Starting Them SMART: Setting Goals The Proper Way

Jan 16, 2015 8 Min Read

Since young, you were frequently asked, “What do you want to do when you grow up?”

Well, you did grow up, and as you enter university and eventually graduate, the answer is no longer as simple as “I want to be an engineer”.

The reality for you now is quite different, and you’re drowning in career options, possibilities and uncertainties, and you still don’t know the answer to that question.

The good news is we probably already know enough about what we want, even if we’re unsure what to make of it.

From there, it’s just a matter of uncovering and probing to set up a strong game-plan for life. Read on to know how to do just that.


Why set goals?

“Give me a stock clerk with a goal and I’ll give you a man who will make history. Give me a man with no goals and I’ll give you a stock clerk.” – J.C. Penney

Not too long ago, in a conversation about my own long-term dreams, a friend asked me what my deadline was to achieve it.

I have not really thought about it, but I told him: “Maybe in 10 years.”

He responded, “That’s too long. Do it in five.”

At that point I was shocked and afraid as it was a daunting and ambitious task.

Since then, however, my five-year plan has reduced to three, and I now have a detailed strategy on how to get there.

What I learnt is that most of us have thought about what we want, however vague it looks, but we dismiss it as a faraway dream and seldom prepare ourselves to achieve it.

A comfortable 10-year plan is distant, but when you boil it down to five, it becomes scary and thoughts of fight-or-flight kick in – and that is what you want.

The clearer your goals are, the more you prepare yourself to face it.

Why is it important to have clear goals?

  • Focus:
    Knowing what you really need, and avoid wasting time on things that don’t fulfill you.
  • Motivation:
    Clear goals pressure you into action, and makes difficult situations worth going through.
  • Accountability:
    Knowing your goals make it easy to tell others (and yourself) about them, which in turn helps you stick to them.


Forming a SMART goal for yourself

“The reason most people never reach their goals is that they don’t define them, or ever seriously consider them as believable or achievable. Winners can tell you where they are going, what they plan to do along the way, and who will be sharing the adventure with them.” – Denis Waitley

Check out our video interview with Mr Waitley himself:

Let’s do a goal-setting exercise using S.M.A.R.T, which stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound (or a variation of those words).

This nifty tool, commonly attributed to George T. Doran, is worth remembering: it’s a great way to form productive and effective goals, both personal and professional (take note: it is super helpful at work too!).

You will want to start by thinking about ONE ambition (however big or distant), and then ask these questions:

1. Is it specific?

Powerful goals are specific. Take time to go into details.

What does it look like? How does it feel? What are the things you will have? Who are the people around you?

If it is so specific that you can spend 15 minutes describing your dreams, that’s even better.

When it is specific, you will be able to zoom in and focus on attaining the smaller parts of the larger goal.

In thinking about a career goal, for example, think about the ideal work environment, salary range, or position that you hope to reach.

Do you hope to lead a large team one day? Does this job entail travelling and meeting people often?

The more specific your goal is, the easier it is to know how to attain it, and what decisions will lead you to it.


2. Is it measurable?

What’s the point of setting goals when you can’t tell if you’ve achieved them?

Measurable goals allow us to recognise what achievement looks and feels like, so that we can celebrate it when it comes.

Think about how you will measure whether you’ve achieved smaller goals, both qualitatively and quantitatively – is it the size of your paycheck?

Do you want to execute a particular scale of project? How many people do you want to impact?

Especially in planning a career, measurable goals help tell you when you have done enough, and whether it is time to push to the next stage.


3. Is it attainable?

A good goal-setting exercise should be empowering, and not make you feel overwhelmed.

That’s why it is important to reflect and assess whether your goals are attainable at a particular point in time, and whether you have the right set of skills and knowledge to achieve them.

It is likely that your life goal is not easily attained (which is great, because you should be ambitious), so set challenging yet realistic steps towards the larger goal.

Questions to ask: Can I achieve this now? If not, when? And what can I do in the meantime?

Sometimes, you may feel overwhelmed by your great ambitions.

It is useful to hear from successful people who have achieved something similar, and find out how they overcame smaller challenges to achieve it – I call this the “demystifying process”.

Read also: New Year Resolutions: 17 Personal Promises Successful People Make


4. Is it relevant?

Simply put: “Really?”

