{Strategy} | Using S.M.A.R.T. Goals to Kick That Workload in the Butt!

Would you like to get more accomplished in your day and feel more in control of your success? Would you like to be able to look back on your day and say, “You know, the stuff I hate doing didn’t seem all that bad” and “I actually have a record of what I accomplished today, and it feels great!”? Do you marvel at the gurus, CEOs, and chic, sexy moms who seem to “have it all together”? This article talks about one research-backed tool you can start using immediately to achieve all of the above.

The tool? It’s something very simple and structured called S.M.A.R.T. Goals.

S.M.A.R.T. is an acronym used to describe the key elements you need to keep in mind when you are setting new goals for yourself. The act of writing goals in a S.M.A.R.T. manner effectively puts you in the driver’s seat for achieving your own success. (More about how to define success for yourself here.)

Here are the terms that the acronym stands for:

  • Specific: State exactly what you want to accomplish (who, what, where, why).
  • Measurable: What is the bare minimum (define it in metrics such as “how many pages you will have read” or “how many problems will I need to have attempted”) you need to do for this task to allow you to feel like you’ve accomplished what needs to be done?
  • Attainable: Make sure that the goals you set are within your control to achieve and reasonable for your current level of ability. They can be challenging, but they need to be realistic or you will get overwhelmed and defeated and will quit prematurely. Make sure your SMART goal is worded in such a way that it requires an action-oriented verb!
  • Relevant: How does the goal tie into your key responsibilities? How is it aligned to objectives?
  • Time-bound: Set 1 or more target dates, the “by when” to guide your goal to successful and timely completion (include deadlines, dates, and frequency).

Sound abstract enough? Let’s try to make this concrete so you can figure out how to use it for yourself:

Example 1: You are a high school student juggling 8 classes, 2-3 extracurricular activities, and college applications. Plus you’re tired all the time and you’d like to make sure you have time to hang out with friends on Saturdays. What do you do?

First, start by thinking about the big picture: Why am I doing all of these things? What do I want to accomplish by being in all of these clubs and choosing these electives? What do I intend to do at college, and how do I set myself up for future success there?

