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The Smart Way to Reach Your Goals Every Time

Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, industrial engineer, mother of two, and published sci-fi and horror author.


Many people set goals in their annual performance review and as part of their New Year’s Resolutions. The problem is how many fail to accomplish any of their goals. The reason we fail is that we tend to set dumb goals. Paying off debt, losing weight and finding a partner isn’t dumb. Instead, we set generic goals and lack a plan for achieving that goal. The solution is being smart – and using the SMART system.

What Are SMART Goals?

SMART goals are those with five specific criteria that, if you meet them, you’re very likely to achieve them.

S stands for specific. Instead of saying you want to lose weight, you set a goal of losing 50 pounds this year or paying off your student loan. You have set your goalpost.

M is for measurable. A generic goal is hard to measure, and it is very hard to gauge progress toward that goal. This is actually why get-out-of-debt guru Dave Ramsey suggests paying off your smallest debts first before you tackle large ones. You get an emotional boost with each milestone, each small debt that is paid off.

A stands for attainable. You need to set a goal that is within reach. Planning on winning the lottery, healing relationships broken beyond repair or losing 150 pounds in six months are not attainable. You’ll fail, and you would be better off setting lower standards you can meet.

R is for realistic. Attainable means it is theoretically possible. R is for the determination of whether or not you’d really invest the time and effort to meet the goal. You might be able to lose 40 pounds with a strict diet and workout regimen, but you may not stick with it. A realistic goal may be half an hour of walking each day.

T stands for time-bound. You need to set a time frame for your goal. Are you going to lose 50 pounds this year or over six months? Will you pay off that credit card this month or over the next year? The time frame determines everything in your plan. If you are going to pay off $500 a month, you look for at least that much money to cut from your budget. If you plan on paying off $1000 a month, you’re either looking at $500 in budget cuts and $500 from a second job or you’ll need to find a better paying job. If you intend on losing 15 pounds this year, you’d outline little dietary changes and lifestyle changes to burn a pound and a half per month. If you plan on losing 50 pounds this year, you’ll have to shift gears to cut calories from your diet and ramp up the caloric burn.

Here are a few tips for achieving SMART goals.

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Most people pay off debt and build wealth through slow and steady progress. And that's how most achieve any big goal.

Most people pay off debt and build wealth through slow and steady progress. And that's how most achieve any big goal.

Set Goals You Can Control

It is really only possible to achieve your goals if they only depend on you. Setting a goal to finish your degree, pay off debt with your current income or other things within your control are ideal. Goals that require others to change or random events to occur make it less likely you’ll succeed. You can involve others in your goals, such as meeting with a financial counselor or physical trainer, but success shouldn’t depend on them meeting your possibly unrealistic standards.

Don’t Try to Do Too Much

There’s an old joke that you can either start a new diet or a new budget but not both at the same time. If you’re working toward one goal, you can let the rest of your life run on automatic. For example, set up automated contributions to your savings account, retirement account or debts. Then leave that alone while you focus on exercising more, eating healthier and minimizing emotional triggers that cause you to overeat. If you’re trying to get your personal life in order, get marriage counseling and plan time with the kids, but don’t try to add clean eating and adopting the magical power of tidying up lifestyle. Meet your first SMART goal, and then you can move on to the next one.

There’s a side benefit to this approach that many don’t realize. You need thirty days or so to change your habits. Try to change too much at the same time, and you’ll give up and revert to your old ways. Stick with the current plan and lock those habits in, and you won’t fall back into bad eating habits when you give up your tight budget.

Go Small

We already addressed the benefits of small, attainable goals. You aren’t trying to cut 1000 calories per day from your diet and work out an hour each day. Instead, you try to eat 500 fewer calories per day. If you’re trying to save money, pay off the smallest debt first or complete things like turning off overdraft protection and balancing your checkbook daily.

On the flipside, your goals need to have short time increments so you can keep track of them. Have a goal for how much you’ll save each week and workout each day.

Write It Down

Write down your goals and the periodic acts you have to take to achieve them.

The act of writing it down causes us to invest in the goal emotionally. It also etches the goal in our memory, causing us to be less likely to forget about it. Keep track of your progress, as well, whether you lost two pounds this week or paid off that retail credit card. Those little victories keep you going on your plan.

© 2018 Tamara Wilhite

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