How to set SMART career goals

How to get the best from the SMART goal setting system

Using a framework is much more effective than just writing lists. The SMART system has been somewhat over egged but, as a goal setting methodology, it is simple and can get someone from setting rubbish goals (or not setting any at all) to setting goals that are more likely to become actioned.

SMART goals are

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant and realistic
  • Time delineated and timely


A poor example of a goal, by someone who was thinking that they were being very specific, would be something like:

“I’d like to lose weight because I don’t like not fitting into my clothes and feel unfit.”

Whereas a good example of a SMART goal would be:

“I will lose two stone over a period of six months (approximately one pound a week)”

That in itself is an improvement. but it can be refined further with:

“ cutting out chocolate/crisps on six days a week, no more than 1500 calories six days a week and walking for 30 minutes a day as well as getting family and friends to help me. I will weight ten stone by December 1st 2017 ready for my daughter’s wedding.”

Getting to SMART

This SMART goal has been written in a much more specific and actionable way, such that it is measurable along its course and has a clear time deadline. It just feels more motivating.

Clearly there is more planning to do, but the goal doesn’t feel empty and instead feels connected and engaged.

When specific terminology is used in writing a goal, the amazing subconscious can take over and complete the instruction it receives. A woolly goal does not enable this.

Having a goal written in measurable terminology means that one can track progress and keep motivated or see if one is drifting off the mark.

The person has acknowledged that they might find it difficult to keep to this regime, so has also built in some relaxation of the rules to actually make it achievable, and by outlining how to fit into one’s life has made it relevant too. Lastly, giving a clear deadline, as well as measurable figures and staging points, makes the goal timely and a whole lot more powerful too.

The other thing to note is that the poor goal - apart from being very vague in comparison to the good one - has some negatives within it, and it is always hard to work towards negatives.

When it comes to career planning, SMART goal setting is only one of many different goal setting frameworks, but it is a good place to get started. Practicing the whole process of writing goals is key to getting better at the skill and gaining better outcomes.

Your career goals

Here is an example of a poor career goal

“I want better work life balance because I am not enjoying life and feel worn out.”

This is not keeping to the SMART system and comes across vague and on its own it is hard to action and difficult to know quite where to begin . It also has the negative aspects referred to above.

“I want to be working 4 days a week by August 1st 2018 but with no long term significant loss of income and good financial planning so that I can join an art class and have time each week for writing.”

This goal is much easier to take to the next level as it is already implying that some financial planning will need to be set in action, and that perhaps a short term drop in income for longer term quality of life would be acceptable. It also gives a timeframe and some underlying motivating outcomes, and delivering the beginnings of a plan. Yes, the plan may need to be a lot more detailed than this, but it is a very good starting point and a whole lot more likely to happen than the poorly written goal, which could easily stay like that for decades.

It is also said that having short, medium and long term goals is an effective way of ensuring one remains on track. If you feel your career has drifted off track, or that work has become a treadmill heading towards burnout, then getting some new goals in there could be a useful part of turning things around.

But not knowing what goals to set can be a real fly in the ointment, so there may be times when one to one career guidance is the only thing that can catalyse new visions of the future.

Writing it down

I’ve had several experiences in my life where I wrote down very specific goals and then filed them away and forgot about them. Stumbling upon them years later I have been astonished just how many of them had been achieved. The teaching is that one should write down the goals and write and rewrite them daily. That may seem a tad OCD for some, or even distasteful to others, but whenever I have gone beyond just “dreaming” of something I really want to something much more tangible and in black and white, I have had better outcomes.

My biggest tips for career goal setting? Write down your goals, short/medium/long, in all areas of your life (not just work) and use a simple goal setting methodology.
In the next and final part of this series, I will outline a four stage goal setting exercise.

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