Getting SMARTer

If you’ve spent any time in the fields of health care or human services, there’s a high probability that you have come across the acronym SMART.  I have worked in the mental health world since 2008, and somewhere along the way I was introduced to SMART, primarily as a template for setting treatment goals for clients. Within the last couple years, however, I’ve discovered that the application of SMART actually spans far beyond the borders of my career field and is commonly used in business, project management, and personal development as well as many other contexts. Basically, if you need to accomplish something–anything–SMART applies.

SMART is set of guidelines for more effective goal-setting. SMART stands for…

Specific – An action or event is clearly stated.

Measureable – Progress can be quantified and tracked.

Achievable – The goal can realistically be attained given the salient factors (time, resources, etc.).

Relevant – The goal is personally meaningful and/or relevant to an overarching objective.

Time-bound – There is a specified time period in which the goal is to be achieved.

To illustrate, let’s look at an example of a goal that was not so SMART. Let’s say—hypothetically, of course—that there was a certain MSW student who recently turned 40, and one year prior to this monumental birthday, he set a goal for himself: to be in the best shape of his life when he hit the big 4-0.

It was clearly a worthy, challenging, and potentially beneficial goal. But was it SMART?

In actuality, it was an ART goal: it was realistically (A)chievable, personally (R)elevant, and it had a (T)imeframe for completion. Missing were (S)pecificity–By what specific actions would this happen? Running? Weightlifting? Bullriding?; and (M)easurability–What metrics define “in shape”? Weight? Resting heart rate? Which belt notch he uses?

Ultimately, this hypothetical MSW student’s progress toward his not-quite-SMART goal was substantial by the time birthday #40 rolled around. Most notably, he improved his cardiovascular endurance significantly, as evidenced by more than doubling the number of miles he was able to run continuously. Meanwhile, his weight remained fairly constant (which he wanted), and he lost minimal strength in the weight room (losing strength is common when a person trades some lifting time for running time). Overall, good outcomes. Nonetheless, there were definitely periods when his motivation flagged because of the vagueness of his goal, and he crossed the finish line at 40 feeling like he “sortof” achieved his goal…but sortof didn’t. Had he applied his efforts to a more specific and measurable objective, his success—and his sense of achievement—likely would have been unequivocal.

Hypothetically speaking, of course.


Okay…so what? What’s the point of all this?

Glad you asked. I’ll give you three.

  • People who set and achieve goals are more successful in life. There is research to back this idea up, though you’ll have to do the searching on your own if you want to read it, because I’ve already got enough literature reviews to do this semester. However, the fact that goal setting is such an integral part of the mental health treatment world, and the business world, and many other professional worlds suggests just how vital it is to success. And using the SMART method is one of the most straightforward and effective approaches to setting and achieving goals. Again, that’s why its application is so widespread


  • Setting goals can improve your mental health. Not only does working toward a goal promote progress in that particular area of functioning (e.g., physical fitness, professional duties, etc.), it also fosters self-esteem, a sense of competency and mastery, and a positive outlook. That’s why goal-setting is included in many cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) protocols. For example, in my current field placement at the Salisbury VA Medical Center, I co-facilitate a CBT treatment group for chronic pain that prominently features SMART goal-setting as a way of decreasing the intensity and emotional impact of pain and increasing quality of life. In fact, the social worker who heads up that group has proposed starting a new group specifically to teach SMART goals—that’s how important he believes goal-setting is to the health and functionality of the veterans he serves.


  • SMART goals can get you into grad school. Many of the prospective MSW students to whom I talk are intimidated by the application process. Taking the GRE is an especially common dissuader, and then there are the personal statements, recommendation requests, and other details. When you look at the entirety of what needs to be done, yes, it’s a lot. That’s the beauty of SMART goals: they help you break down that process into “chewable bites.” One daunting objective becomes a handful of feasible steps. Particularly important is the time element. I recommend setting mini-deadlines for yourself to finish each part of the application. Take it from me that gradually checking those items off the list engenders such a feeling of accomplishment and makes the entire process seem manageable.


If you’re reading this blog, it’s probably because you want to help people, to advocate for social justice, to be a positive change agent in the world. You’re considering how to achieve those purposes with your career and life. I challenge you to take those noble goals you have for impacting the world and make them happen. And the first step to making them happen could be making them SMART.


Pictured below: Our hypothetical MSW student’s classmates help him celebrate his 40th.



About Ross Cole

I'm a second-year student in the Winston-Salem Distance Ed program. My primary career interests are in the mental health realm, and I plan to get my clinical license (LCSW). My current field placement is at CareNet Counseling in Winston-Salem. I live in Jamestown and am a native North Carolinian, but I've lived in several other states (spent 9+ years in Seattle, WA). Oh, and I ran into Bob Barker at the Louvre when I was like 10.
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