13 Steps to Write & Set SMART Goals [2024 Update]

What do you really want from life?

We’re all filled with dreams and aspirations. Most long for fulfilling relationships. Some desire financial independence. Others want fame and success. And some strive for perfect health.

Wherever your ambitions may lie, goal setting can get you there. On the other hand, the wrong goal can leave you feeling frustrated and unmotivated. When you set a goal that’s too lofty, it’s easy to give up when your dreams don’t turn into reality.

We all have important milestones we’d like to reach. The trick is to create a plan and commit to it. Writing SMART goals can help you do this.

It’s easy to set a series of SMART goals. Simply write down a desired outcome on a piece of paper and create a deadline for achieving it.

The hard part is taking action. As you know, the Internet is full of books that talk about setting goals. The problem? Most don’t talk about the daily actions (or habits) required to achieve them.

So on this page, you will discover our best blog posts about setting SMART goals and how to implement this strategy throughout your life.

First, let’s start with a simple definition.

What are SMART Goals?

The key to effective goal-setting practice is to define exactly what you’re seeking to do. It is not enough to say, “I want to be rich.” This vague statement doesn’t say anything about how and when the outcome will be achieved. In fact, it doesn’t even clarify what you mean by the term “rich” and what, according to you, is “poor.”

You can’t create an action plan if you don’t have a clear description of your desired outcome. The solution? Write down a goal with specific objectives. And that’s where SMART goal setting comes in.

George Doran first used the SMART acronym in the November 1981 issue of the Management Review.

It stands for:  Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound.

Here’s how it works:

S: Specific

Specific goals answer your six “W” questions: who, what, where, when, which and why.

When you can identify each element, you’ll know which tools (and actions) are required to reach a goal.

  • Who: Who is involved?
  • What: What do you want to accomplish?
  • Where: Where will you complete the goal?
  • When: When do you want to do it?
  • Which: Which requirements and constraints might get in your way?
  • Why: Why are you doing it?

Specificity is important because when you reach these milestones (date, location and objective), you’ll know for certain you have achieved your goal.

M: Measurable

Measurable goals are defined with precise times, amounts, or other units—essentially anything that measures progress toward a goal.

Creating measurable goals makes it easy to determine if you have progressed from point A to point B. Measurable goals also help you figure out when you're headed in the right direction and when you're not. Generally, a measurable goal statement answers questions starting with “how,” such as “how much,” “how many”and “how fast.”

A: Attainable

Attainable goals stretch the limits of what you think is possible. While they’re not impossible to complete, they’re often challenging and full of obstacles. The key to creating an attainable goal is to look at your current life and set an objective that seems slightly beyond your reach. That way, even if you fail, you still accomplish something of significance.

R: Relevant

Relevant goals focus on what you truly desire. They are the exact opposite of inconsistent or scattered goals. They are in harmony with everything that is important in your life, from success in your career to happiness with the people you love.

T: Time-bound

Time-bound goals have specific deadlines. You are expected to achieve your desired outcome before a target date. Time-bound goals are challenging and grounding. You can set your target date for today, or you can set it for a few months, a few weeks or a few years from now. The key to creating a time-bound goal is to set a deadline you’ll meet by working backward and developing habits (more on this later).

SMART goals are clear and well-defined. There is no doubt about the result you want to achieve. At its deadline, you’ll know if you have or haven’t achieved a particular goal.

Now, the wording of a goal is especially important. Focus on the right thing and you can do amazing things. When you focus on the wrong things, you might lose your motivation to achieve a goal.  That’s why you should focus on process goals instead of outcome goals, which is covered in this blog post.

(There are some who think SMART goals are outdated. If you feel like this goal-setting method isn't for you, here are some SMART goals alternatives you can try.)

Examples of SMART Goals Throughout Your Life

You’ll find that when you set goals for every area of your life, each goal supports the other and transforms you into a well-rounded person. So it would be a mistake to focus on just one dimension (like finance or business) and neglect the other areas.

Our advice is to set goals for all seven areas of your life.

Now, if you want to see specific examples, then check out our blog post on the 35 SMART goals you can set throughout your life.

How to Set a SMART Goal

It’s not hard to set a SMART goal.  In fact, we’ve come up with a 13-step process you can use to get started.

Step 1: Create a life list for the seven areas of your life.