  • Sleep: Larger goal: feel better during Fall season and have enough energy to tackle my classes.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #1: Set an alarm for 10:30 pm to remind you to get ready for bed.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #2: Set an alarm for 11 pm to remind you to stop what you’re doing and get into bed.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #3: Set an alarm for 7 am wakeup time and get out of the bed by 7:10 am tomorrow morning.
  • Algebra 1 HW: Larger goal: Get all 20 WebAssign homework problems submitted correctly by 11:59 pm tomorrow night.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #1: Review the class notes for the next 15 minutes to refresh memory about what happened in class today and last Friday.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #2: For the next 20 minutes, attempt problems #1-3.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #3: I got confused. For the next 20 minutes, find and watch 2 Khan Academy videos or Purple Math tutorials to address the concepts.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #4: For the next hour, attempt problems #4-8.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #5: Take a break from the math by either walking around/stretching, catching up on text messages, or getting a healthy snack (~15 min). Or, proceed to one of your other class’s reading assignment to add some variety to the monotony of mathematics.
    • Continue setting S.M.A.R.T. goals until you have attempted, completed, and submitted all 20 problems.
  • U.S. History AP HW: Larger goal: Complete the history reading and required outline of the reading by tomorrow.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #1: Take 10 minutes to skim the topic headings, introduction, conclusion, and supplemental problems for the reading. I don’t have to get everything just yet, just get an idea of what will be covered.
    •  S.M.A.R.T. goal #2: Take 30 minutes to read each section. Stop at the end of each page to summarize using my own modified Cornell notes style (more on this here).
    •  S.M.A.R.T. goal #4: Take 15 minutes to review the Cornell notes I just made and develop an overarching argument or thesis for the paper.
  • Speech Class HW: Larger goal: Develop a speech (10 min) with corresponding slides by this Friday class period. Subject: Interpersonal Communication.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #1: In 10 minutes, open and start creating a PowerPoint presentation. Save it as “Comm110_Pres1.”
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #2: In 10 minutes, identify 20 sources of good information that have to do with interpersonal communication research and tips.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #3: For the next 45 minutes, pore over the 20 sources of information you found and outline notes that will serve as the content of your speech.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #4: 
  • General Chemistry HW: Larger goal: Prepare for the quiz this Thursday.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #1: 15 min: Review the major topics and the introduction, conclusion, and learning objectives for the assigned reading.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #2: 45 min: Attempt HW problems #1-5 to get ready for recitation on Wednesday.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #3: 20 min: Check the odd HW problems (#3, 5) in the back of the book and read the solutions. Correct anything that went wrong and reference the reading to resolve those issues.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #4: 5 min: Jot down any lingering questions to ask at office hour tomorrow.
  • College Apps: Complete all 6 applications with teacher recommendation letters and essays by the November 1 deadline.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #1: 10 min: Create a College Board account.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #2: 1 hour: Use the College Board school search account to identify the top 20 schools I think are interesting and have my major.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #3: 1 hour each day for 2 days (total time to be spent: 2 hr): Of this list, research a little deeper to see which ones have the courses I like the best or the clubs, mascot or activities I like best. Which ones support the SAT scores I received last time? Finalize the list to 5 schools I actually will apply to.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #4: I’ve heard the word “FAFSA” being thrown around by my counselor at school. 15 min: Research “FAFSA” and find out what that means.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #5: 10 min: Ask parents about the finances and what we can afford.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #6: 1 hour: Ask parents to look into FAFSA using our estimated financial information from the previous 2 years of tax data.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #7: 1 hour: Read through the admissions essay prompts for the 5 schools. Identify a common thread among the essay prompts to streamline my writing process.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #8: 1 hour: Outline a general essay (the topic I think suits me best and the main points of the following 4-5 parapgraphs to support my story) for the admissions applications to my schools. 
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #… (create more S.M.A.R.T. goals until you have successfully submitted all 5 admissions applications and essays).
  • Do this for the rest of your 8 classes. Think about how you might take these specific examples and generalize them to other types of classes you might be taking. Note:  Sometimes you may have to add or tweak your S.M.A.R.T. goals along the way to accommodate extra bumps in the road you weren’t originally expecting. 

Example 2: You are a college student juggling 2 clubs, Rush Week, and 18 credit hours. Plus it would be really nice if you could get 7-8 hours of sleep a night and get your laundry done so it doesn’t keep piling up! What do you do?

First, start by thinking about the big picture: Why am I a part of these two clubs? How do they serve me and add value to my life? What are the pros and cons of joining this sorority? Do I feel comfortable around these people? Do I believe that being around these people and this organization will support me and uplift me to achieve my future career and lifestyle goals? What constraints do I have regarding when the dining courts are open, when I can do laundry, and perhaps something like insomnia or seasonal affectivity disorder to deal with?


Once you’ve made your vision clear, break the obligations up into large goals and S.M.A.R.T. goals (objectives) that fit under each larger goal.


Like this!

