The SMARTEST Way to Set and Achieve Goals

by Dr. Sherry Buffington

You may be familiar with the SMART goal setting formula. Many leaders, trainers and coaches use it. There are several variations to the SMART formula. This is the most common:

S - Specific

M - Measurable

A – Attainable, achievable

R - Realistic, results-oriented

T - Time-based, timely

Looking at all the variations provides a broader definition and can be useful in helping you and your team and/or clients be successful. It’s a great start, but the SMARTEST approach works much better. The reason is that the SMARTEST formula for goal achievement works with the rules of the subconscious mind to get results where external rules often fail.  

The SMARTEST™ Goals formula adds 3 other essential components and expands the original 5 so they align with subconscious processing.  Without these 3 new components and engaging the subconscious mind, the first 5 parts often never get done. The subconscious essentials are added to the first 5 in parenthesis.

The components of the SMARTEST™ formula are:

S – Specific, (significant, small stretch, success-focused)

M – Measurable, (meaningful, motivational)

A – Attainable, achievable, (acceptable, agreed upon, action-oriented)

R – Realistic, results-oriented, (relevant, reasonable, rewarding)

T – Time-based, timely, (trackable for clarity, tangible, today)

E – Exciting, engaging, energizing, effortless (Yes, effortless. You will understand why soon.)

S – Satisfying, sensible

T – True to your passion, purpose and mission 

S – Specific, Significant, Small Stretch, Success Focused

Anyone who has ever read anything about goal setting knows that being specific is a commonly espoused factor. I have heard this advice thousands of times, but until I became aware of the laws of energy and how they apply to the human condition and of the rules of the subconscious mind which it always follows, I never realized just how specific goals had to be. Often we set goals that are so general that it is nearly impossible to know whether we have reached them or not, and without a target at which to aim, the subconscious mind stays with the certainty of the status quo. And, since all motivation comes from subconscious drive, that’s a big problem.

A goal such as, “I will lose weight” has three problems. It is too vague, future oriented and focused on the wrong thing. We will cover the problems created by future orientation later. For now let’s stay with the importance of being specific.

There is no way to measure something as general as “lose weight” because there is no way to know if and when you've reached your goal. Adding a timeline might appear to make the goal more specific, but a goal such as "I will lose weight by March 31st” is also too vague and leaves too much room for failure. If you lose a couple of ounces you have met the goal technically.  But, is that much of a help if you have 80 pounds to lose? Is the result significant? Not really.

Stating a goal specifically, "I will lose 15 pounds by March 31st”, makes measuring progress and determining success a simple matter, but the way this goal is stated still focuses you on the wrong thing and is not the way it should be stated. It is specific though. You simply step on the scale at regular intervals. In fact, the goal as stated meets all of the criteria of the SMART formula. It is specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-based. So it should work, right?  Yet, the likelihood of being successful at this goal is actually rather slim (no pun intended).   

We need to add a few more elements to actually experience success. Significant, a factor aligned with the workings of the subconscious mind, does not mean “in large measure.” It is referring to the fact that the goal must be significant to you (of importance). Until it is, the subconscious mind does not bother with it and you are left to do conscious battle with the urges to eat that arise from the subconscious mind. And if you have ever waged such a battle, you know subconscious urges almost always win out. 

The third factor in this section, small stretch, also needs some clarification. Goals should stretch us, but not too far. Going back to the subconscious mind, that wonderful servant can also be a stubborn task master, depending on how we approach it. Let’s examine what happens when we try to stretch ourselves too far.

It is very common for the bolder types to set really grand goals. Bold types make up 73% of the American population and 93% of the people still searching for their truth and trying to improve their outcomes after adulthood. Bold types regularly over-estimate what they can get done and under-estimate the time necessary to do it. As a result they frequently fall short of their grand goals. If this happens too often, the result is not motivation, but feelings of defeat which are demotivating.  

People are motivated for only two reasons and both reasons are actually just flip sides of the same coin. That coin is the primary need of all people to seek comfort and satisfaction. The two ways in which we seek to do that is (1) to avoid or reduce pain or (2) gain or increase pleasure or satisfaction.

When we stretch ourselves too far and fail to reach the intended goal, that failure is interpreted by the subconscious mind as pain and the pain becomes associated with goal setting. If that occurs several times the subconscious mind generalizes the goal setting = pain idea and we begin to avoid setting goals altogether. Even though and individual whose subconscious mind has made that association knows he/she needs to set goals, there is such resistance around the activity that they don’t adhere to the goals even if they push past the resistance and write them down.  