Try to set goals for some (or all) of these seven areas, which will help you achieve that perfect work-life balance.

  1. Career Goals
  2. Finance Goals
  3. Health Goals
  4. Leisure Goals
  5. Personal Growth Goals
  6. Relationship Goals
  7. Spirituality Goals

The purpose of the “life list” isn't to focus on one area of your life (like your career)… but all areas so that you become a balanced person. The more balanced you are, the happier and more content you will be.

It’s not unusual to set a goal and fail to follow through on it. Sometimes this happens because a person’s long-term plans have changed. Other times it’s because the person doesn’t know what they truly want from life.

The people who consistently achieve their goals understand the relationship between motivation and accomplishment. Instead of setting arbitrary outcomes, they can clearly describe what they desire and then use this information to spur themselves into action.

It might sound trite, but the simplest way to identify what you want is to imagine your future self lying on your deathbed.

What are the things you’d regret not being able to do? What are the things you’d be most proud to have achieved? What relationships did you most enjoy? What experiences gave meaning to your daily existence? What lives did you improve through your actions and efforts? 

The point behind this exercise?

When you start at the end, you can reverse-engineer the rest of your life. The “death bed analogy” is the simplest way to know what’s really important and what will ultimately be a waste of your time. The items you write down from this experience will become your “life list” (or commonly known as a bucket list).

There’s a lot that can go into a life list. Everything comes down to your perspective and experiences. So it makes sense to only include the items that are personally significant.

Get started by answering these questions:

  • What are your heartfelt desires for you and your family?
  • What have you always dreamed of doing?
  • What activities make you feel inspired and driven?
  • What thoughts give you goosebumps while imagining them?
  • What things have you always wanted to own?
  • What uplifts you spiritually?

Use your answers to these questions to come up with a number of potential goals. The key here is to not censor yourself. Allow your subconscious mind to identify the important things in your life. Keep adding to this list by identifying what you’ve always dreamed of achieving.

Creating a life list can be a very positive experience. The responses you give here will help define your inner values and the specific goals you’d like to achieve in the immediate future.

Again, be sure to check out the above post to see 35 specific examples of the different types of goals you can set, if you need further inspiration.

Step 2: Create a Vision Board

Now that you’ve done some self-examination and reflected on what matters most on your life list, you can breathe some life into those words by creating a vision board.

In simple terms, a vision board is a way of transforming your written goals and dreams into a visual aid that is designed to inspire and motivate you. As humans, we are visual creatures. We often judge books by their covers and tend to believe what we see over what we hear or read.

With a vision board, your goals will take shape as an encouraging work of art. It can include images, photos, positive quotes and sayings. Print and hang the completed board on a bulletin board or wall… or download your vision board to your smart device, serving as a constant reminder of its importance.

Step 3: Turn your life goals into the SMART format and write them down. 

To help you get started, we have a variety of worksheets and tools you can use for your goal setting efforts:

  1. A printable SMART goal worksheet.  (Click or tap this link to download our worksheet to your preferred device.)
  2. SMART goal worksheets.  If you prefer something else, here are four alternative worksheets you can use.
  3. Free SMART goals templates. If neither of the above options suit your needs, we recently published a blog post that profiles 11 SMART goal templates created by other websites.
  4. Goal setting planners. If you’re a highly motivated person who likes to keep a history of your goals, then we recommend purchasing one of the nine goal planners listed here.
  5. Goal setting apps.  If you prefer a digital option, here are nine goal setting apps and trackers. One thing: Some of these apps don’t use the SMART format, so you might have to do a little digging to find one that matches your personal preference.

We prefer the pen and paper approach. Writing down a goal embeds it into your subconscious mind and stores it in your long-term memory. If you write (and review) your goals every day, you’ll get a constant reminder on the importance of taking action. If you’re not a fan of your handwriting, typing up your goals can have a similar effect.

The process of writing down (or typing) your goals is similar to journaling. Journaling your goals can be an amazing way to retain focus. Don't forget to use action verbs while you're at it!

You can also pin your goals to a wall or bulletin board when they are written down. Or put them on a card you can carry with you.

Step 4: Create a Goals Book

If you choose the planner, worksheet or template option, it’s a good idea to compile your goals into a binder. We prefer the Avery Flexi-View One-Inch Binder because it’s lightweight, easy to carry around and can be customized according to your goals and projects.

