Maybe you’ve heard of SMART goals. These are Simple, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-limited. But, as nerds, it’s never been enough for us to be smart. We have to be smarter.
Joking aside, it’s important to be strategic about how we set goals. Some goals are just more easily accomplished than others. It’s easy to set noble goals – lose weight, learn Spanish, be a better parent – that are set up for failure for a variety of reasons. For example, when are you “done” learning Spanish? When you can have a conversation? When you can ask where the biblioteca is? And for being a better parent, how do you even go about that?
A good goal has a plan for how to accomplish it cooked into the goal itself. The difference between a good goal and a SMART goal is that SMART goals are designed to be completed. And the difference between a SMART goal and a SMARTER goal is that I can feel like I’m adding something. SMARTER goals are Specific, Measurable, Accountable, Realistic, Time-Limited, Evaluated, and Relevant.
Setting a good goal means operationalizing your terms. In the examples I used above, being a better parent is vague and unclear. Are you talking about spending more time with your kids? Having more consistent discipline? Being more involved with their activities? Arranging your own murder to set your child on a life of vigilante justice?
For a more nerd-pandering example, maybe you want to be a better gamer. A good goal, but vague. Think about what you really want to work on. Maybe you just want to master a single game, or maybe you want to work on your general aim and reaction time skills. For some people, they might want to get on the leaderboard. Others just don’t want to embarrass themselves in front of their friends.
What you have to do is think of the endpoint. What is the ideal state that you want to achieve, and what do you need to do to get there? So for me, instead of saying that I want to be a better gamer, I might say that I want to be able beat my college roommate at NFL Blitz for the Nintendo 64.
This is one of the parts of SMART goals that I think is still really important. You have to have a way to track progress. You also have to have a way to know when you’re done.
Looking at the bad example of “becoming a better gamer” – there’s no identifiable endpoint. You’re never “done” being a better gamer. Again, because it is so vague, it’s also pretty hard to measure progress. Say you start getting a few more kills per round in Fortnite, is that the kind of progress you want to make? Not if you want to show your dear old friend that he is not the supreme ruler of the NFL Blitz gridiron.
Measuring is about quantifying, and that means putting in numbers. A good goal has numbers. My goal is that I want to beat my college roommate at NFL Blitz, and all I have to do is beat him once. Just once goddammit.
That’s my win condition, but how do I track progress? Well, I could say “I will play x number of games on high difficulty per week.” Or I could say “I will challenge my roommate x times per month until he is defeated.” This is where you’re incorporating your plan for how you’re going to accomplish the goal into the goal itself.
Some things are just out of your hands. I hear a lot of good goals like this – I will get into school, I will get a good grade, I will get a promotion at work, I will go on a date. What these all have in common is that they all involve other people’s decisions, whether it’s an admission committee, a teacher, a boss, or the poor fool you’re trying to woo.
You shouldn’t set goals that hinge on things that you have no control over, like other peoples’ decisions, or the weather, or the economy. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t ever try to accomplish anything involving these uncontrolled elements, you just need to reconfigure your goal to account for them.
Let’s look at my goal at being able to destroy my college roommate at NFL Blitz. I could devote my entire life to improving my mastery at this game… but he could, too. That doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t set a goal to try to beat him, it just means focusing on the part that I can control.
Sometimes this means focusing more on process than outcome. My goal becomes, “I will practice NFL Blitz (Specific) for at least 1 hour per day (Measurable).” Instead of the goal being getting into school, it’s putting together the best application possible. Instead of getting a date, it’s asking someone out. Instead of getting a promotion, it’s eliminating the competition.
You know what’s a lot easier than accomplishing goals? Not accomplishing goals.
There’s a lot of research on topics like willpower, stick-to-it-iveness, and determination – some of the characteristics that make humans great and noble – and how useless they are in accomplishing goals. Motivation is important, because it’s definitely harder to accomplish goals that you don’t want to accomplish. That motivation can wax and wane, and when your hands get cramped from holding that crazy-ass N64 controller, you’re going to need something more than motivation and willpower to keep you going.
Responsibility can look a lot of different ways. One of the best methods is to have an accountability partner, or an accountabilibuddy. This is the person that drags you out of bed at 5am to start your NFL Blitz training regimen. It’s good if there’s a tradeoff, like maybe your accountabilibuddy is trying to beat his older brother at Perfect Dark for the Nintendo 64, so that you can pay back that support and motivation later, when he is feeling down.
But maybe you’re an island, no accountabilibuddy in sight. That means you have to build in that responsibility yourself. And that means rewarding yourself for following the plan, and punishing yourself when you don’t. Set up some rewards for smaller accomplishments along the way, like how NFL Blitz will reward you with a perfect season by letting you inside the cheerleader’s locker room.
And don’t let yourself off the hook for your training regimen. Make a rule for yourself – you are not allowed to look on your phone until you’ve played at least one NFL Blitz game. This is where being specific becomes important again – set a specific time to be working on your goal. Goals hate wiggle room, so make sure you give yourself as little as possible.
Just as some things are out of your control, some goals are beyond your grasp. I stand at 5’11” (which is about 4 cubits for our metric readers) and I weigh about 170lbs (~2.8 bushels). I will never play in the NFL.
Don’t set yourself up for failure by trying to accomplish too much too soon. Again, this might be a time to focus on process over endpoint… if the NFL is impossible for me right now, what is another thinkably possible goal that I could accomplish that might get me closer to it. Maybe I could improve my knowledge of the game, say, for example, by beating my college roommate at NFL Blitz for the Nintendo 64.
Conceptually, setting a goal involves connecting 2 conditions – the outcome, or the win condition, and the baseline, or the starting condition. Now that you’ve spent some time envisioning the win condition, you have to figure out what is missing from the starting condition to get you there.
A lot of people underestimate their baseline, and in contrast to my NFL dreams up above, they set goals that are way too easy. This is also yet another way to SPECIFY, because you want to be clear about what it is you need to work on. Does my NFL Blitz game need better reaction time? Better strategy? Maybe I need to work on my mental game, so that my friend’s trash talk doesn’t get to me so much. I won’t know these things until I do a thorough self-evaluation to see what’s missing.
It’s got to matter to you. People run into trouble when they set goals just for the sake of setting them, or because they have a vague sense that something is expected of them. Instead, you need to set goals because they are right for you and they are based on your values.
I’ve said this before about setting goals in therapy: if you’re going to do anything of consequence, it’s going to take work. For you to be willing to put in the work, it’s got to matter to you. Beyond that it’s up to you, whether you’re doing it because it will make you happier, live longer, feel better, or just shut your college roommate up for one goddamn minute.