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The Science Behind SMART Goal Setting for Further Career Development

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We all would love to think our goals are “SMART,” but similar to any other aspect in business, there’s a right and wrong way to establish better habits. With few expectations, using the SMART goal criteria can take your personal or professional development to the next level.

What are SMART goals?

The SMART goal strategy is a five-step process invented by George T. Doran in 1981 and stands for (S)mart, (M)easurable, (A)ttainable, (R)elevant, and (T)ime-Based. These letters don’t necessarily count as benchmarks, but they will help you create a goal action plan.

A study conducted by the University of Scranton found that only 8% of people actually achieve their New Year’s Resolution. When polled, these same goal achievers set very specific goals, had an end goal in mind, and recognized when they were procrastinating.

SMART goal setting is designed to keep you focused and motivated to further your career development. Depending on your goal, it can even improve parts of your personal life.

dart board and target

What does SMART stand for?

As stated, SMART stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based. Each part of the acronym works together to formulate an achievable, realistic goal. Here’s how:

S in SMART: Specific 

A specific goal is one that can be understood out of context because it’s focused. When a goal is focused, it’s more likely to motivate us. However, you need some flexibility in your goal setting, so you can adjust if there’s a setback, but it can’t be so flexible that you procrastinate.

M in SMART: Measurable

A measurable goal is trackable and has multiple benchmarks. When a goal has benchmarks, it gives you a way to track your progress. The best measurable goals have specific numbers (i.e., lose 10 pounds in 4 months) or an obvious indicator of success (lose 2.5 pounds every month).

A in SMART: Attainable

An attainable goal is realistic and possible to earn. When a goal is possible to earn, it prevents you from putting it off. To make your goal attainable, you should consider breaking it into smaller objectives and gathering the resources you need. Otherwise, it may be out of your reach.

R in SMART: Relevant

A relevant goal is specific, measurable, attainable, and helps you achieve your overall life goals. If the goal you’re setting misses the bigger picture, it might be harder to achieve. At the same time, you need to consider if you can accomplish this goal right now or if it’s more relevant later.

T in SMART: Time-Based

A time-based goal sets a deadline, but your deadline can’t be chosen with the assumption you’ll never make a mistake. When forming a habit, mistakes are normal and more common at the beginning, so give yourself some space to experiment and have fun while furthering your goals.

The science behind SMART goal setting

Goal setting is necessary if we want to continue to grow, but we’re fighting against biology as we adjust our habits. To learn why SMART goals are revolutionary, let’s look at the brain.

How habits impact the brain

Our brains want to do as little work as possible. It takes a lot of conscious thought to perform behaviors, so our brain will take shortcuts by making them automatic. These automatic behaviors are called “habits,” and they play an important role in our health and happiness.

Employer review site JobSage stresses how essential growth is to employees, but it can be difficult for anyone to set goals and keep them in a poor work environment. 

That’s because our brain craves dopamine or the “happy drug.” When we do something over and over again, our brains release dopamine and instill a craving to do it again. This is why bad habits are so hard to kick: our brain actively rewards us for repetitive behaviors.

Our relationships with our habits become even more complicated if our brain associates bad behavior with good feelings. Willpower isn’t endless; in fact, it’s a shallow pool. Once our willpower stores are up, it makes it harder to resist our bad habits in the future.

How goals fail before they start

Working against our brains isn’t going to work. We’re hard-wired to seek out dopamine, but you can take that knowledge and apply it to your goal setting. There are two ways to achieve a goal:

  • Avoid triggers that zap willpower
  • Reward yourself when you accomplish a goal

Of course, it isn’t that simple. If I’m trying to lose weight, I can’t stop eating. If I’m trying to get a bachelor’s degree, I can’t just quit my job and become a full-time student. But you don’t have to do something drastic or make an ultimatum with yourself to further your career goals.

If you plan on going back to school, you don’t have to go full-time or be present in a classroom, get your degree in 4 years or even get a bachelor’s. You can decide what you want to do and how you want to do it, but to get there, you need a rock-solid plan that you can stick to.

How SMART goal setting helps

If I were to write a SMART career goal to get a bachelor’s degree, it would look like this:

I will take 3 online classes this semester (out of 10), 3 online classes next semester, and 4 online classes in the summer, so I’ll be in 2nd year by next fall. To do this, I will reduce my work hours from 40 to 20 and get a roommate. To make sure I’m not late on assignments and ace my tests, I’ll list my assignments in order based on due date and spend 30 minutes a day studying.

What makes this a SMART goal? It’s specific (how to go to school and not fail), it’s measurable (finish one semester in a year and how you’ll do it), it’s attainable (provided it works around your schedule), it’s relevant (going back to school for your career), and it’s time-based.

SMART goal setting works because it isn’t “one-size-fits-all”; it’s malleable to your needs. As a busy professional, you need to make sure you fulfill your work duties and have enough time for school. Our example shows that getting your bachelor’s degree is possible with prior planning.

Our example can also be broken down into even smaller goals: how to find a roommate, how to organize your assignments, how to optimize study time, etc. The more specific, the better.

How to set SMART career goals you’ll stick with

Setting up a SMART goal is one thing, but following through is another. To make sure you morph into a high achiever and stick with your goals, try the following best practices.

  1. Write your goals down and tell someone else. The goal will seem more real.
  2. Break goals into smaller chunks to prevent overwhelm and burnout.
  3. Don’t take no for an answer. Instead, reframe your goals if you make a mistake.
  4. Make time for yourself and other hobbies that don’t involve work.
  5. Never multitask. Put your focus on one big goal at a time.

Remember that there’s more to life than achieving your career goals, like your hobbies, relationships, and friendships. Our mental health significantly impacts our ability to learn and retain information, so taking a breather can actually help you reach your goals faster.

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