It is easy to be tempted by little wants that distract us from our target.

We often want things that take up a lot of energy, but do not pay off later on.

This relates to smaller decisions – the job you apply for, the car you purchase, the New Year resolutions you commit to.

Having said that, relevant decisions are not always literal; there will be times when you have to make decisions that are not directly heading toward your goal.

Some detours are worth making, yet be careful about making commitments that contradict your goals.


5. Is it time-bound?

My mentor once told me:

“The effort you put into your work depends on how much you want to achieve, and how fast you want to get there.”

Here’s something you can do: put a deadline to your plans, and then decrease the duration from there until you reach a date so close that it starts making you uncomfortable from nervousness – that is your new deadline.

A tight yet achievable deadline will motivate you to work harder and faster.

A simple goal statement should sound like this:
“By 26, I want to create things that the public can see, hundreds of thousands of them, earning at least RM60,000 a year.”

This might interest you: Where Is The Heart Of Your SMART Goals?


The other side of SMART goals

And while the SMART criteria will ensure productivity, you and I are human beings, not business projects.

Which is why in the next part of the exercise, I have added a second SMART filter: Shared, Meaningful, Ambitious, Responsive, and Timeless:


1. Is it shared?

Relationship is an important part of your life plan, yet often overlooked.

What you want should matter to those who matter to you – family, partner, friends and maybe even people at work.

Think about the people you want to journey together, and also the kind of people you want to meet along the way.


2. Is it meaningful?

Meaningful goals reflect your personal values, and aspects of your life that matter to you. Smaller decisions lead toward your greater goals, and each of them should matter to you.

Some decisions may be relevant, but will lower your self-esteem because it does not resonate with your values.

3. Is it ambitious?

Do not be intimidated by fear, be empowered by it. If your long-term goal does not make you nervous or excited, maybe you are not reaching high enough.

If your goal is a number, double it. If it’s a lifestyle, double the luxury.

How to test if your dream is ambitious enough? Try telling it to people, and see how many eyebrows you raise.

4. Is it responsive?

More of an attitude than a characteristic, responsiveness is key.

Allow your goals to grow with you, and respond to changes of situation and commitment in your life.

Goals should not be rigid, but fluid. In fact, goal setting should be a creative and liberating exercise.

5. Is it timeless?

Because it comes from your heart, your goals should be timeless.

A responsive and ever-growing goal will sustain your excitement and energy till you are much older, even when a good part of the goal had been achieved years before.

Can you imagine yourself being 50 and still proud or driven by your goals?

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who are alive.” – Howard Thurman

By now your goal may sound like this:
“I dream of a comfortable life in the future, and an exciting one when I am younger. I will get a job in the creative field that allows me to travel regularly in my youth, but because I want to be there for my kids like my father has been for me, I will need to make career changes and stop travelling before I turn 30. Whatever that job is, I will have created something for the public that has positively affected the lives of one million children around Malaysia.”


Concluding thoughts

If my own goal-setting journey has taught me one thing, it is this: your goals come to life.

If you face your ambitions head-first, spend time to think about your vision, it will grow into something tangible and elaborate.

The experience will give you the strength to achieve it; you will develop a close relationship with it, becoming something you love, protect and want to nurture to life.

Your life-goals mood board

If you’re unsure about where to start, create a mood board of aspirations.

Look for things that inspire and excite you, and things that you want, and don’t restrict yourself.

Look out for people, words, adjectives and images that you want to be associated with.

The mood board can be a literal one, on your room wall or laptop, or it can be a mental picture of your future.

Here are more things to help you create that mood board, i.e. the seven dream-catching questions:

  1. What kind of lifestyle do I want?
  2. Who do I want in my life, and have I met them?
  3. How much hardship can I handle?
  4. What values will I never let go?
  5. Who do I admire?
  6. How much impact do I want to make in the world?
  7. What do I enjoy doing most?

Sabrina discovered that setting goals is a creative and empowering experience. If you’re interested in having goal-setting workshops in your university/college or even organisation, get in touch with the Leaderonomics team at To send your feedback regarding this article, send us a line or two at We’ll love to hear from you.

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Tags: Personal Growth


This article is published by the editors of with the consent of the guest author. 


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