For the first “S” component of SMARTEST Goals to work for you, they need to be very specific; as specific as if you were designing a home or car or a new product, like a GPS. They need to be significant enough to you for you to care about getting the outcome and they need to stretch you, but only to the point where you can actually succeed.

That brings us to the success-focused part. Just as the subconscious mind interprets failure as pain, it also interprets success as pleasure. So with a few small successes, the subconscious mind begins to associate goal setting with pleasure and wants to do more of it. That’s why the goals you set should be a slight stretch. You want to stretch beyond your current comfort zone and capacity, but not so far out that you fail. Every small success leads the subconscious mind to want to do more of that activity and, as momentum and confidence around the capacity to succeed builds, bigger and bigger steps become possible and you can set bigger goals and accomplish even more without resistance.

The subconscious mind works overtime to make sure that whatever you believe to be true is true for you. If you believe you will fail at goals, you will. If you believe you will succeed, you will, and those small successes in the beginning set you up to believe you will succeed.  It's far better to begin small and succeed than to set grand goals and fail. Many small successes can lead to very grand results where a few grand goals that cannot be met can lead to shut down. Work SMARTEST.

There is another aspect to the success-focused part because your subconscious mind actively seeks what you envision. That’s why “I will lose 15 pounds by March 31st” is not a good goal to set. The subconscious mind is visual and interprets things quite literally. The main focus of the above sentence is losing and pounds and these are not what you want your subconscious mind focused on.

To get the results you want, you will need to change your focus. It’s much better to state the desired goal as a positive. If you want to lose 15 pounds, you might state that goal as, “On March 31st I will reach my ideal weight of (state ideal weight) and on that day I will celebrate my firm, fit body. You then add to the statement a visual picture of you at the ideal weight celebrating success.   

M – Measurable, Meaningful and Motivational

Specific goals are always measurable. If they are not measurable they are not specific enough and you need to go back to step one. As you add the “measurable” component, remember to keep the measures realistic, believable and doable so you don’t set yourself up for failure.

The meaningful part of this component is very personal. Only you can decide what gives your life meaning and how you want to allow that to express in your life. Meaning can be anything from making the life of one child better, to making major changes in some part of the world. It can be something deeply personal or it can be broadly public. Or both. What it cannot be is purely about making money. That’s because money, in and of itself, has no meaning. It is only good for what it allows us to do.

Money can be used as a measure, but it cannot be used to add meaning. Both aspects are important to success because together they provide the motivation to achieve the goal, but don’t stop with just money or other measures. Be sure that the goals you set are meaningful to you and that you are clear on how they are meaningful and how much. The more meaningful they are, the more you will be motivated to accomplish them.

Find as many ways to measure your goals as possible. Use specific criteria (amounts, time frames, etc.) For example turn "I will market more" to "I will attend four networking events each month and try to connect with at least three people in a meaningful way at each event.”  “Meaningful” in the case of growing your business would mean connecting with each person in a way that helps you understand them and their needs and effectively conveying the benefit of doing business with you to those you know you can help.  

A – Achievable, Acceptable, Agreed Upon, Action-oriented

The reason for setting achievable goals was covered in the slight stretch factor. In review, the subconscious mind is where all motivation comes from and, if we set goals that are not achievable, it soon associates goal setting with pain and we begin to avoid setting goals. Although this goes against most goal setting advice, I have found that it is best to begin by setting goals that you think are too small. The reason for this is that it provides you with a realistic gauge of what you are capable of accomplishing within a particular space of time and it allows you to experience success right away. With the pleasure of a few successes under your belt and a realistic time frame for setting future goals you will be far better prepared to succeed than if you set too large a goal and fail.

The acceptable part of this component includes you and anyone else from whom you will need cooperation to achieve your goals. Acceptable to you means that the goal is yours, not someone else’s. People often fail to accomplish goals because they are actually someone else’s goals.  A college student may be struggling to get a degree in medicine, for example, not because she wants to go into medicine, but because her mom and dad think it’s the thing to do. Or a young man sets a goal to excel in the military because all the men in his family have been military and the family expects the male children to follow in their footsteps. These are goals, but they are not the individual’s goals. Yet when the goal gets set early enough and reinforced often enough, a child so indoctrinated doesn’t realize that the goal really belongs to someone else. The failure rate is quite high for those pursuing other people’s goals. Even if there is external success, there is often internal conflict.