You can do a number of things with a binder like this:

  • Store up to 175 sheets.
  • Keep track of your goals with specific action items and deadlines.
  • Find specific goals quickly without needing to boot up a computer.
  • Create different sections in your binder to organize and monitor your goals.
  • Schedule important tasks, meetings and follow-ups that need to be completed for each goal. These can then be added to a daily/weekly to-do list for immediate follow-up.
  • Add a separate section for life lists and long-term goals (more on these later).

Or if you want a journal that focuses on goal-setting, then here are three great suggestions:

1. Pursuit Goal Journal

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2. The 100-Day Goal Journal: Accomplish What Matters to You

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3. Clever Fox Planner

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Maintaining a dedicated goal book is a powerful habit. Not only is it useful for daily review, it’s also a great motivator for those times when nothing seems to go right.

It can also act as a filter when a new opportunity pops up. Simply compare it to your existing goals to see if it’s worth pursuing or not.  As life changes, you can adjust, remove or add goals to your book. 

Step 5: Write down goals you want to achieve between now and the end of the year.

Everyone has their personal preference when it comes to setting long-term goals. Some think big by focusing on a five-year plan; others like to take things one year at a time, and a few prefer the immediacy of focusing on the next three months.

Personally speaking, I think it’s best to focus on a set of major goals broken down into years and quarters… similar to a  business plan. These are a projection of what you’d like to achieve in the next 12 months. You have a general “idea” of what you want to do, but you’re also flexible enough to change plans along the way.

Creating a SMART yearly goal is simple enough. Starting now, look at the end of the calendar for this year and think about what you’d like to achieve. This can include items such as:

  • The exact salary you’d like to be paid.
  • The revenue your business should generate.
  • Major physical accomplishments you’d like to achieve.
  • The trips and vacations you’d like to take.
  • The volunteer or charity events you’d like to be a part of.
  • The ways you’d like to grow spiritually.
  • The relationships you’d like to pursue or deepen.

Write these down in SMART format, but don’t worry too much about their specific outcome. Remember to treat each goal like a business plan instead of a mandatory milestone you need to reach. In a way, these goals act like a bridge between a life list and the short-term goals you should be working on daily… which brings us to the next step. 

To learn more, check out this post on the benefits of SMART goals. You can also check out these SMART goals generators if you're having some trouble writing down your own.

Step 6: Focus on the next three months and pick challenging goals.

Life lists and yearly goals are often viewed as nebulous, “someday” items, as if you intend for them to happen, but wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t. The main problem with long-term goals is that they are constantly shifting. What seems urgent today often isn’t important next month.

That is why this strategy can be so effective. We can’t always control the way our life turns out, or dodge the curveballs we are thrown.  So it’s often better to create goals for the short-term. While it’s important to set those yearlong milestones, you’ll find that immediate goals usually lead to consistent action and a high level of motivation.

Step 7: Write down up to five goals for the next 90 days (quarterly goals) in the SMART format.

The best way to get started is by taking a look at a yearly goal and working backwards. So, think about 12 months from now. What’s the specific milestone you’d like to reach?

Once you’ve identified this outcome, break down the process into four parts—each will be worked on during a separate quarter. As an example, say you set a 12-month goal to lose weight. Specifically, you want to lose 100 lbs. 

This is a hard enough task without being forced to think about a year’s worth of diet and exercise efforts. Not to mention lifestyle changes.  However, if you broke down the challenge into four quarters, the goal would become more manageable and seem less daunting:

  • Quarter 1: Lose 25 pounds (total loss of 25 pounds).
  • Quarter 2: Lose 25 pounds (total loss of 50 pounds).
  • Quarter 3: Lose 25 pounds (total loss of 75 pounds).
  • Quarter 4: Lose 25 pounds (total loss of 100 pounds).

Each quarter, as you document your progress, it’s important to notate your specific actions. This way, you can see what worked and what didn’t, and adjust your action plan accordingly.

Use this technique for each of the quarterly goals you set. Just remember: no more than 5 goals at a time! This way you remain fresh, focused and motivated!

As you can see, the main benefit of this strategy is that you’re not overwhelmed by the uphill battle that reaching this goal requires.  Instead, you’ve broken it down into doable chunks, which are then further broken down into monthly, weekly, daily and hourly activities (more on this later).

