There is no point being SMART if you’re not SHARP

You’re probably familiar with the at least one variation of the goal-setting acronym SMART.  But setting such goals is one thing.  It’s equally important to think about whether or not you achieve them! Which begs an interesting question: are SMART goals smart enough?  Or should we be setting SMART-er goals if we are really going to achieve them?  In this article we consider two key reasons why so many personal goals can be so hard to reach:

  1. Do you set goals that motivate? We are far more likely to achieve goals that motivate us.
  2. Do you take the right action to achieve them? Goals are only wish-lists unless we convert them into actions.

Setting SMART-er goals

Setting goals is a helpful way to focus on our actions. However, it’s easy to overlook the idea that some goals can be more motivational than others. The types of goals we set can have a real impact on whether or not we will realistically or effectively achieve them. We think people are more likely to achieve goals when they are:

  • Clear rather than general
  • Meaningful to us rather than uninteresting
  • Challenging rather than mediocre

All too often, we don’t spend enough time clarifying what we’re really aiming to do, before taking action. It’s easy to set goals that are so general that we don’t know exactly what we’re trying to achieve, or for that matter, whether or not we’ve achieved them. This is one of the real values of setting goals which are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bounded. But are SMART goals smart enough?

Motivation and Success

It can be far harder to achieve personal goals if they are uninteresting and mediocre, even if they are SMART.  However, set yourself some meaningful, challenging SMART goals, and that’s another story! So one key to achieving goals is to ensure they mean something to us, and perhaps the key to this is thinking about the link between motivation and success.

Make sure your goals aren’t just about extrinsic achievements, such as higher salaries, more qualifications, and promotion.  Important as these may be, you’re far more likely to achieve these if your goals also include an intrinsic element.  So remember to set goals which address:

  • personal growth
  • interests, passions, and strengths
  • connection with and contribution to other people or causes.

And if you make sure your goals are challenging, that stretch but don’t over-power, then so much the better.  Remember the words of John Ruskin: “The highest reward for man’s toil is not what he gets for it, but what he becomes it”. These are the real goals that will motivate you to succeed, the SMART-er goals.

Taking SHARP action

Changes are always easier if you have some clarity about what you intend to do. But goals need to be more than just SMART – they should also be SHARP. There is no point setting SMART goals, even those that motivate and challenge if we don’t take action to achieve them. So whilst SMART clarifies your goals, SHARP focuses your actions to achieve them.

Without a focus on implementation, on making it happen, then regardless of how well a goal has been designed and crafted, it may just remain a good intention.  To overcome this, goals need to be not only SMART; they need to be SHARP as well!  Try thinking of your goals in these terms to stay focused on achieving them:

  • Simplicity – keep them simple.  If you can’t explain your goal simply or remember it easily, then it’s likely that you’ll struggle to achieve it.
  • How – can the goal be achieved – what’s the plan? What steps do you take to make the goal a reality?
  • Action – The central and salient point. What actions are you taking to progress towards the goal?
  • Review – Are you making regular assessments of what you’re doing, how and why?
  • Progress – Action should always be about getting closer to your goal. The purpose of an action is to make progress! So don’t just review, plan to progress.

Smart and Sharp

Being SMART and SHARP isn’t just about improving what and how we do things to achieve our goals, though that would certainly be helpful. More importantly, it’s about improving the things we choose to do: getting the right things done.  So it’s useful to ask two questions:

  • Will this activity get me closer to my goal?
  • What small actions are most likely to help me achieve this goal?

Asking these questions helps us to be SHARP about the kind of action we choose to take – that most likely to lead us our goals. That’s why reviewing progress is so important. But it is also why you need to be clear about the actions you do take. Don’t forget that often much of what we do doesn’t really contribute to reaching our goals. Often it’s a small number of actions that really make a difference.

The second question is an attempt to apply the well-known 80/20 principle: that a small number of actions will deliver most of what you want to achieve. Ask yourself if that’s the case in your situation, and try to identify the 20% that delivers 80% of your goals. The principle suggests that only a few things matters, so find think about the activities that really matter to you and to your organisation. This may not be a new principle, and indeed it may not apply to the same degree in all circumstances, but too often it is not commonly practised.

So remember that whether your goals are SMART or SMART-er, they are only ever a wish-list until you take SHARP action to realise them.  Are your goals SMART enough?

Image via Pixabay

Phil Higson

Phil Higson and Anthony Sturgess have written extensively on a range of personal development topics on their website: They have recently written a new book: Uncommon Leadership – How to Build Competitive Advantage by Thinking Differently, published by Kogan Page. For further information, including helpful tools and resources, please visit our website.