holds everyone accountable for their responsibilities. Explicit directions and concrete objectives help guide employees to reach the desired outcomes.
Psychologists Gary Latham and Edwin Locke, pioneers in goal-setting theories, reported that straightforward objectives increase productivity by 11 to 25%. Because the goals are so detailed, you waste no time wondering what to do and how to go about it. The SMART criteria also make you agile, since you see the developments (or lack thereof) and make adjustments to help maintain your benchmarks
Have you ever started a new year telling yourself you’re going from a sedentary lifestyle to exercising daily? According to a Forbes article on New Year's resolutions, over 80% of people throw out these resolutions by mid-January. When you have high expectations, you’re less likely to deliver on them when reality hits.
The beauty of SMART goals’ design lies in its simplicity and practicality. It breaks down larger ambitions into manageable tasks – there is no overarching goal that you and the team couldn't do. You won’t be given a target of 1,000% when your tools and resources only allow for 500%. The five criteria are particularly motivating because you not only see the finish line, but also the path to it.
SMART goals’ clear steps and even clearer destinations keep you on course.
SMART goals provide a road map that lets you visualise every bit of progress as well as potential challenges. This helps you make better decisions on the development of your goals. Is there a blocker? What pivots do you have to make? Seeing everyone’s skill sets and responsibilities, who’s the best person to perform these tasks?
Besides that, a study published in the Western Journal of Emergency Medicine reports that those who engaged in SMART goal-setting also initiated self-learning from the challenges and opportunities brought up by the experience.
The SMART criteria allow you more control over time. Project leaders are able to draft goals and schedule milestones based on the team’s capability. As a team member, you get full visibility of your scope, allowing you to plan your internal deadlines properly. Knowing how your work connects to others also helps you become more accountable to stay within your timeline.
SMART goals aren’t a magic formula that guarantees you’ll nail your objectives. However, these guidelines remove ambiguity, over-ambition, guesswork, and aimlessness – typical issues that block success. SMART goals improve teamwork, and give teams a better sense of responsibility and stronger motivation – factors that lead to success.
Are you ready to set your SMART goals? Remember the mnemonic:
In recent years, project managers have created SMARTER (which adds Evaluation and Review/Reward). S has come to include Stretching, Simple, and Sensible; M has become Motivation; A has become Aligned; R has become Resourced and Results-based; and T has become Testable.
To understand how to set SMART goals, consider this example:
Andre wants to make his website more popular.
Lianne Dehaye, META’s Business Planning and Operations Lead, has said, “People dream of their goals, but they don’t achieve [them]. They know the what but not the how.” The specificity of your goal should answer the how, who, what, and even where. It drives the goal’s direction because you know who to work with, what to work on, and what to aim for.
Here are questions you should ask when specifying goals:
In the example, Andre’s goal to make his website more popular is vague. What channel does he use? What does he have to do to become popular? Should he hire a social media manager?
Most business goals are quantifiable. You can’t outline a strategy if you don’t know what you’re striving for. You want to be better at work. You want to be successful. You want to be financially secure. These aims are reasonable, but ambiguous. A measurable goal has a definite finish line in full view, which can also be motivating.
Questions to ask when creating measurable goals:
In the case of Andre, at what point does he consider his website popular? How many followers does he want on Twitter? How many views on TikTok? Are 50,000 monthly page views enough?
You need to give your goal a reality check. Unrealistic goals can create tension and frustration. They can also set you up for disappointment.
Questions to ask when creating achievable goals:
For Andre, planning to expand his online presence by promising to produce 10 pieces of content himself daily for one year is hardly doable.
Relevance ties in closely with achievability. The goal has to make sense in terms of the organisation’s overall business direction and your team’s capabilities. Essentially, this criterion reminds you why you have this goal in the first place.
Questions to ask when creating relevant goals:
For example, Andre decides to invest in Facebook campaigns. However, no one from his team is well-versed in social media marketing tools.
A deadline helps everyone stay focused, proactive, and responsible. Schedules also save you from wasting time or procrastinating, create a sense of urgency, and update you on your progress.
Questions to ask when creating time-bound goals:
How long does Andre have to meet his targets? Should he have 50,000 followers in two months? Should he have launched a website by March, boosted content monthly starting in April, and introduced videos by December?
Here’s how Andre can turn his goal into a SMART one:
Again, remember that the SMART method isn’t a promise that you’ll achieve your goal. Stick to the tenets of the criteria to give yourself a fighting chance.
According to SEEK research, 42% of people find goals overwhelming. Ambiguous goals can either seem too unrealistic, too confusing, too broad, or too “what’s the point?” In the end, you may feel unenthusiastic, tired, or too disorganised to accomplish anything.
You could be running and running without realising that you’ve already crossed the finish line – or are still kilometres away from it. You’ll burn out and lose focus at some point. Setting checkpoints is a good practice to make the goal feel less overwhelming.
SMART goals do not mean easy goals. An easy goal can be boring, while an overly difficult one could make you give up. Ideally, every goal should still be a teaching moment that helps you improve. This means your goal must be somewhere between being sensible and being challenging.
While SMART goals give you a bird's-eye view of your objectives, you can’t control everything. A colleague might get sick. The client might move up the deadline. You have to make allowances for incidentals.
SMART goals require agility. Since you can check where you are against your benchmarks, you can modify your strategy to consider overshoots or lapses. Failing to account for these changes in real-time could set you off course.
Never lose sight of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Remembering the value – or the relevance – of your goal will help you stay motivated and accountable.
Dehaye and Lambart both support the idea of telling someone about your goals. Dehaye describes it as “manifesting,” adding, “Keep your eyes on your goal. Manifest it. Say it out loud and get it done.” Likewise, Lambart says an “accountability buddy” could help you keep your eyes on the ball.
Have you made any headway towards your goal? Seeing that you’re on track can be exceptionally motivating. It reminds you that you’re going somewhere and you’re getting nearer.
Did you know that high achievers at work take their time to celebrate their wins, big or small? It encourages them to keep going, gives them a much-needed break, and makes work seem like less of a chore.
You’re going to encounter bumps on the road to your goal. Pause and reassess. What could you have done differently? How do you pivot to set you back on track? Failing is part of any process, but you shouldn’t give up because of it. Celebrity Sharon Au advises, “Never be afraid of failing because I have come to see that I learned more from my failures than my wins.”
When setting goals, remember to work smarter, not harder.
The SMART framework helps you refine your objectives. When they are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound, you have a clear and focused way forward. While the system is not foolproof, it certainly gives you the best odds of success. It identifies concrete targets and steps, eliminates confusion and guesswork, and encourages teamwork and accountability.
Whether you want to learn a new skill by mid-year or grow your business by 50% in three years, give the SMART principles a try and see how well they can improve your efficiency.
For more productivity tips like these, visit JobStreet’s Career Advice page. Get ready to thrive in your work life in the best way possible.
assigning too many goals
setting vague goals or overly specific goals
failing to track progress regularly
failing to act on deviations from the overall plan
overestimating or underestimating your abilities
neglecting to give yourself success metrics
creating goals that are too easy or too difficult