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What is the science behind SMART goal setting

January 20, 2020

Team Management

If you’ve worked in management for any period of time, you’ll have heard about SMART goal settings, and the increased benefits that come with organising your targets this way. For those of you who are unaware of SMART goals, SMART standards for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-Bound. They’re the five criteria that you should ensure that all of your goals meet in order to have a chance of meeting them successfully. So, why do SMART goals work so effectively? Let’s dive into the behavioural and neurological science behind these ambition-achieving guidelines.


All goals need to be specific, if they’re too vague or too big then there’ll be little chance that you’ll accomplish it. According to neuroscience, the benefits of having specific goals has something to do with the “Raticular Activating System” (RAS) in your brain. This is essentially the importance filter for our brain. On a daily basis, our senses experience a lot of random stuff, the RAS pulls out the important things and brings them to our attention. This is why when we first discover or notice something, we end up not being able to unsee it, or we end up seeing it everywhere. For instance, if someone tells you that they want to buy a particular new car, you’ll start noticing it everywhere because it’s been brought to your attention. The reason that this works in terms of goal setting is if your goal is specific enough, the more you act upon it, the more you’ll notice other people also trying to reach that goal, or things that will help you achieve it - your brain will instinctively bring things linked to your goal to your attention, pretty cool, right?


Goals need to be measurable so that we can track our progress thus far. This in turn spurs us on to continue with our aims because we’ve already come so far. It’s an instant sense of achievement that we can quantifiably see how far or near our goals are. For instance, if your aim is to run 5km without stopping, the less you have to take breaks and the longer you run for, the more improvement you can visibly see, therefore giving you the motivation you need to get that final push. In business it’s the same, if your goal is to get four new clients this month, once you break it down it’s only one new client a week, and after the second one you’re already halfway - it’s these milestones that help you stay on track and motivate you to carry on.


Having attainable and realistic goals go hand in hand, but there are some differences. Attainability is key in order to motivate yourself, if a goal is too big or not in your power to achieve then you’re much less likely to try in the first place. If you do have a grand plan, then it’s worthwhile to break it up into attainable chunks that can be more easily completed. This will not only give you an increased sense of achievement, it’ll also outline a clear path to success that you’ll be able to follow. Attainability is more about the practical plan, whereas being realistic, as we’ll soon discover, is more about your own expectations.


As alluded to, having a realistic goal revolves around expectations, belief and your own mental capacity for what is possible. In recent years, around the world there have been some pretty unrealistic things happen: 10 years ago it wouldn’t have been realistic for that guy from The Apprentice to be running for a second term as President of the United States, but here we are. Being realistic is only limited by your own expectations of yourself and the amount of effort that you’re prepared to put in to achieve it in the time period you’ve allowed. So, if you can’t commit all your energy to achieving this goal, maybe scale it back a bit. It doesn’t mean that this particular goal isn’t a stepping stone within a larger picture, it’s just you being realistic with your own expectations at this moment in time. Going too big too soon can risk you losing momentum and motivation overall, something that can be psychologically counterproductive.


Time-bound is the easy one to grasp: we all work better with deadlines. If there’s a clock on a challenge then you’re more likely to focus on it, as you’ve only got an allotted time to achieve it. If you don’t set a timeline for you to achieve your SMART goal then it’s too easy to put it off for another time, another year, and suddenly it’s fallen by the wayside altogether. Humans love to procrastinate, having a time-bound system prevents the chances of us avoiding the task entirely, due to the mental jeopardy that comes with missing that deadline. For instance, going back to the 5km example, if you sign yourself up for a race, that’s a hard deadline that you’ve committed to and that you need to hit. Keeping to commitments whether they’re to yourself or to others is a powerful motivator, which is why having a time-bound target works so well.

So, there you have it, the science and reasoning behind why SMART targets are so effective. Now that you know the facts, it’s your turn to go out and create your SMART goals and go about achieving them. It’s a New Year, a new decade, what are you going to achieve in 2020?

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