First and foremost, be sure the goal is acceptable to you. Then check with those whose help you will need to see if they are on board. If they aren’t, you will need to make some adjustments; either in the goal or in the team you are assembling to help you achieve it.

Acceptance of the plan and goal steps leads to agreement.  Once agreed upon, you and your team are now ready to put the plan into action. Be sure the action steps are spelled out clearly. If they aren’t your team will experience frequent failures and you now know what the subconscious mind does with that.

R – Realistic, Results-oriented, Relevant, Reasonable, Rewarding

Children, optimists and the bold types tend to think they can do anything. For these groups, goals are sometimes far too ambitious and, as we have seen, overly ambitious goals usually spell trouble. Although realistic and achievable seem to be the same thing, one is about the ability to actually get the job done in the real world, while the other is about believing that you can. Some deluded people believe they can do more than they are actually able to do and some believe they cannot do things that they actually can do. In either case, they are not being realistic.

Realistic does not mean small and safe. It means reasonably ambitious. As with the achievable part of the SMARTEST formula you can be sure your goal is reasonable by testing your assumptions before you jump in with both feet. We can have anything we are willing to work for, but we can’t have it all at the same time. It's important to honestly evaluate yourself to determine whether you have the ability and commitment to turn your dreams into reality. Most of us find we need to make some adjustments and that we need to get help in areas where we lack expertise. Employing a good coach in those areas can save worlds of time and money.

Relevant seems similar to meaningful, but the two are quite different. Meaningful is an internal judgment. Relevant is an external one. We judge whether things are relevant by how useful they are in relation to the matter at hand. Things can be very meaningful without being relevant and vise-versa. Goals need to be prioritized by their relevance to the moment and to the sequence in which events need to unfold to realize the overall goal.

Reasonable requires a lot of reality checking and soul searching. Many people have ambitions that they cannot reasonably achieve. Most people cannot go from broke to multimillionaire in a year, for example, though many people dream of doing that. It does happen on rare occasions, but for most people that is an unreasonable expectation. Most people are aware that such an expectation is not reasonable, but there are other less obvious ways that we can set unreasonable goals. You may love singing, for example, and want to become a rock star, but if you are tone deaf and can’t carry a tune that is an unreasonable goal. Or you may want to build a real estate empire but not have the time, money or talent for it.  

Rewarding seems obvious, but there is more to this than meets the eye too. For most goals to be realized we need the help and cooperation of others and there has to be some reason for them to help. Remember, we are all motivated to move away from pain or toward pleasure and we all operate on the frequency of WIIFM (“What’s in it for me?”). If there is no reward doing something, most people won’t do it. There are many ways to reward people; from sharing profits or paying them money to feeding their soul with authentic compliments and genuinely expressed gratitude. Most people want to help and are more than willing when there is a reason and some reward—either tangible or intangible.  So remember to reward yourself when you achieve something, and remember to reward those who help.

Results-oriented goals begin with the end in mind, but to reach the end goal, each goal step should also have a defined result. You need to know what your ultimate results will be as you lay out a series of goal steps, but you can’t skip the steps. It is these that keep progress doable and set you up to succeed. The step between “A” and “B” might be quite small. Once you have succeeded at “B”, you can then take the step to “C” and so on.  Although keeping the end in mind is an important part of the process and you don’t want to add more steps than you need, taking manageable steps and monitoring results is important from beginning to end.

T – Time-based, Timely, Tangible, Trackable

Without a time frame, “goals” are not goals. They are just hopes or wishes. Setting a specific amount of time within which to accomplish a particular set of objectives gives goals the structure they need to be successful. But the goal date is not the place to dwell.

Most of us don’t like the term “deadline” because it sounds so… final. The finality of it is exactly why the term continues to be used though it isn’t a particularly useful for achieving goals. Let’s go back to the faithful subconscious mind and see how “deadline” is received. We all know what “dead” looks like and we can all visualize a line. The combined elements create a picture that the subconscious mind sees as something ominous on the horizon; something it wants to avoid. The pictures and story lines we conjure up are what trigger positive or negative emotions and emotions determine the actions we will take or avoid taking. We need an end date so there is a sense of urgency, to be sure. We also need a reason to take action now because that’s the only time the subconscious mind is concerned with. Having a specific time frame—a goal date—helps us monitor our progress. Owning the result in the here and now get us moving toward that date. When we draw a “line”, represented by a date on a calendar, the subconscious mind has something tangible to connect to. The more aware we are of the goal date and the greater the perceived pain if we fail to meet it, the greater the urgency to act gets as the date draws nearer. For example, a goal where others know we are supposed to perform and are depending on us to come through by a particular date becomes far more urgent as the date approaches than a goal that impacts only us. You can use this fact to your advantage by building a support team, declaring your goal to them and making the goal such that failure to meet it will impact the entire team in some way. Even perceiving that your supporters might be disappointed can boost results.   