  • Calculus 1 HW: Larger goal: Get all 20 WebAssign homework problems submitted correctly by 11:59 pm tomorrow night.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #1: Review the class notes for the next 15 minutes to refresh memory about what happened in class today and last Friday.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #2: For the next 20 minutes, attempt problems #1-3.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #3: I got confused. For the next 20 minutes, find and watch 2 Khan Academy videos or Purple Math tutorials to address the concepts.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #4: For the next hour, attempt problems #4-8.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #5: Take a break from the math by either walking around/stretching, catching up on text messages, or getting a healthy snack (~15 min). Or, proceed to one of your other class’s reading assignment to add some variety to the monotony of mathematics.
    • Continue setting S.M.A.R.T. goals until you have attempted, completed, and submitted all 20 problems.
  • American History HW: Larger goal: Complete the history reading and 10-page essay before next Friday class.
    •  S.M.A.R.T. goal #1: Take 10 minutes to skim the topic headings, introduction, conclusion, and supplemental problems for the reading. I don’t have to get everything just yet, just get an idea of what will be covered.
    •  S.M.A.R.T. goal #2: Take 30 minutes to read each section. Stop at the end of each page to summarize using my own modified Cornell notes style (more on this here).
    •  S.M.A.R.T. goal #4: Take 15 minutes to review the Cornell notes I just made and develop an overarching argument or thesis for the paper.
    •  S.M.A.R.T. goal #3: Take 20 minutes to make a new file in Docs and save it as “[insert_date_here]_[insert topic here]_draft.” Outline the title, sections, and purpose of the essay during this time.
    •  S.M.A.R.T. goal #4: Stretch break (~15 min) or move on to something else on my list of  S.M.A.R.T. goals.
    •  S.M.A.R.T. goal #5: Write 2 paragraphs of the essay (pick two of the sections and just put something down, remembering to cite facts and their sources in parentheses).
    •  S.M.A.R.T. goal #6, etc.: …. {Break down the paper into several sets of paragraphs and what topics might be included in them following your outline. Do this until the paper is to your liking and you’re ready to submit. With this method, since you have a few days to write the paper, slice it up over the next week so all you’re doing is editing the final draft the night before.}
  • Speech Class HW: Larger goal: Develop a speech (10 min) with corresponding slides by this Friday class period. Subject: Interpersonal Communication.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #1: In 10 minutes, open and start creating a PowerPoint presentation. Save it as “Comm110_Pres1.”
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #2: In 10 minutes, identify 20 sources of good information that have to do with interpersonal communication research and tips.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #3: For the next 45 minutes, pore over the 20 sources of information you found and outline notes that will serve as the content of your speech.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #4: 
  • General Chemistry HW: Larger goal #1: Prepare for this week’s lab.
  • General Chemistry HW: Larger goal #2: Submit lab online training. 
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #1: Spend 1 hour on this online module. Work as quickly yet thoroughly as possible, perhaps jotting notes to make sure I remember for the quick quiz at the end of the training.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #2: 15 min: Take the quiz.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #3: 2 min: Print the pass certificate for completing the module.
  • General Chemistry HW: Larger goal #3: Prepare for the quiz this Thursday.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #1: 15 min: Review the major topics and the introduction, conclusion, and learning objectives for the assigned reading.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #2: 45 min: Attempt HW problems #1-5 to get ready for recitation on Wednesday.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #3: 20 min: Check the odd HW problems (#3, 5) in the back of the book and read the solutions. Correct anything that went wrong and reference the reading to resolve those issues.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #4: 5 min: Jot down any lingering questions to ask at office hour tomorrow.
  • Engineering 131 HW: 
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #1: 20 min: Attempt question 1 in the problem set. Review any notes and readings associated with this problem.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #2: 20 min: Google any issues to troubleshoot question 1.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #3: 5 min: write down any lingering questions to ask in office hours Wednesday.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #4: 20 min: Attempt question 2 in the problem set. Review…. (see above).
    • And so on…
  • Rush: Attend 3 open houses and participate in at least one additional Rush week event for each of those three different sororities.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #1: Identify the 3 sororities whose values and community service events I gel with most by Monday, the first day of Rush Week (look this up online).
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #2: Meet 6 sisters from each sorority by the end of the three open houses.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #3: Follow up with at least 2 of the sisters from each of the sororities I visited – write thank-you notes and send to the houses.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #4: Plan out 3 hours within the week to go to three 1-hour Rush events with the three sororities by Tuesday at 7 pm of Rush Week. Review your class schedule to make sure you don’t miss class or any WebAssign or Blackboard deadlines!
  • Sleep: Larger goal: feel better during Fall season and have enough energy to tackle my classes.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #1: Set an alarm for 10:30 pm to remind you to get ready for bed.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #2: Set an alarm for 11 pm to remind you to stop what you’re doing and get into bed.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #3: Set an alarm for 7 am wakeup time. Turn on the Sun-mimicking light at this time.
    • S.M.A.R.T. goal #4: Set alarm for 7:10 am to turn off the Sun-mimicking light and get on with getting ready for the day.
  • Note:  Sometimes you may have to add or tweak your S.M.A.R.T. goals along the way to accommodate extra bumps in the road you weren’t originally expecting. 

