The importance of SMART goals

Mnemonics are a memory tool and like acronyms, the first letter of each word to be remembered is used to form the mnemonic. The difference is that acronyms can be non-words, like IBM or NATO, whereas mnemonics are always regular words. We’ve all heard about having SMART Goals. What does that mean? It is a useful means of making goals more powerful by using the SMART mnemonic. In this case, SMART stands for:

  • S – Specific (written down in detail).
  • M – Measurable (having milestones leading to a desired end result).
  • A – Attainable (possible to achieve with the right action and preparation).
  • R – Relevant (with an end result that rewards you for your efforts).
  • T – Time-bound (has a target date to be achieved).

The brain is a peculiar organ. It is generally believed that the multiple functions of the brain can be broken down into two classes of three functions each. On the physical side, there are the sensory functions, the perception functions, and the somatic functions. An example of these would be when you put your hand on a hot surface; the nerves in your hand sense immediate pain, your brain perceives imminent danger of injury and transmit signals to the muscles in your arm to quickly pull your hand back. The non-organic functions of the brain are thinking, emotion, and behavior. This is where things get a little vague and theoretical because in order to perform these functions, the brain interacts with the physical functions of the brain; often in unpredictable ways.

As an example, a young man enters a party and sees an attractive blond-haired girl walking towards him from across the room. His brain immediately starts running various scenarios of what life would be like if they were together. As the multiple scenarios play in his head like short video clips, each one evokes an emotional response. At first these emotional responses are primal and generate suggested behaviors; but these primal instincts are normally tempered by either learned societal mores or memories of the negative consequences of acting on such impulses. This inner conflict builds in the young man’s mind between the thought of what he desires and the behavior required to achieve satiation of that desire until the young man’s brain goes into overload due to indecision. His brain chooses the fail-safe behavior pattern of putting forth the least effort to get to the safest resolution of the inner conflict and avoid pain. The pretty girl smiles as she walks past him. The young man looks down, confused and embarrassed, and does nothing.

What does this have to do with SMART goals? Quite a lot actually. Another aspect of the brain is its ability to work on the resolution of a problem. This often happens in the background, on a subconscious level. All that is required is the proper instruction. Let’s say you are trying to recall a passage from an article you read in a professional journal which has direct bearing on a conversation you are having with your colleagues at work. Instead of saying “I can’t remember exactly what the article said…”, you make the conscious choice to say instead “I remember an article I recently read on that subject. It will come back to me.” A few moments later, you remember exactly what the article said.

Your brain is, in many ways, like a very sophisticated computer. It does exactly what you tell it to do or what not to do. This is especially true in mapping out the course we want our life to take. This is what goal setting really is; mapping the course of your life. That is why the first word of the SMART mnemonic is “Specific.” It is absolutely vital that you are as specific as possible when you are dictating your goal because your brain is going to go to work doing exactly what you have programmed it to do.

If you say “I want run a marathon someday,” your brain will go to work undermining every attempt you make to train for the marathon. Why? Because you told it that, with respect to the concept of running a marathon, your choice of an ideal state was to be in a perpetual state of wanting but never achieving. Every day when you wake up, your brain will present you with a multitude of reasons why you can’t train today. It’s too hot. It’s too cold. It’s raining. You’re late for work. You can do it tomorrow. And on and on.

Imagine if you had chosen instead to say “I shall begin training every day, starting today, so that I can qualify to enter the Boston Marathon scheduled for Monday, April 18, 2016.” Your brain would have gone to work trying to make that happen. That is a SPECIFIC, MEASURABLE, ATTAINABLE, RELEVANT, and TIME-BOUND goal. You might only run a quarter mile today, but if you keep that goal in front of you, your brain will support you with a feeling of commitment, a belief that you really can do this, a daily reminder that you are healthier for doing it, and the reward of satisfaction at the end of the day for having accomplished one more step toward your ultimate goal.

Writing down your goal is important because it reinforces your spoken word with the kinetic energy of the writing process. It also helps you to begin mapping out the steps necessary to move the goal from a concept to a plan for execution. In my entrepreneur consultancy, I use the phrase “DEFINE your dream, DESIGN your plan, and DELIVER on your potential.” Defining the dream is the beginning of developing SMART goals. Anyone can say that they want to make $100,000 a year. The ones who actually deliver on the potential that their business offers them to earn that level of income are those who have fully defined what they do and developed a plan for making it happen.

When you begin setting SMART goals in the various areas of your life, your brain begins working to make achievement of the goal easier. Let’s go back to our young man at the party. One of his written goals is “I am going to meet an attractive, personable, and intellectually compatible woman with blond hair and a pretty smile; and when I meet her, I am going to smile at her, ask her for her name, and just talk to her so we can get to know each other.” When he enters the party and sees her walking towards him from across the room, there is no internal turmoil. The only video clip being shown on the screen of his inner imagination is the desired outcome of his goal: he and the girl of his dreams having a pleasant conversation, laughing, discovering common interests, and enjoying each other’s company.

And they lived happily ever after.

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