Well… this is awkward. I’m writing a post about setting and keeping goals, and despite my own list of goals and todos always including “write more”, this is the first thing I’ve posted in (checks notes) three years. Ahem - do as I say, not as I do.
Recent events have meant that people are spending a fair amount of time inside. For some this is harder than others, but I can boastfully say the transition has been quite easy for me. Obviously, as a person who already worked remotely, from home, for a company based three hours ahead, I had a big head start. That transition definitely wasn’t easy, in fact, and took months for me to get it right. But this post isn’t about working from home - it’s about not-working from home.
Okay, we’re going to talk about SMART goals. SMART is, unfortunately, an acronym. I’m not a big fan of these sort of business-speak, feel-good, personal-development-y things, but this one I’ve made an exception for. Simply put, SMART goals are:
Specific Measurable Attainable Relevant Timely
Specific. Specific goals are, well, specific. “Learn more” is a shitty goal, because that doesn’t really mean anything. A specific goal would be “learn about the Halifax explosion of 1917”, or “learn to play the guitar”. The more specific a goal is, the easier it is to apply the rest of the SMART criteria.
Measurable. Measurable goals are, well, measurable. (There’s a theme to this acronym.) “Learn to play the guitar” is a shitty goal, because when have you learned to play the guitar? When you can play a G chord? Or when you can play Bloodmeat flawlessly? By adding some sort of metric to a goal, you can set a measurable goal on it. Perhaps you want to reach 80% accuracy on Learn to Fly in Rocksmith. (This post is not sponsored. But it could be.)? Or perhaps you want to memorize 20 chords? Making goals measurable is really what allows you say “I’ve accomplished the goal”. Without it, you’re trying to score on your own moving goalposts.
Attaintable. Attainable goals are, well, attainable. “Learn to play Bloodmeat on guitar flawlessly” is a shitty goal, because let’s be honest - if you’re just picking up the guitar for fun, is that really going to happen? A technical song written and performed by professional guitarists is unlikely to be playable by an average person wanting to learn guitar. What is attainable and what isn’t is very subjective, and will largely depend on just how far into any particular goal you want to go. If you want to play some guitar chords while sitting at the campfire, learning to play a handful of chords by memory is a much more attainable goal, and makes a lot more sense.
Relevant. Relevant goals are, well, relevant. “Learn to play some guitar chords to play while sitting at the campfire” is a shitty goal, because what if you don’t like camping? What if you can’t stand the sound of an acoustic guitar? What if you don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on a guitar? If these questions are making you reconsider, it’s possible that this isn’t a very relevant goal to you. Instead, perhaps you’re really into woodwind instruments, and perhaps you only want to invest a few dollars. Maybe you should learn the recorder instead.
Timely. Timely goals are (say it with me now), well, timely. “Learn to play some basic recorder chords so that I can annoy my friends at the campfire” is a shitty goal, because when are you going to whip that bad boy out? Next week? By 2050? Sometime before you die? Without at least some time pressure, it’s entirely possible you’ll never make the time to start working towards the goal. You don’t need to be strict here, but even an approximate timeframe can be good.
“Learn to play some basic recorder notes so that I can annoy my friends at the campfire by our next camping trip this coming September” - now that’s a SMART goal right there!
Drawing from my own experience, I set a SMART goal for myself back in the fall of 2019: run a 5k (specific) at under 5:00/km (measurable) - an improvement over my previous of ~6:00/km (attainable) - in order to improve my fitness (relevant) by the end of the year (timely). And guess what? …I didn’t make it. I still haven’t, in fact. But that’s okay, and leads me ever-so-nicely to the next subject…
Wimbley-Wombley, Timey-Wimey Stuff
Time is just like, a construct, man. It’s all in your mind. This is something I’ve found is important to remember when setting goals. I wanted to run 5:00/km by the end of 2019 and I didn’t hit that target, but… so what? Really, the “timely” part of setting goals is more about having an approximate expiration date on it. Goals are like canned soup - the expiration date is more of a suggestion anyway. (Legal disclaimer: I just ate soup that was two years out of date and I’m fine, so you probably should too.) If you don’t make it, that’s okay! Just set a new timely goal, and work towards that.
On the other hand, don’t be too loose with your time constraints. I think this is one reason why new year’s resolutions so often fail - because doing something “this year” is just really… nebulous. Smaller, shorter-term goals are going to be easier to track and stick to than larger, longer-term ones. “Run a <5:00/km 5k” is something I can set my sights on in a few weeks or months - “run a marathon” is a significantly larger timescale, and I don’t really have any checkpoints along the way to know how I’m doing. Think of this as thin-slicing your work - by having smaller, shorter-term goals, you can constantly be checking up and checking in on what’s working, what isn’t, what needs to be adjusted, etc.
In summary, set time limits. Then ignore them.
Write Shit Down
Being able to track goals is also pretty important. Without going into the boring detailed analysis of all the various goal-tracking, to-do organizing, schedule-optimizing apps and services that I’ve tried, I will simply jump to the conclusion: I use Evernote for larger, broader-scope planning, and Google Keep for quickly jotting down smaller things. Evernote is used to write down the full SMART of the “<5:00/km 5k”, Google Keep is “Go for a run; Due: today”. YMMV, but I’ve found having a quick-and-dirty app for every day stuff alongside a more journal-esque app to be what works for me.
Okay, this the last part of this rambling, I promise. Motivation is a tricky, sticky subject. Some people seem to think that their inability to get things done is just because they can’t motivate themselves. Well, they’re probably right. Any SMART-goal-setting, time-limit-bending, perfect-app-using go-getter is going to get exactly shit all done without motivation. My humble (but loudly yelled) opinion is motivation is a highly personal affair, so it’s likely that reading a million blog posts about a million ways to get motivated still won’t get your ass out of the chair. Find what works for you - I used to be fairly unmotivated/lazy, but by being extremely organized and following some rigid structures, I was able to build my ability to self-motivate, and find that for me, bettering myself on a daily basis is what I find motivating.
And if all else fails, some wise words: you may not want to exercise, but you do want to have had exercised? (Credit to Carolyn) Eyes on the prize, kid. And the prize is the you that finished that thing you always wanted to.