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Setting SMART Goals

Popularity 5Viewed 12685 times 2013-6-7 03:51 |System category:Life| Setting, Goals

I've written several blog entries about making progress toward goals, having help achieving goals, and persevering in pursuit of your goals, but I've never written anything really clear on how to set goals.
What is your goal? Are you working toward a measurable goal?

One of the amusing things about English (and other languages that use alphabets) is that we can create acronyms to help us remember things. An acronym is a word or set of letters where each letter represents a word. Several English words are actually acronyms, such as LASER, RADAR, and SONAR.

A good acronym for setting goals is SMART.
S = Specific
M = Measurable
A = Attainable
R = Relevant
T = Time-Bound

First, we'll discuss what each of these means and then we'll work through a few examples, including my own goal for learning Chinese.

S = Specific.
You need to be very specific in how you set your goal. Simply saying "I want to speak English fluently" is not specific enough, because what exactly does "fluently" mean? I am a native English speaker, but I cannot discuss certain topics intelligently in English simply because I do not know anything about those topics. I have two doctoral degrees, so I am considered an expert in certain areas. My goals in learning Mandarin are eventually to be able to read a newspaper, watch a movie or TV, and to be able to speak the language well enough that I could live in a Mandarin-speaking country easily. One way to help make a goal specific is to make it measurable as well. Another way to make it specific is to be as clear about it as possible.

Some goals are pretty clear in and of themselves, such as "I want to lose weight." But I've spoken with people who have had "goals" such as "I want to learn a foreign language." or "I want to be able to play an instrument." Those are far too vague by themselves, but they are not entirely hopeless - they just require an interim objective of selecting the language or instrument before the goal can become a SMART goal.

M = Measurable.

How do you know when you've reached your goal? That depends on the goal itself. If your objective is to learn a foreign language, a good way to measure your success is to use one of the standardized tests available. This also links in to the "Attainable" and "Relevant" criteria which will be discussed later in this blog entry.

Some goals are, by definition, measurable. I know runners and cyclists who want to reduce their times on running or cycling certain distances. The measurement IS the goal. Losing weight is often the same thing - the measurement (weight) is the goal, though you can also measure your weight loss by something that is not the weight itself, such as you want to fit into a dress you wore when you graduated high school, or you want to fit into your wedding dress again.

The point is that there must be a clearly defined, objectively measurable way to tell that you have reached your goal. That way you will know when you've reached it.

A = Attainable.

Be reasonable. Don't set goals that you know are impossible to reach or you will only set yourself up for failure. Now, it is good for goals to be a stretch and a challenge, but you need to know the difference. For example, I would love to be an astronaut. However, I'm far too old to start the training and I have a minor heart condition that would exclude me from the program. Therefore, being an astronaut is not an attainable goal for me. Neither would being an Olympic gymnast, especially in what I consider to be the most interesting event - the uneven bars. I'm too old and I'm male. Uneven bars is a women's event only.

The attainability of a goal is also linked to the last criterion - "Time Bound". The deadline for the goal must be reasonable. If I wanted to run a marathon next week, there's no way I would be able to do it because I can't even run more than a few miles right now.

Attainable also means setting reasonable checkpoints and interim steps in your goal, as I've discussed in previous blog entries but I will discuss a little more later in this one.

R = Relevant.

Learning something simply for the sake of learning something is great, but doesn't lend itself toward a good goal. There has to be some reason for reaching the goal, there has to be a benefit to you for it. You have to have some motivation for reaching that goal.

Be very clear as to WHY you're working toward that goal, and the WHY can't just be a reward you will give yourself when you reach it. It needs to be a benefit of reaching that goal.

T = Time Bound.

This ties back to Attainable in that the deadline must be reasonable. If I wanted to take the HSK 5 next month and pass it, I could certainly take it, but there's no way I'd be able to pass it. (Actually, I'm not even sure I could take it next month since I do not know how far in advance you need to sign up for the test. I don't need to worry about that quite yet, so I can look into it later.)

Having the goal be time-bound is very important to ensure that you will make progress. If the goal is open-ended (no deadline) you will be tempted to put off working toward the goal. If it is too far in the future, you will be tempted to put off working on it unless it is such a large goal that there are clearly-defined checkpoints (intermediate goals) toward which you can work during your progress toward the main goal.

