SMART Goals and Accountability

Dylan | Jun 24, 2019

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Regardless of what we’re trying to achieve, goal setting is critical to our success. Without clearly defined goals, we run the risk of being swallowed by the sea of life, drifting aimlessly from wave to wave. Unfortunately, we spend more time drifting than we realize and for most people, it’s our default state. It is the path of least resistance.

Although I’m all for “going with the flow”, I’ve also learned that worthwhile goals require a strong sense of direction. Sure, it’s possible to forget about a bearing and drift to our target destination but the reality is we’re likely to end up on the wrong continent.

Smart and structured goals serve as the compass and map to success. When there’s nothing but open ocean for miles, we can rely on our smart goals to guide us.

For several months now, I’ve made it a key point of my routine to set weekly goals. In fact, Nimble Coding is a large accumulation of many weekly goals. This is my 11th post and not coincidentally exactly 11 weeks since my very first post.

When I decided to start blogging, I envisioned a site with dozens of inspirational and educational posts for not only programmers but anyone who happened to stumble across my website. Then reality hit. I was completely overwhelmed by the intimidating task of writing a single post, let alone dozens.

But here we are at post number 11 and counting. It hasn’t been easy and it didn’t happen overnight but I’m certainly much further along than 11 weeks ago and I owe it all to weekly goal setting.

SMART Goals

Not all goals are created equal and ensuring your goals are smart is the first step towards reaching them. Smart goals are achievable and clearly define success. They are well thought through and light the path to success instead of obscuring it.

An example of a poorly constructed goal would be “learn about linear regression. Despite well-meaning intentions, this goal is certainly isn’t smart. So then, what are SMART goals? SMART goals refers to the popular framework for setting goals that are both healthy and helpful. SMART is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.

Specific

Returning the the example goal above, “learn about linear regression.”

What exactly do you mean by learn? The vagueness of the goal allows any of the following scenarios to satisfy it: watching a 5-minute YouTube video, reading 100 pages of a machine learning textbook, or hacking out a linear regression model to make predictions on real-world data.

Spending 5 minutes watching a YouTube video is much different than reading 100 pages and each of these scenarios is much different than launching your favorite editor and hacking away for a few hours until you figure it out. If so many scenarios can satisfy the goal, then the goal is clearly not specific enough.

Another nasty side-effect of ambiguous goal-setting later appears when you actually go to work on your goals. Ambiguity is potent fuel for procrastination. Anything you have to figure out or determine before you can begin working is another reason not to begin working. By nature, the goals we set are already challenging in some way, otherwise why bother setting a goal? Specific goals make it easier to start working.

Measurable

A lack of specificity often leads to goals that are difficult to measure. Again, we would need more information about what it means to learn something before we could even begin to measure any level of success. Does learning imply being able to immediately implement it in a project or just possess some basic understanding of the most fundamental principles?

Achievable

The goal to “learn about linear regression” is generally an achievable goal but perhaps reading 100 pages about it and building a real-world model in a single evening after work isn’t realistic. Make sure your goals are within your power to accomplish and especially although sometimes necessary, be cautious of setting goals that are dependent on another party. You’re much more likely to succeed if you focus on the things under your control.

Relevant

Make sure the goals you set remain consistent with your long-term goals and values. If you’re pretty sure you’ll likely never encounter linear regression in the future, perhaps there’s a more valuable way to spend your time. This is especially important to keep in mind when working in a team. As the team changes course, you’ll likely have to reconstruct your goals to ensure they constructively align.

Time-bound

You could “learn about linear regression” today, tomorrow, or a few years from now. With the goal in this current form, success is not attached to a specific date or time. Goals without deadlines run the high risk of being delayed into oblivion.

Make sure to set deadlines for every goal but always ensure your time frame remains achievable.

If I had to fix the original goal to fit the SMART format, I would probably end up with something like, “Watch 3 Data Science course videos on linear regression, taking notes on important details, and apply it in a project to predict salaries given an age using a dataset from Kaggle by Sunday at 8:00.”

Preparing this goal certainly requires more work than the original (finding a dataset, deciding which videos to watch ahead of time) but it’s also infinitely more likely to be achieved. It’s specific; free from ambiguity. Each step is blatantly measurable and bound to an achievable deadline. If my long-term goal is a career in data science, then the goal is also very relevant.

Accountability

Great, you took some time and set a bunch of SMART goals and feeling pumped to take on the world. You sit down at your computer to start working and your phone kindly alerts you of a Facebook message. You tell yourself you’ll just take a quick peak. An hour disappears and you catch yourself watching silly videos on YouTube. Ultimately you brush it off thinking, “No worries, I can always work on my goals tomorrow.”

Honestly, what’s to stop you from doing the same thing tomorrow? By the time the deadline rolls around, who will be there to hold you accountable? If the answer is no one, the sad reality sometimes is that it might be nearly impossible to motivate yourself to achieve your goals. Bosses, professors, and colleges can offer tremendous motivation in the fight against difficult and uncomfortable work but what if you’re all alone?

Unfortunately, self-discipline is difficult and finite. Without someone or something to hold me accountable, I find myself at a high risk of neglecting my most uncomfortable goals. Thankfully, I’ve managed to build an accountability network around me. I’ve found two friends interested in bettering themselves and we check in regularly to ensure we’re all staying on track. When I know I’m likely to procrastinate a certain task, I’ll let them know and have them check in with me at my defined deadline.

In addition to these accountability partners, I have been a member of an online zero-forgiveness accountability group for 8 of the 9 previous months. Every week by a fixed deadline, group members post their goals for the week (following the SMART format). Members are also required to explain how they will prove to the group that they have completed all of their set goals for that week. If a member fails to achieve all of their goals, they receive a strike and after three strikes they’re kicked from the group.

Over the past several months, I have watched many group members cycle in and out of the extreme accountability group. Having an accountability group has proved invaluable and it significantly reduces the time I spend procrastinating. Sometimes, it’s the only thing that keeps me focused on my goals when I just feel like binging-watching YouTube videos.

What do you think about SMART goals? Have you ever used them? What systems do you have in place for holding yourself accountable? What do you think about the zero-forgiveness accountability group that I’m a part of? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

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