To learn more, watch this video which talks about the importance of quarterly goals and the five steps for setting them:

Step 8: Turn each quarterly goal into an action plan.

The easiest part of goal setting is writing everything down. What’s difficult is taking action. Once you’ve created a goal, you need to work backward and figure out how you’ll get to your desired outcome.

The key to successful goal achievement is turning your goals into projects.

As an example, create a goal like this: “I will give a dynamic 30-minute keynote presentation at the national conference on July 1, 2014.” 

Now, work your way backwards from this date and map out the steps needed to get to this point. Usually this means creating an action plan with a deadline for each component.

Get started by chunking down each of your quarterly goals into monthly, weekly, daily and hourly blocks of time. One of the easiest ways to do this is to create a project list and turn it into a series of mini-milestones that you accomplish over the next three months.

In order to adequately prepare to speak at the conference, my list would include the following steps:

  1. Pick a dynamic topic to present at the conference.
  2. Pitch the event to organizers and make sure they’re happy with the topic.
  3. Mind map an overview of what the presentation will cover (more on this in a moment).
  4. Talk to the “target audience” and find out their current challenges/obstacles.
  5. Collect related data, metrics and statistics.
  6. Organize the information into a logical order.
  7. Create a rough draft of the presentation.
  8. Get feedback from colleagues, mastermind group members and friends, ask for their input.
  9. Write the second, third and final versions of the presentation.
  10. Practice it until you’re comfortable with the material.
  11. Give the presentation.

Notice how this list contains a blend of single actions and habits? That means not only do you need to complete each item, but you’ll also need to set aside blocks of time each day to practice your presentation.

The key point to remember here is to start with the end goal in mind and then work your way backwards until you identify all of the actions that need to be completed.

Step 9 : Brainstorm additional goal tasks using mind mapping.

One of the biggest problems people have with creating project lists is they can’t think of every component that’s required. While some people like creating linear lists, others prefer the process of mind mapping.

Mind mapping is an alternative (or additional) way to create a project list. Instead of writing everything down in a step-by-step format, you use a two-dimensional (often colorful) diagram that presents thoughts, ideas and plans in non-linear fashion. This is called a mind map.

Mind maps engage both hemispheres of the brain. As a result, they are a powerful tool for planning, organizing and communicating a long-term goal.

Mind mapping apps are available for iPad, iPhone and many tablets. The most popular is MindMeister, making it easier than ever to utilize this valuable tool. 

With a mind map, you can also make an honest assessment of your skills, abilities and available resources. Anything you can do to come up with a working strategy can put you on the road to completing a goal in a timely fashion.

Step 10 : Learn the required skills for each goal.

Are you avoiding completion of a certain goal, or action item, because you don’t know how to do it?  There is no shame in having to educate yourself in order to ensure that the wheels of your plan keep turning.

The good news is, the solution is simple. You must take the time to learn the required skill.

Refer back to the list of steps for your project. Look at each item and ask yourself if you’re avoiding a specific task because you don’t know how to do it.  If the answer is “yes”, you can either delegate it to a co-worker or hire a freelancer to do it for you. However, if you feel like the task is important for your personal development, then you’ll need to focus on improving your skills for that task.

Fortunately for you, every task in the world has been successfully completed by someone else. All you have to do is take a proactive approach and educate yourself on how to do it. Here’s how:

  1. Identify the specific skill(s) you’re lacking.
  2. Focus on one skill at a time.
  3. Educate yourself.
  4. Create a step-by-step plan.
  5. Synthesize your notes.
  6. Work on it daily.

Educating yourself doesn’t mean the same as it once did. The traditional model of education is slowly dying away, as we now live in a world that’s filled with an abundance of information. All you need is Internet access and a desire to learn.

Think of it this way—right now, somebody, somewhere has mastered the skill you’re trying to learn. Simply find a person who is kind enough to share their experiences and you’ll gain access to world-class education right at home. 

Step 11: Turn your goals into habits.

Now, one of the major flaws with setting goals is it’s hard to figure out the daily process of how to achieve them. The unpleasant truth is that while setting goals can be fun, the doing part often requires a daily slog of repeating the same action over and over.

That’s why this step of the process is crucial for learning how to turn your SMART goals into habits.

In Steven Pressfield’s book, The War of Art, the one truth he emphasized was that successful people in the world don’t wait for “events” to achieve a result. Instead, they take consistent action and put in hours of daily effort.

