Setting Smart Goals

Many of us secretly (or not-so-secretly!) harbor ‘lifelong dreams’ to achieve something big. Our passion for these big-picture goals doesn’t fade. But our motivation to actually devote the minutes and hours required to them is frequently elusive. Other things – like cleaning the house or fixing the mower – seem more pressing in our short-term realities.

All too often, these really big goals can seem impossibly enormous. We throw up our hands in defeat:

“I’ll never pay off my debt, so why bother making this payment?”

“I’ll never finish this book, so why sit down and write now?”

But there are two tricks to making almost any big goal achievable:

  • Make sure it’s a SMART goal
  • Break it down into smaller milestones.

Making a SMART goal

If you want to actually achieve a goal, you need to make sure it is well-defined. A goal that is too open or ambiguous cannot possibly be ‘SMART’ – that is, Specific, Measurable, Achievable, and Realistic within a particular Timeframe.

Two example goals

Let’s consider some common goals from each of the other two spheres of our model, one artistic and one economic.

Imagine your goal is to pay off your debt. ‘I will pay off my debt.’
And you want to write a novel. ‘I will write a novel.’

A well-defined goal is like a brick wall, with many parts. We have to build these bricks in.

Make your goal specific enough to be measurable

Without some concrete definition, a goal cannot be specific, and it must be specific in order to be measurable.

‘I will pay off $200,000 of mortgage debt’ is specific.
‘I will pay off my debt’ is not.

Likewise, ‘I will write a 50,000 word Young Adult novel’ is specific.
‘I will write a novel’ is not.

Add a realistic timeframe

There must also be a timeframe in order for your goal to be measurable.

‘I will pay off $200,000 of mortgage debt in five years’ can be measured, evaluated for success on a predetermined date.
‘I will pay off $200,000 of mortgage debt’ alone cannot, and is destined to flounder on into the future.

Similarly, ‘I will complete a 50,000 word draft of my YA novel in November’ is measurable.
‘I will complete a 50,000 word draft of my YA novel’ is also destined to languish somewhere in your desk drawer or in your computer folders.

The importance of research

How do we pick what timeframe to use? Do a little research.

For example, I chose the five year timeframe based on Anita Bell’s excellent book Your Mortgage: And how to pay it off in five years. It’s a superb guide, regardless of whether you pay your mortgage off in five, ten, or fifteen years, and most importantly, it contains charts with different loan amounts and interest rates that will help you determine what a realistic payout date might be for you. While paying off a mortgage in under five years might sound really difficult given the average loan term is around five times this long, it can be done! (Read more about why you should view your mortgage’s end date as a ‘speed limit’ and not a goal to aspire to on Enrichmentality)

For the novel goal, I chose the 50,000 words in one month timeframe based on the National Novel Writing Month guidelines. Every November, writers from around the world strive to complete 1,667 words per day in order to finish a 50,000 draft novel in the span of a month. While 1,667 words might sound like a lot too, it’s actually a pretty typical day’s work for most writers. [LINK TO SARAH NEOFIELD BLOG POST HERE]. So, if you’re looking to be a professional writer, aiming for this daily word count would be a fairly realistic place to start.

Why do we need so many details?!

It can be scary to set out our goals in detail. Even if we tell nobody other than ourselves.

This is, at least in part, because we fear failure.

A simple goal like ‘I will save money’ is much more attractive. Because it is much easier to satisfy. You could set aside a 5c coin you found under the couch and claim to have achieved your goal.

But we all know that’s not what you really meant when you set that goal, and you aren’t going to go anywhere fast with that level of commitment to your savings.

A goal like ‘I will save $5,000 in a high interest account by the end of this year’ requires, at a minimum, that you open up your savings account on December 31, and see if your balance is at or above $5,000.

The opportunities for failure with a well-designed goal are many. You could get to $4,999 instead. You could reach your goal – but in January. You could save the $5,000 by December, but neglect to open a high-interest account and miss out on bonus interest rates.

That’s why having a SMART goal can be scary. But it’s also why it makes it much more likely that you will actually achieve what you truly desire, instead of pretending you’re satisfied with less.

Returning to our building block analogy…

A well-defined goal is like a brick wall.

It has a number of blocks, and if one breaks (e.g. the ‘one year’ timeframe, or the ‘$5,000′ amount) you can easily replace that broken brick with a new one (e.g. ’18 months’ or ‘$2,000’) and still have a strong wall.


A poorly-defined goal that lacks detail and substance is like a pane of glass.

