4 Steps To Make Your Goals Smart and Achievable

The four steps to make your goals smart and achievable have everything to do with becoming accountable to plan the work, then work the plan. Anything else is dust in the wind.

 4 Steps To Make Your Goals Smart and Achievable

WITH JUST a few days to the New Year, we’re going to be gazing into the rear view mirror, and take count of what did and did not happen this year.

Which of these three conclusions will be yours?

  1. You will try to recall what you were so determined to do, experience, or become when the year just began. “What were those goals?” “Did I achieve any of them?”
  2. You already know, perhaps painfully, what did not materialize.
  3. You will open your Goals Workbook, flip through the many pages that recorded your progress, sign your name on the last page, put a flourishing check mark next to your signature, slowly close the cover, look out into the distance remembering the journey of accomplishment, and smile. Yes, you did it.

A new year is about to begin.

Which of the three conclusions we’ll have when it ends is predictable now!


Some friends were coming over in the evening for a traditional pre-Christmas feast.  It occurred to me when I was scurrying about cleaning the house that I was onto something good.

When I was dusting the desk, the inevitable happened. I opened a drawer stuffed with unorganized papers, organized what I wanted to keep, and threw away the useless stuff. I dug into a file of old bills and such, and found 11 old, expired credit cards that were sent to me, but never activated and used.

One thing led to another, and before you could say “Rip Van Winkle” my long detachment from order and efficiency had ended, and I was back in the groove. But that’s not what was interesting about this cleansing experience; rather it was what arose into my mind about goal setting.

Although I never really set it down as a goal, I have a consistent desire to live in a clean and orderly home – a kinda Zen sorta thing. When I was cleaning and organizing, I realized that I was achieving a loosely set goal. Moreover, I recognized that I was cultivating energy – greasing the wheel, if you will – for some definitive goal setting for the New Year.

Something like this may be happening to you, too.

As a new year approaches, we naturally begin an evaluation process of what we did and did not do. For some of us, this is a fleeting thought. For some of us, we dive in. For all of us, it’s helpful to consider what needs to happen to make a goal come true. That said, it’s time for us to examine the four steps to make your goals smart and achievable.


Step #1: Get SMART

If you did not write down your goals and apply yourself to them in a consistent and progressive way, you know which of three conclusions I began this article with will be yours.  You can’t do anything about that now.  What you can do now is ensure that you have a different conclusion next year.

Let’s begin with “SMART”, an acronym for:

  • Specific SMART Goals Framework
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

This conceptual framework has been bouncing around for quite awhile, and is often used by mangers to help subordinates achieve their business objectives. People who use this “SMART” approach are more likely to achieve what they want, not because this technique is so unique or ideal, but because it offers a framework to guide our goal selection and goal-oriented activities.

As the saying goes, you plan the work, and then work the plan.  That’s the way you make your goals “smart”.

But before that — before the “doing” — we need to understand the attributes of goal setting.  The “SMART” system is one to consider, and it looks like this…

Specific” refers to detail – it’s insufficient to say, “My goal is to lose weight”. Specificity requires clarity; in this case, a number. So you write down, “My goal is to lose 30 pounds”.

Measurable” works hand-in-hand with “Specific”. If it’s specific, it can often be measured. Thirty pounds can be measured with a scale.

Attainable” refers to the reasonableness of your goals given your capacity to achieve them. You cannot attain a 30-pound weight loss in 15 days and sustain it.

Relevant” is contextual – it refers to who you are within the mix of your relationships to self, others, work and place (home, culture, geography). If you’re already at an ideal weight, it’s not relevant (or advisable) to lose 30 pounds.

Time-bound” means there’s a beginning and an end; the period of time within which you will achieve your goals. Without a time limit, there is no plan, and without a plan, you’re not in a serious goal-making mode. Consider that if you say your goal is to lose 30 pounds but there’s no time frame, you have no set point for determining its accomplishment.

Of the five parts of SMART, the three most important are Measurable, Attainable and Time-bound.

For it to be Measurable, it already must be specific.   Without being Attainable, it’s a non-starter – a non-attainable goal is not a goal at all, but a fantasy. And without a finishing line bounded by time (Time-bound), there’s no reckoning if the goal’s been achieved.