While each step being offered in this blog contains items that need to be accomplished, it’s your daily actions that will determine your level of success at achieving a goal. What I recommend is simple. Structure every day so you “do the work” required to achieve each goal. Or to put it differently, you need to turn the day-to-day actions necessary to complete a goal into habits.

  1. Make a commitment to review and work on your goals every single day – We suggest looking over your goals the first thing in the morning, and perhaps 1-2 more times throughout the day. Also, because you’re pursuing multiple goals simultaneously, it’s important to block out time for each one. Allocating enough time slots saves you from being overwhelmed by stress. Use a planner, online calendar or app to help you with this.
  2. Create a schedule with a weekly review – Once a week (I prefer Sundays), take a look at the next seven days and schedule the activities/projects you’d like to accomplish. Then ask yourself three questions:
    1. What are my personal obligations?
    2. What are my priority projects?
    3. How much time do I have?
  3. Track the completion of your goals – You may elect to go with a pen-and-paper approach by recording the successful completion of a habit. Another option is to use software and mobile apps to track your daily activities. Some of the best are GoalSync, AchieveIt and Goals On Track. (Here's our review of Goals on Track.)

Watch this video to discover the five-step process that will help you take action on your goals:

Step 12 : Find an accountability partner or group to stay motivated.

There is a strong connection between goals and motivation. Goal setting guides a person in achieving their desired outcomes, while motivation provides the psychological inspiration needed to take action. You are more likely to take consistent action if you have a true sense of purpose while you work to achieve a goal. Your motivation gives you that sense of purpose.

Motivation is essential because it sparks both the physical and mental stimulation necessary to achieve your goals. If your goals are motivating, you feel energized enough to stay committed, work hard and perform tasks in an efficient manner.

With an accountability partner, or group, you will meet and talk about your goals on a regular basis. You can be 100% honest about your failures and successes when you talk to your accountability partner. It’s a judgment free zone. You are simply there to share ideas, talk about what worked and what didn’t, and brainstorm. 

Finding an accountability partner doesn’t have to be a difficult process. My suggestion is to look for a person who has all (or at least most) of these qualities:

  • Similar goals or interests.
  • Familiar with the focus of your goals.
  • Positive, driven and persistent.
  • Reliable enough to meet on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.
  • Strong-willed enough to (nicely) kick you in the butt if you’re slacking.

This person can be a friend, family member, colleague or even someone you’ve met on the Internet via blogs or chat boards. 

Step 13: Evaluate your goal progression every three months.

You work hard on your goals every day, even review them on a weekly and daily basis. Isn’t that enough?

Sadly, no… not if you want to meet your goals.  You see, some people never take a step back and understand the “why” behind each goal. In other words, people don’t review their goals to see if they’re actually worth pursuing. That’s why it’s important to have a goal evaluation every three months.

A three-month evaluation acts like a quarterly report of your long-term SMART goals. First, you’ll measure the progression of your long-term outcomes. Then you’ll take a look at how your daily actions match your expectations. And finally, you end with an action plan for the next three months.

You can complete a three-month evaluation by asking a few simple questions:

  1. Have I attained the desired outcome?
  2. What were the successful and unsuccessful strategies?
  3. Did I put 100 percent of my effort toward completing these goals? If not, why?
  4. Have I achieved results consistent with my efforts?
  5. Why should I continue to focus on this goal for the next three-months?
  6. What goals should I eliminate or alter?
  7. What goals should I add?
  8. Is there anything new I’d like to try?

Even though it usually takes a few hours to complete this evaluation, you should always take time to do it every quarter. It will be your ultimate safeguard against wasting time on a goal that doesn’t align with your long-term plans.

The three-month evaluation is about learning from past experiences. It’s not the time to be cocky because of a few successes or beat yourself up if you’ve failed. Instead, it should provide a learning experience for you to take everything that happened in the last quarter and apply it to the milestones you’d like to achieve in the future.

And, that my friend, is all you have to do to create SMART goals throughout your life!

Now, if you want to see more examples, then the next section will showcase a variety of blog posts that cover how SMART goals can be used in a variety of careers and personal situations.

Specific Types of SMART Goals Examples

Here is a list of our best blog post about the different ways SMART goals can be used:

smart goals | how to write smart goals | setting your smart goals guide