Example 3: You are unemployed and undertaking a job search, and it’s seriously stressing you out! You don’t have any leads and you’d like to feel like you have some control over the situation. Your savings will run out in 3 months, so you need to be taking action now. What do you do?


First, remind yourself why you’re doing the job search. Is your primary goal to find any kind of work? Contractor work? Temp or seasonal work? Low-skill labor that you prefer to keep that way? Or maybe something you can build into a professional career moving forward? Is your biggest priority just making money? What is the easiest path you could take to achieve that vision?


Once you’ve narrowed that down and defined your vision clearly, try the following steps:

  • S.M.A.R.T. goal #1: 15 minutes. Hone in on the kind of work you would like to do and/or are qualified to do. Define a career objective (profession or job title). You will post this across your various online job search profiles in just a minute.
  • S.M.A.R.T. goal #2: 30 minutes. Set up each of the following job search profiles and confirm your personal information and email addresses:
    • Monster
    • LinkedIn
    • ZipRecruiter
    • Indeed
    • AdministrativeJobs.com
  • S.M.A.R.T. goal #3: 10 minutes. Proliferate the desired job title across the five profiles you just made so that it’s obvious to potential employers what kind of work you are meant to do.
  • S.M.A.R.T. goal #4: 30 minutes. Tool around on the job search Web sites you made account for just now. Review job descriptions for example “dream job” listings you find. Seek out the types of skills or training certifications you are missing from your repertoire in order to successfully get an interview by potential recruiters. List this out on notebook paper. Include any relevant buzzwords like “Agile,” “Angular,” “Hadoop,” “10-key,” “customer service,” “FIERCE conversations training,” “MBA,” etc.
  • S.M.A.R.T. goal #5: 30 minutes. Google out all of the keywords you just wrote down under goal #4 above. Find out where and how you will be able to bridge the gaps you recognized above.
  • S.M.A.R.T. goal #6:60 minutes. Make a plan for how you intend to schedule in time and tackle the new skills you need to learn using the resources you found in goal #5.
  • S.M.A.R.T. goal #7: 60 minutes. Search the desired job title across the job search Web sites and write down the listings that look most interesting (these will be the ones you apply for first). Speed is key with job applications, so find listings that were put up a couple days to a couple weeks ago and apply to them within the next week at the latest.
  • S.M.A.R.T. goal #8: 45 minutes. Freshen up your resume, or look for tutorials to make a new one. More resources for this listed here (coming soon).
  • Note that you should probably split up these goals across multiple days so that each of your applications goes in sounding professional, not sloppy or canned, concise, and fresh.
  • S.M.A.R.T. goal #9: 60 minutes per day, 3-5 days per week (total 180-300 min per week). Apply for 1-3 jobs each day until you start hearing back from recruiters. Keeping a small number to complete each day gives you constant progress without it becoming overwhelming. You’re chipping away at an iceberg, and that is slow progress.

Let me know how this technique worked for you by leaving a comment below! Did you find the examples helpful in figuring out how this technique actually works?

Love y’all,

Hannah

Hannah Stringfellow is a freelance blogger and world traveler. She holds an M.S., Chemistry, from the University of California, Berkeley. Her interests include women’s empowerment, health and wellness, and cross-cultural competency.

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