Setting a deadline is difficult for many people, including myself. I want to be sure I succeed, so I tend to be generous in my timelines. However, I also am a bit sentimental and I will often use certain fixed points in time as deadlines.

You also have to be willing to make changes in the timeline when you realize that it is unreasonable for some reason. Life happens, and you may need to change your timeline.

Now, let's take some vague goals and turn them into SMART goals:

Example 1. Learning Mandarin

I want to be able to speak, read, and write Mandarin "fluently", at a level comparable to a native speaker with a similar educational background to my own.

That's pretty specific, but it's not really measurable in that form.

Given that I have two doctoral degrees, that's a pretty tall order and I'm not entirely sure exactly how to reach that goal, so I need to find something that is clearly headed in that direction that I can measure.

Enter the HSK. The HSK has six levels, with level 6 being the highest. Wikipedia describes HSK level 6 as being "Designed for learners who can easily understand any information communicated in Chinese and are capable of smoothly expressing themselves in written or oral form."

That sounds pretty much like "fluent" to me, so HSK 6 is my ultimate goal. Passing the HSK 6 is certainly measurable, so it passes the "Measurable" test.

Next one is "Attainable". HSK 6 is attainable. I'm sure other people who did not grow up speaking the language at home have passed HSK 6. I doubt the HSK 6 would have lasted very long is no-one could ever pass it.

So far, I've handled the first three criteria - Specific, Measurable, and Attainable. The next one is Time-Bound, which may impact "Attainable".

I need to set a deadline that is not too far in the future. I decided that since I'm 47 years old now, I would use my 50th birthday (November of 2015) as my deadline. Thus, the new goal is "Pass the HSK 6 before I turn 50".

The timeline impacts the attainability. I am not so confident that I could be ready for the HSK 6 by then, as the standard for the HSK 6 includes learning over 2600 characters (not words - characters) and over 5000 words, which is nearly 1000 characters and 2500 more words than the HSK 5.

Therefore, let's look at the HSK 5 for a moment: "Designed for learners who can read Chinese newspapers and magazines, watch Chinese films and are capable of writing and delivering a lengthy speech in Chinese."

That is not "fluent" but is certainly more than adequate for being able to live in China. I am not abandoning my eventual goal of the HSK 6, but instead I am trying to be reasonable given the timeline that I have, so my goal is now:

"Pass HSK 5 before I turn 50."

I can always alter the goal (either to HSK 6 or HSK 4) as I make progress when I determine how realistic the goal is, since I am using my 50th birthday as a fixed deadline. Remember, the ultimate goal of HSK 6 remains.

Now I've addressed Specific, Measurable, Attainable, and Time-Bound. I skipped "Relevant" until now because for me "Relevant" is the easiest one in this case. I travel to China twice each year to lecture at universities, collaborate in research, and consult. Being able to get along on my own without always needing a friend or colleague to interpret for me would be a great benefit for me. Also, understanding the language will help me understand the culture better.

Thus, I have a SMART goal - a goal that is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. In this case, I took my original goal (HSK 6) and my original deadline (50th birthday) and realized that the two were not compatible, so I needed to change one or the other. I decided on a more attainable goal (HSK 5) on the same deadline (on or before 50th birthday). Once I reach that goal (HSK 5), I can determine when I would be able to reach the ultimate goal, passing HSK 6.

Next example: Learning English

I am doing this one specifically because I know that many of the readers here are trying to learn English for various reasons, so I am going to work through how I worked though this with a friend of mine to help her set her goal for learning English.

This friend of mine is a 13 months younger than I am, so her 50th birthday will be in December of 2016. She also decided to chose her 50th birthday as her deadline. With this type of goal, reaching the goal before the deadline is perfectly acceptable.

Her initial goal was similar to mine - she wants to be able to speak English at a level comparable to a native speaker with a similar educational background. She's a CPA and has a master's degree (MBA), so she's well educated. She is also a talented musician, so she would like to be able to discuss music in English as well. (That's a minor sub-goal that we'll discuss during this process.) She is Chinese, and lives in China.

Note that the decisions are not always made in the S.M.A.R.T. sequence, as you will see with my friend's example.

