A little over a year ago I put up a 5 minute video on my YouTube channel that provided a brief overview on how to use a version of SMART goals to better structure your goals for success. The positive response has been terrific, so after receiving multiple requests to expand on the topic, I decided to write a five part series, starting with discussing the research behind when and why goals need to be specific, including when setting specific goals is a bad idea.
If you are not familiar with SMART, it is an acronym you can use to help structure your goals to make sure they are Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant, and Time Bound. There are other variations of the SMART format with the 'A' standing for achievable or the 'R' for realistic, but for reasons I will explain later, I find actionable and relevant more useful. (original video)
Many times when people are asked what are their top goals in life, common responses include to be healthy, wealthy, happy and to write the next great novel. While these responses are goals, they are not specific goals. In fact, they are so general that they are more appropriately defined as visions of some ideal future state. And while it is good to have vision, research has shown when it comes to actual achievement of a goal, being specific is important.
Now I would be remiss if before moving on I did not point out that there are some negative aspects of being specific. While in general the research has shown a positive relationship between goals being specific and achieving desired outcomes, the research has also demonstrated it can constrain learning and create environments that support unethical behavior, i.e. cheating or even criminal activity. Most often these negatives are associated with externally driven goals, like an organization that sets a goal to cut costs, parents that pressure children to get into honors classes, but in some cases it can also influence goals set by the individual.
When achievement of a goal is your personal focus and you find the goal a challenge, then research is on your side. In over 400 laboratory and field studies, it has been demonstrated repeatedly that specific, challenging goals lead to a higher level of achievement than easy goals that are vague or abstract, e.g. telling a person to “do one's best.” The underlying theory is that when a goal is specific, this provides clarity, helping when it comes to mentally constructing a plan for success and providing motivation for some individuals.
In being specific, you need to define your goals in terms of the precise result you want to achieve. If you cannot be exact, then at least a range. For instance, what does it mean to have a goal to be healthy or wealthy? These are subjective goals that lack definition. Is being a millionaire even considered wealthy anymore? What about health? For most, being healthy means being capable of a certain physical activity such as running a marathon or being a certain weight. Therefore, if your vision is to be healthy, set a goal like run two miles in under 15 minutes or get your body mass index (BMI) to twenty.
Generally speaking, the more specific you can make a goal the better, as the more specific, the easier it becomes to establish other aspects of the goal. The less specific your goals, the more difficult it will be to measure success, to determine the actions you need to take, to figure out how one goal relates to another and to establish time boundaries. These are all things I will be discussing in future articles.
Hoffman, B. (2015). Motivation for Learning and Performance (1 ed.). Academic Press.
Hollenbeck, J. R., & Klein, H. J. (1987). Goal commitment and the goal-setting process: Problems, prospects, and proposals for future research. Journal of applied psychology, 72(2), 212.
Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2006). New directions in goal-setting theory. Current directions in psychological science, 15(5), 265-268.
About the author:
Richard Feenstra is an educational psychologist with a focus on innovation, problem solving and productivity. His work experience includes military service, law enforcement, fire prevention and workplace safety. Richard is also a recognized expert witness regarding issues of safety and security. Richard holds an M.S. in workforce development and a Ph.D. in learning and technology.
Richard Feenstra is an educational psychologist, with a focus on judgment and decision making.
Bobby Hoffman is the author of "Hack Your Motivation" and a professor of educational psychology at the University of Central Florida.