Now that we have a conceptual framework, let’s dive into process of goal achievement.


Step #2: Trounce Fears of Commitment

If all you do is sit down for 10 minutes and tweak your goals to the SMART framework, then stand up and go about your business, and never give them another thought… well, that’s not smart, and this technique will do nothing for you.

The most important part of achieving goals isn’t some system, but a process. Yes, it’s very useful to apply SMART to get you going, to make sure you’re looking at important parts of goal acquisition, but you also need a process. As earlier mentioned, you need to plan your work and work your plan.

SMART is useful to for planning your goal oriented work, but you need a work process to work your plan.

That’s where commitment comes into view, if it isn’t punched-out by fear.

Our Fear of Commitment Derails Process

This is something I struggle with, and I’ve discovered that for me it’s a big reason why I don’t always sit down, write down my goals, lay out a plan, monitor and measure, etc.

It’s like if I do that, then there’s no wiggle room. I’m committed. What happens to my fancy-free lifestyle then? What if I find that the goal isn’t worth the work? What if something comes up that scuttles the whole thing?

I now have an answer. The answer is inspired by one of the bromides from the world of entrepreneurs that I’ve reformed for my own consideration, and it is this:

-> Put yourself in a position to fail.

Yes, you may immediately push back with the thought that we want just the opposite – to place ourselves in the best position to succeed, and that is true in the larger context. That is exactly what you want to do when choosing your goals and the methods to achieve them. To get to that point, however, if you’re a goal commitment-phobe, you need to goose the starting point.

What I mean by “put yourself in a position to fail” is that by accepting the potential for failure, by not defining your worth by the outcome, you will be less resistant to begin the journey.

You will be more willing to sit down, open a notebook devoted to your goals attainment, write down the steps to get to the promised land, plan it, review it regularly, adjust when necessary… and once achieved, write down “accomplished”, your name, the date, and put a big check mark on the page.

Then go high-five the friend that has held you accountable.

Process Keeps You On The Journey

I said that process is more important than whatever conceptual framework you employ to attain your goals. The reason is simple. Process is taking a step each day along the path you set in your goal acquisition journey. Without it, nothing happens.

You’ve made the plan. You wrote it down. It’s specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound.

Now what?

Now you have to do the doing. You need a process to engage your plan. Perhaps it’s a daily five-minute review upon waking each morning, or weekly meetings with a trusted friend to whom you’ve make yourself accountable. Maybe you’ve set trigger points.

Trigger points?

Yes, this is a process that I’ve learned and adapted from BJ Fogg of “tiny habits” fame. The concept is that we make tiny habits that build up into big ones.

A silly but apt example that illustrates the idea is the goal of teeth flossing. The goal is to floss your teeth every evening,  Tiny Habits, Floss One Toothbut for some reason you never do. The tiny habit, then, is to floss just one tooth. The trigger is the toothbrush. You put it right next to the floss.

The beauty of tiny habits is that:

  • There’s little to no resistance to doing it habitually (floss one tooth); and
  • They inevitably lead to the bigger goal (floss all the teeth).

Tiny habits can be applied to many goals that many of us make:

  • Someone wanting to meditate one-half hour each day begins with two minutes.
  • Someone wanting to exercise for an hour each day begins with five minutes.
  • Someone wanting to walk a mile each day walks a block.

While it’s true that two minutes of meditating, five minutes of exercising and walking one block are not big achievements, and are not the achievements sought, what they do is shape the path for the larger goal.


Step #3: Determine Your IF/THEN Back-up Plan

You will deviate from your plan.  Stuff will come up.  Discipline will wane. You’ll question if the effort is worth it.  Know in advance that all this will happen, and plan for it with your IF/THEN back-up.

Kudos to James Clear for this very good and imminently workable idea, which is this:

IF you are unwilling or unable to do X (the thing scheduled), THEN do Y (the back-up thing).