S = Specific.
Her goal is fairly specific in the final outcome, but it is not readily measurable in that form.

M = Measurable.
How can we measure her goal? That was the tricky part for her. The CET and TEM are not available to her because she is not a college student. That leaves several other tests, such as the BEC (Business English Certificate), TOEFL, IETLS, and CATTI. She's a business person, so the BEC may be a good bet for her.

So far we've decided that a standardized test would be a good measure for her to use. We'll determine which one later.

A = Attainable.
Can she do this? It depends on the test, but her English is quite good so I don't think she'll have much trouble reaching a reasonable goal. We'll have to revisit this one when we decide which test she is going to take.

R = Relevant
She's a business person, so the BEC seems like a logical fit. Then we looked at the BEC. She had 15 years work experience working for a Canadian company and often needed to use English in her daily work. She is the person who handles all of my business arrangements when I'm in China, and she's served as an impromptu interpreter for me on numerous occasions. She's also handled business arrangements for me in English when we've traveled to other countries where Mandarin was not spoken (such as Thailand and Malaysia). When I looked at the BEC I determined that it is too easy for her. She could already pass it.

So we decided to look at the other exams. The TOEFL and IETLS are both primarily college-entrance exams used to determine if your English is good enough for you to attend college in English. She's not planning to go back to college, so those are not really useful for her. Then we looked at the CATTI - the Chinese Assessment Test for Translators and Interpreters. This test requires a broad-range of English knowledge in order to be able to function as an interpreter in various situations. The lowest level, CATTI-3, requires general vocabulary and good oral language skills. The CATTI-2 and CATTI-1 require increasing levels of technical and scientific vocabulary. Based on the fact that she is a business person and not a technical person or a scientist, we decided that the CATTI-3 would be a good starting point for her because she often functions as an interpreter for me and because the test requires a broader knowledge of English than the BEC. Thus, the CATTI-3 is relevant even though she is not a professional interpreter.

Now we can go back to the Attainable and Measurable criteria. It is certainly measurable - either you pass or you don't pass. Is it attainable? Certainly. She makes grammatical errors in her English but she is understandable. Preparing for this test will help her improve her grammar as well as her oral language skills.

T = Time-Bound
She wants to do this before her 50th birthday, which is in December of 2016. I think it will be easy for her to do it by then, so the timeline reinforces the "Attainable" criterion.

Also, the time line and finally determining exactly which test (CATTI-3) have made the goal very specific, so she now has a SMART goal.

I hope that this will help the readers determine how to set realistic goals, and then with the tips in my other blog entries you will be able to develop a plan for how to reach those goals.

(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)




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Friends who just made a statement (3 Person)

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Comment Comment (5 comments)

Reply Report Ted180 2013-6-9 20:27
Good. Systematic. Realistic.
Reply Report querist 2013-6-14 00:29
Ted180: Good. Systematic. Realistic.
That's the idea. :-)
Reply Report Yes-summer 2013-9-2 23:04
Do you think it is a big problem to make grammar mistakes in foreign language speaking? I don't think people can speak foreign language without grammar mistakes if he is not a native speaker.
Reply Report querist 2013-9-3 20:27
Yes-summer: Do you think it is a big problem to make grammar mistakes in foreign language speaking? I don't think people can speak foreign language without gramma ...
Ideally, of course, the goal is not to make any mistakes. However, it is more important to COMMUNICATE. Correct grammar will come with practice and time.
Reply Report snowipine 2013-10-7 09:49
querist: Ideally, of course, the goal is not to make any mistakes. However, it is more important to COMMUNICATE. Correct grammar will come with practice and ti ...

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Ph.D. in Computer Science (Security) and also a physician, I travel to China on business a few times each year. I am learning Mandarin (and some Cantonese because I travel to HK and GZ) and intend to take the HSK in 2015 (before I turn 50).


Recent comments

  • Just a short note 2014-5-10 10:24

    Vocabulary seems to be the hardest thing to learn. Chinese grammar is logical, but learning vocabulary (especially to read) is a challenge when I have few opportunities to speak the language. I really wish I could live in China for a while.

  • Just a short note 2014-4-2 12:16

    good luck to you.

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