There are no discrete elements to separate out and replace if one gets broken, just a vague statement (e.g. ‘I will save money’, ‘I will write a novel;, ‘I will pay off my debt’). If the glass breaks, the whole thing becomes useless – or even dangerous, with the sense of failure cutting like shards of glass. And you have to start all over again.

If your sense of failure is too great, you might not even bother to replace the glass at all, and simply board up the window (I’ve really taken the analogy too far now, haven’t I?!)

So even though it can be scary to be specific about what you want, what appear to be many opportunities for failure in a SMART goal are actually opportunities for adjustment. You give yourself more opportunities for success by monitoring and being flexible with your goal, adapting those specifics to suit changes in your circumstances.

How do we monitor our goal and decide where to make changes?

Break it down!

So, you’ve created a goal that is specific, and set a realistic timeframe in which to achieve it, which makes it measurable, But there’s one more step to ensure you actually achieve it. And that’s breaking it down!

There are two reasons smaller goals are so important:

First of all, in terms of our mental well-being, it allows us to focus on one thing at a time. To work on a bite-sized chunk without having to worry too much about the overwhelming big picture.

Secondly, in terms of the actual outcome, it allows us to achieve something. Too often, we focus on getting something perfect instead of just getting it done.

Procrastination and Perfectionism

In my experience working on big projects (paying off our mortgage in four years, completing a 100,000 word PhD thesis, an 80,000 word novel), and teaching and supervising students undertaking similarly enormous goals, I’ve noticed two reasons people tend not to achieve what they set out to do, even when they have the skills required to do so. Procrastination and perfectionism.

When a goal is so huge it feels overwhelming, we procrastinate. In the absence of any concrete, achievable steps, we see other, more concrete tasks, as more important. Like washing the dishes or doing the ironing. Procrastination gets in the way.

And when we have a clear, idealistic vision of the end-goal, but no idea of what a work-in-progress should look like, we wind up discouraged along the way. The first line we write for our novel doesn’t sound as good as what we’ve read in other people’s books. The sketch we’ve done isn’t as good as one of DaVinci’s. Perfectionism gets in the way.

In this module, we’ll look at the first of these reasons: how breaking a goal into bite-sized pieces helps us to avoid the procrastination that accompanies a feeling of overwhelm.

Let’s return to our artistic and economic goals.

You want to want to pay off your mortgage so you can start working towards financial independence, and you’d like to write a book.

These are both enormous goals. But every debt is paid off one dollar at a time. And every book is written one word at a time.

“A word after a word after a word is power”

Margaret Atwood

Create milestones

Your next step with either goal would be to break it up into achievable milestones.

Mortgage milestones

How big your milestones are will depend on how large your outstanding debt is, what sort of an income and expenses you have, and how long you plan to spend paying off the loan.

Someone with a big budget planning to pay off their home in the next couple of years won’t need as many milestones as someone who has less cash and will need to sustain their motivation for a much longer period.

Ideally, you want to space your milestones so they are achievable, but still give you a sense of achievement.

On a $200,000 loan, rewarding yourself with a chocolate or a dinner out for every $1 paid will quickly become meaningless (and worse, it will actually cause you to go financially backwards!) On the other hand, only celebrating when you get to the halfway mark of $100,000 might cause you to lose momentum along the way.

Writing milestones

Writing a whole book in a month is a pretty huge task. Even if it is a relatively ‘short’ book of 50,000 words (most debut novels are around 70-80,000 words, and in some genres, they’re much longer again).

But NaNoWriMo participants achieve this by breaking the goal down into smaller goals. 50,000 words over 30 days is the equivalent of 1,667 words per day. Even a ‘hunt-and-peck’ typist should be able to write that many words (assuming their ideas can keep up!) in a little over one hour a day.

Sounds far more achievable now, doesn’t it?


Think of a goal – either a creative or a financial dream you have. Write it down. You might use the ‘dearest dream’ you identified in the module on Getting Things Done. [NEED TO CHANGE THIS LINK WHEN NAME OF THE MODULE IS CHANGED]

Now, think of how you can quantify the steps required to achieve this goal. For instance, if your goal is to ‘become a better painter’, consider how many paintings you think you may have to complete to achieve this goal. Or if your goal is ‘pay off my car loan’ work out exactly how much you have outstanding. You need a SMART goal (check out this article on Enrichmentality for more about how you can set smarter money goals).

Break the goal down into achievable chunks.

Now that you know where you’re headed, it’s time to start working on your goals, and keeping track of your achievement over the long-run.

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