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How to Set SMART and Effective Goals

You need more than a dollar and a dream to reach your objective

By Julie Shifman

I have the greatest mother-in-law. She is one of my biggest cheerleaders, even complimenting me on what a great job I’ve done mothering her grandchildren — and how many people can say that about her mother-in-law? But Renae, an active and lively septuagenarian, has one “flaw” that she readily cops to: She has never found the willpower to exercise—or, to be more accurate, to keep exercising once she starts.

She knows she should stick to a routine to lose a little weight, have more energy and be healthier, but every time she’s tried (more times than she’d like to mention), she’s given up after only a month or so.

Renae knows that I am very dedicated to my own fitness regimen — and very goal-oriented — so two months ago she asked if I would help her create a exercise goal and then monitor her exercise progress as a way to keep her accountable.

While I firmly believe that accountability is a great first step in any new endeavor, I also realize that it isn't enough to create success. One also needs a clearly definable goal. Here’s how our conversation went:

  • Julie: So, Renae, what are your exercise goals for the first week?
  • Renae: I joined the gym!
  • Julie: That's great, but joining the gym isn’t a goal. We need your goal to be definable. How many classes are you going to take the first week?
  • Renae: I don’t think I’m ready for group classes, so I am going to use the machines.
  • Julie: OK, but we need to be clear about which machines and what you will do on them. We also need to determine how many times in one week you will go to the gym. You can set small step goals, Renae, but they need to be specific.

Well, you can see where I was going. If Renae didn’t set any SMART goals, I felt she wasn’t likely to be successful in her new exercise commitment.

The SMART approach to goal-setting was originally developed by business philosopher Jim Rohn and has become a widely used and recognized method for success. Motivational guru Tony Robbins credits Rohn for some of his success: “He certainly had a positive impact on me at a time in my life when I was first forming the philosophies that guide me today," Robbins has said.

According to Rohn’s principles, a SMART goal is one that is:

  • Systematic/Specific: It’s focused on tangible behaviors or performance areas. You are more likely to achieve a specific goal than one that is not well defined. Doesn’t it make sense that you would be more successful if you set a weight loss goal of 2 pounds a week (specific) than if you said, “I am going to lose weight” (too vague)?
  • Measurable: It has quantifiable standards by which performance can be measured. Ask yourself questions like “how much?” and “how many?” to make sure you’re following measurable standards.
  • Attainable: Your goal should represent something beyond what exists now but is within reach. Almost any goal that is planned wisely in steps and has a realistic time frame can be reached.
  • Realistic and Relevant: To be relevant, your goal must be aligned with your greater purpose or vision; for it to be realistic, you must truly believe you can accomplish it, even if it will take a lot of work.
  • Target Time Frame, or a deadline for completion: Setting a goal to lose 10 pounds “sometime” gives way too much wiggle room as compared with setting a goal to “lose 10 pounds before I leave for my summer vacation.”

Applying these principles to Renae: Unless she commits to a certain number of visits to the club each week and specific amounts of time on the various exercise machines, her goal is not measurable.

How will we know if she has achieved what she set out to do? I asked her to go easy on herself, because it’s equally important that the goal is attainable. Initial success is critical. When we succeed early on, we feel good about ourselves and then keep pushing as we want that good feeling to continue. This is not the time to push too hard or try to overachieve.

In my personal life and working with clients, I’ve found that initially, the goals should be easily attainable and laid out over a relatively short time frame so that they're not overwhelming. So Renae and I agreed that she would go to the gym three times a week, and we created a concrete game plan for which machines and how many reps she’d do per visit. If I instead had told Renae to go to the gym 36 times in three months and then report back to me, the chance of success would be nil: Better to slowly get her into a groove then expand once she hits her stride. 

Now that I have shared Renae’s SMART goal, I’d like to share my own. I’ve been an avid ballet dancer since early childhood. I was quite good when I was a young woman, but I quit dancing when I went to law school. That was 25 years ago, so I am not currently in peak ballerina form. In the past few years I’ve started taking ballet classes again. My (specific) goal was to take a class with the Cincinnati Ballet Company and keep up with the professional dancers (measurable) in March 2012 (target time frame).

This was ambitious, especially since I would have to get in great dancing shape to avoid total humiliation. Still, it would be a realistic and attainable goal if I worked hard. I shared my goal with Victoria Morgan, the artistic director of the Cincinnati Ballet so that I would be accountable to follow through. And I am thrilled to report that I took the class, more or less kept up—and actually had fun.

As for Renae, she's still struggling, but at least now she has a way to measure her success without me "monitoring" her. But she's got time: She's only in her mid-70s!

Julie Shifman is an inspirational keynote speaker, career coach and the author of Act Three: Create the Life You Want, which is available on and in bookstores. You can buy a signed copy at her website. Read More
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