Timely refers to events occurring at the right time, as opposed to within a specific time-frame. Timing is important for all goal-setting to some degree. Obviously we can’t set a goal to go snow skiing in Colorado in July because there is no snow in July. But not all timing factors are so obvious. Goals frequently fail because the timing was off. Investing in tech stocks at the end of the dot-com era is an example of bad timing that was not obvious to those who did it, but was obvious to economists that kept warning that the bubble was about to burst. Many goals fell apart when that happened. Had those investors done their homework or listened to others who had, the losses could have been reduced or avoided altogether. To set timely goals, both opportunities and limitations must be examined and factored in.

There is no such thing as a successful intangible goal. The minute a goal is defined and set as a goal, it must become tangible or it won’t be acted upon. Tangible means “real; capable of being appraised.” Things that remain in the realm of unreal or that cannot be appraised are not acted upon consistently enough to be achieved. Desires and daydreams can remain intangible, and usually do, but not goals. If what you think is a goal cannot be appraised, keep working on it because it isn’t really a goal yet.

For goals to be trackable each of the interim steps must be defined. We need to know what must be done on a daily basis, how many steps must be completed by the end of the day, the week, the month and so on. We need markers that let us know how far we have come, whether we are tracking at the right pace and how much farther we need to go to achieve the goal. Only then can we know with any certainty whether we need to pick up the pace in order to reach our goal. This is where the first component, specific, helps. The more specific we are in setting a goal and defining the steps, the more trackable it them becomes and the more likely success becomes.  Setting goals is more than just deciding what you want to do. To get where you want to go, you need time-lines that let you track your progress and make achieving the goal seem doable. 

E – Exciting, Engaging, Energizing, Effortless

The “E” factor is critically important to goal success. Goals that don’t excite and engage us are not likely to succeed because we won’t stick with them long enough. Getting bored or disenchanted with a goal is a primary reason why goals are abandoned. When we are pursuing goals for the wrong reasons; to please others, meet the expectations of others, etc. they soon lose their appeal and once they do we begin to view them as difficult. The subconscious mind then sees the necessary steps as unpleasant or pain-inducing and we become resistant to doing them. At that point, unless we view not accomplishing the goal as more painful than the perceived pain of completing it, we disengage and the goal is abandoned.

When goals are exciting, they are also energizing and effortless. When we are excited about a goal, we can work long hours at accomplishing it and not even notice. Time seems to fly by and the entire experience is perceived as enjoyable.  The subconscious mind interprets excitement as pleasure producing so wants to do more of it. This is the essence of all motivation. A sense of enjoyment is what fuels internal drive and lets us accomplish truly great things. To get to this place, the goals you are heading toward must feed your passion and fulfill your purpose in some way. Goals that are meaningful, purposeful and exciting are also engaging and energizing, and accomplishing them feels effortless. 

S – Sage, Satisfying, Sensible, Sane

What some people consider goals are really little more than pipe dreams because they are unrealistic and, sometimes, downright crazy.  Sage goals are goals that have been wisely thought out. They are appropriate to the time, the place and the people they will affect. Goals that are set only to please others are not sage goals. They are destined to bring up resistance in you and doomed to fail eventually. And a lot of time and money can be lost before that happens. Sage goals fit your purpose and feed your passion, if not directly then at least indirectly. They also benefit everyone in a true win/win fashion.

Satisfying is important to goal setting because of the motivation factor. We are motivated to keep doing things that are satisfying and to abandon things that are not, or to give them minimal effort.

Sensible and sane can be clumped together because they are both about not leaping before looking. When we take off down a path before we have examined it carefully enough, we may find we have achieved a goal we really don’t want. Many bad marriages have occurred just this way, as have bad business decisions. Be sure what you are pursuing is what you really want. Consider not just the result, but the journey you will take to get to it. Spending years pursuing something only to discover it isn’t satisfying or fulfilling or even acceptable once you arrive is not just senseless, it’s insane. 