Every morning after I do some meditating, I walk to the living room and do 10 minutes of mobility work to awaken and enliven my body. This used to be a goal, but it’s now engrained; a habit.  That said, sometimes I just don’t want to do it, or I’m in a big rush. Either of these is my “X”. IF X happens, I already know my “Y”.  It’s simple enough — my Y is to do two minutes of the best mobility movements.

I often wind up doing the whole 10 minute sequence, but I would not have had that opportunity if I had not already established an alternative to the objective, the two minute replacement for the ten minute routine.

This IF/THEN alternative has also been liberally applied to exercise. Take running, for example.  I’m not a natural runner, but I think I should be able to at least run a mile at any given moment with some swiftness, and so I practice this on an irregular basis.  Often, my mind picks a fight with my intention.

“You’re too big and heavy for running.”

“It’s hard on your joints.”

High intensity interval training is more effective”.

OK, fine, what I then do is negotiate… I’ll just walk.  I put on my running shoes and start walking.  Five minutes later, I’m running.

What you do with IF/THEN is to shape the path to reduce the degree of difficulty sufficient to override your objections. This back-up action has to be considered before you need it. It has to be part of The Plan so that it’s incorporated into your goal acquisition process as opposed to thwarting it. The beauty of this approach is that even if you don’t wind up doing the specific thing intended, you do something that moves you along the path you’ve selected, and that something is beneficial.

The bottom line is to have an alternative to your intended action so that on those days when you’re simply not up to the planned task, you do something anyway that’s in the ballpark.

Write down your IF/THEN for each goal and habit.


Step #4: Make Yourself Accountable

There’s nothing so beautiful as a loving, supportive friend who will kick your ass when needed.

I have a few such friends, and they’re the biggest gems in my treasure trove.  Somewhere along the line early in our friendships, I told each of them that they have my permission to call me out on my bullshit.  I don’t always agree when they do, and sometimes I think they may be projecting their own stuff on to me, but nevertheless it’s a good thing when you have a friend that isn’t a “yes man”.

Such a person is the one you need to seek out and be accountable to with respect to your goals.

You do not want to be the town crier telling everybody you encounter that by such and such date you will have achieved this and that. Telling a lot of people about your goals diminishes the energy behind them.  Instead, choose one or two people to confide in.

Then do this:

  • Ask that one or two people to make you accountable.
  • Review your goal acquisition plan.
  • Agree on a time each week to review progress.
  • Plan your success party!

I’ve written before about the worthiness of this buddy system.  Humans are social creatures. It makes a difference when someone you value is in the trenches with you.

If you resist doing this, you’re getting a commitment phobia signal.  There are few things stronger than committing to someone with whom you share a valued relationship.  If you can do this, it’s a good test that you really are committed to achieving your goals.  If you can not, you need to examine why.

Could it be that you fear commitment because you fear that you’re unable to achieve the goal(s)?  If that’s the case, I suggest doing one or both of the following:

  • Discuss it with your friend and get his/her honest assessment about whether it’s a doable goal for you, perhaps by applying the SMART framework to it; and/or
  • Reduce the magnitude of the goal until it seems achievable. (See How To Make Tiny Habits Big.)

So, who is going to hold your feet to the fire?


Your Takeaway

There are four steps that will help ensure that you accomplish your goals:

  1. Know and address the attributes of the goal making process — SMART
  2. Side-step fears of commitment that derail the necessary goal acquisition process
  3. Determine your IF/THEN Back-up Plan
  4. Make Yourself Accountable to A Friend

You’ll face a litmus test as the new year looms and you begin to think about what you want to accomplish next year.  The test is: Will you do these four steps or not?

If you tell yourself that you’re going to do this and that, but they are never written into a goals acquisition notebook in the form of a solid plan, complete with milestones, measurement, adjustment factors and process — then what you’ve done was not formulate goals, but wishes.

Wishes are fine.  Go find a wishbone, someone to hold one end of it, say your wish and snap it.

It might come true.



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Last Updated on December 20, 2015 by Joe Garma

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Joe Garma

I help people live with more vitality and strength. I'm a big believer in sustainability, and am a bit nutty about optimizing my diet, supplements, hormones and exercise. To get exclusive Updates, tips and be on your way to a stronger, more youthful body, join my weekly Newsletter. You can also find me on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram.

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