What are SMART goals and how to set them

Best practices for identifying and writing your biggest goals.

A flight plan to a pilot is like objectives to a CEO. Without objectives, a company is flying blind—struggling to find altitude and stay aloft. In the OKR framework, objectives are the goals a company and its teams are working to achieve. Key results are the milestones to get there. And they should all be SMART. SMART is a tool to help set, write, and track your OKRs. SMART is an acronym that conveys the objectives of an organization into an achievable one: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. SMART brings structure to objectives through key results that are measured through the lens of a goal’s attainability. And the SMART goals system brings teams and companies closer to achievement by asking specific questions that are intended to get you there. The genesis for SMART goals debuted in an 1981 article authored by James Cunningham, George Doran, and Arthur Miller. Titled “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management goals and objectives,” this article was the first example of illustrating the challenges of running a multi-layered business and how establishing objectives was a critical component in improving and strengthening the management process. In that paper, Doran clarifies the SMART acronym came about because managers at the time were becoming confused by the overwhelming content about objectives from books, consultants, magazines, and seminars. Managers and supervisors could use SMART when they wrote their objectives. While SMART incorporates five elements, Doran emphasized that you don’t need to use all of them. Not everything worth achieving is measurable. In fact, over the years, people have even added to the framework to get SMARTER—adding evaluated and reviewed to the mix to help focus on reflection and evaluation to the process. The best way to start writing your SMART goals is to ask questions — lots of them. Make sure to involve colleagues in the question process. The answers you receive will be critical to understanding if you are landing on goals that are doable. When writing OKRs, it’s helpful to work through the SMART framework with your team. Here’s a breakdown of the framework and helpful questions to ensure you’re considering each component.

Is your goal specific?

SMART goals are specific and narrow so that it’s clear what you’re trying to achieve.
Framing questions
  • What is going to be accomplished?
  • What actions will you take to get you there?
💡 Tip When crafting objectives, use action verbs like these: analyze, apply, change, create, determine, identify, instigate, perform. Avoid ambiguous jargon and focus on actions.

Is your goal measurable?

SMART goals have clear metrics to ensure you are on track to hit your goals.
Framing questions
  • What data can you use to measure the goal?
  • Can you be sure that the change happened?
💡 Tip Consider these data types: amount produced, revenue generated, rate of productivity, customer satisfaction. And these data collection methodologies: audits, automated reports, test results, and surveys.

Is your goal attainable?

SMART goals can be achieved in a reasonable timeframe (e.g., one month or one quarter).
Framing question
  • Can you realistically tackle this goal?
💡 Tip Attainable goals should be about how to inspire and tap your team’s motivation.

Is your goal relevant?

Your team goals should align with your organization’s strategic and business objectives.
Framing questions
  • Does the goal match job role and function?
  • Does the goal map up to the purpose and strategy of a company
💡 Tip There should not be any factors that make these objectives impossible or unlikely.

Is your goal time-based?

There should be a specific end date for your goals so that your team can create a workback plan and prioritize tasks leading up to the end date.
Framing questions
  • How long will it take you to accomplish this goal? What is your time frame?
  • Deadlines help bring urgency to the team.
💡 Tip Sometimes, it helps to break down a goal into two parts so you can check-in on progress. If a goal will take two months, define what should be expected after the first month.
SMART goals help increase the odds of success by:
  • Outlining clear intentions to work instead of vague or ambiguous goals.
  • Providing clear and realistic objectives.
  • Removing unnecessary work.
  • Establishing a set beginning and a finish date.
We built the Ultimate Coda Handbook for Planning and OKRs to help you get started with planning and goal-setting at your company. It's full of templates, tips, and recommendations learned from 100s of teams.

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