T – True to Your Passion, Purpose and Mission

Like the “E” component, the second “T” is critically important to goal success. Until we are following our own passion, fulfilling our own purpose and living our own mission, we are spending our life fulfilling someone else’s desires and meeting someone else’s goals. Not only is that not very exciting, it is resistance producing and not likely to be sustained over time. Getting bored or disenchanted with a goal is a primary reason why goals are abandoned. When goals are pursued for the wrong reasons; to please others, meet expectations, etc., they soon become unappealing difficult to continue. As has been pointed out, the subconscious mind becomes resistant to anything it translates as pain inducing and, since the subconscious mind runs the show, once it becomes resistant, the activity creating that effect begins to drop off and, unless the perception of the pain we will experience by not accomplishing the goal is greater than the perceived pain of completing it, the goal will be abandoned.

Each time we abandon a goal, we create a negative loop that leads to more failure. Here’s how that loop looks:

             (1) We set a goal that is not true to who we are or what we really want

            (2) The goal becomes unappealing

             (3) Resistance increases and we find working to achieve the goal more and more difficult

            (4) Resistance becomes so strong and the steps to achieve the goal so unappealing that we stop
             taking the actions before the goal is accomplished

             (5) Our self image suffers because we think we are lazy, unfocused, a loser (you name it) and
             we feel guilty and unworthy

            (6) The subconscious mind generalizes goal setting to pain and begins avoiding it

             (7) Without goals we accomplish less and fail more and steps 4 through 7 keep cycling until
             we are at the point of despair or depression. At this point some start desperately looking for
             another alternative and some just give up.    

Though not everyone will admit it, we all want to succeed at something; to achieve more than we have to date. Whether it is to find a new job, start our own business or otherwise increase our income, have better, more fulfilling relationships, or improve ourselves, we all want something. Those who have experienced too many failures without knowing why or how to remedy the problem, either claim they don’t want anything else or spend a lot of time talking about what they want to do someday. In either case, they are avoiding goal setting.

It is human nature to want to improve things. In fact, it is the nature of all of life. There is always a reason why some are not doing that. When the reason can be found and understood, it can be removed. Whenever you experience resistance or stress in pursuing a particular course of action, stop and question your reason for pursuing that particular goal. Make sure your goals meet the SMARTEST test and stay open to every possibility, including abandoning the goal or project altogether if it doesn’t meet the test.

Keep in mind that the ultimate goal is your success. Until you are successful, you cannot accomplish all the things you want to accomplish or help all the people whose lives you want to positively impact along the way. Being very clear about what success looks like for you and building your interim goals around that ultimate goal will help you to stay open and flexible in how you get there.

Following the SMARTEST™ path will get you there faster. For a goal to be effective in guiding behavior, it must be specific and measurable. It must be achievable and believable. It must be written out so you can track your progress and it must be time-based so you know how you are doing. Before you will consistently do any of the first five things, the last three must be present. You must be excited and energized by the goals you set. They must make sense to you and you must believe they are doable (sensible, sane). And they must be true to your passion, purpose and mission. If they aren’t they will not lead to your success—to someone else’s success perhaps, but not to yours. And remember: the ultimate goal is your success. The greater your clarity with regard to your goals, the more you will get done, the faster you will accomplish it and the more successful you will be. 

Start by making a list of what is important to you and then define every step you will need to take to get there. Start with where you want to be ten years from now and work backwards, getting more and more detailed as you get closer to the present moment. By the time you are working on your daily planner you should be very specific. This may sound daunting, but if you are passionate about the goals you are setting, it can actually be a lot of fun. Plus, every minute you spend planning and preparing will save years of time after you begin. Don’t get stuck in analysis paralysis, but do have a plan you can follow. Think on paper and work from a list. No one has such an infallible memory that they won’t lose their way without a list of what needs to be done and markers for knowing how they are doing and whether they are still on the right trail. Working from a list not only keeps you tracking, it gives you a visual record of accomplishment. This is the area in which you will need to be most disciplined. Once you get past the planning stages though, you will love what happens!

You now have the SMARTEST™ formula for goal achievement. Keep the acronym in mind to help you remember these basics and apply them to every important goal. Soon you will discover that goal setting really does work—and it works for YOU. 





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