What are SMART goals?


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If you have been around the business world for any amount of time, you have probably heard the term, SMART goals. But you may be wondering, what are SMART goals? Whether you are a business professional or a future Online MBA student, writing SMART goals is an important exercise to implement. Let’s dive in to what SMART goals are and how they are relevant to Online MBA students.

Online MBA Students

college students

So you’re in an Online MBA program, juggling the demands of a current job with grad school. With all that juggling, it’s easy to forget what drove you there in the first place. Chances are you had specific reasons for pursuing your Master’s in Business Administration, reasons that go beyond (but certainly include!) the prospect of making more cash, which prompted your initial foray into business school in the first place.

If that’s the case, you might have also decided that your best course of action would be to keep your head down, bury yourself in coursework, earn that degree, and figure out what comes next later. But that could be a costly mistake. The best time for you to propel your career forward is always as soon as possible. And the best way to start is by setting SMART goals and working toward them.

Now that may seem basic, but some people think that hard work by itself is all you need. Hard work is essential, but without a goal, it lacks focus. This piece on the psychology of goal-setting explains in greater detail, but goals are necessary for self-motivation. They give us a roadmap of where to go and a set of directions to follow. And without a map, it’s easy to end up lost.


Of course, not just any old goal will do. The goal must have structure and purpose; otherwise, it’s just a wish dressed up in business casual. If you want to get the most out of your career, which includes the time you spend getting your Online MBA, your goals need to have five characteristics. They need to be SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.

Now, perhaps you’ve heard or seen the SMART acronym before. It’s been around in one form or another since George Doran wrote about them in a 1981 issue of Management Review. In the ensuing four decades, people have plugged in a variety of different words into the acronym to suit their needs. But new iterations of the theme have emerged, and now two essential letters have been added to the end, going from SMART to SMARTER. The last two letters mean that your goals should be ethical and rewarding.

In this article, we’ll break all of them down and help you incorporate this approach into your (most likely) Online MBA program. It’s important to note that the first five letters tell you a lot about how you will complete your objective, but the last two should tell you more about why you should meet your goal. That’s important because in business, sometimes the ultimate why can be obscured behind the need to generate revenue for a business or income for a staffer.



First, your goal should be specific. A goal that’s too vague is less of a goal and more of a desire or a slogan. “Make more money” is not a goal worth pursuing, but “double our earnings”… now that one’s got possibility. Why? Because on a company balance sheet, earnings are distinct from revenue or income. Whether you want to increase your sales revenue or launch a complementary product line or open another location, your best goals will be specific. There’s a big difference between a desire like “be impressive” with a goal like “give a presentation that impresses the VP of Sales and lands a second meeting.” Use your goals to help paint the picture of the future you anticipate.


Your goal should also be specific enough that you can measure it. There should be some sort of unit of measurement involved in achieving the goal. Abstract concepts are helpful to guide you, but you can’t measure them. There’s no special meter that can tell you how much a coworker respects you. But you can measure things like how many letters of recommendation you secure or how long those letters are. You can’t measure concepts like comfort or luxury, but you can calculate the price of your goods or services. If you’re trying to figure out if your product is making a buzz or generating conversation, you can’t necessarily measure “buzz.” But you can measure how many times users download your app, or how much time they spend on it, or how many times your customized hashtag is being tweeted. You want your goal to be measurable so that you know whether or not you’ve achieved it.



Proper goals are always achievable, not just achievable by anyone, but achievable by you. To set these kinds of goals, you must know yourself. What type of challenge will light a fire in you? What type of challenge will make you feel like you are banging your head against a wall? This kind of self-knowledge involves trial and error, along with paying attention to how it makes you feel along the way. 

For example, say you decide you want to start exercising. You know that going for a walk before work is something that feels like a perfectly reasonable thing that you could do. On average, you do it about once a week. Going from doing this once a week to doing it every day is a goal that is likely to leave you pretty quickly frustrated with yourself. On the other hand, it also needs to be something that you’re not already doing, or else there’s no challenge to latch onto. So, in this case, perhaps walking twice a week is a good challenge. Or once a week, but for an hour instead of your usual 15-20 minutes. Don’t be so preoccupied with what you should do that you completely ignore what you can do.


Your goals should also be relevant to the larger vision you’re striving toward. It doesn’t mean that every goal needs to be strictly business-related, but it’s gotta have a purpose that helps you in some way. Let’s say you always wanted to learn how to juggle. Will making that a goal help you get closer to your business objectives? Probably not, but with some imagination, maybe. Perhaps juggling could be a way that your booth stands out during trade shows or a way that you impress clients in one-on-one meetings. Make sure your goal will help you get toward the future you want. If it does, then it’s relevant. If not, then it’s not.


This simply means your goal needs to have a deadline, a time by which it must be completed. And you might need a range of deadlines to reflect projects of differing scope and magnitude. Short-term goals are for the here-and-now, medium-range goals are for just down the road, and long-range goals are for way further down the road. And hopefully, your current coursework will help pave the way for the other objectives you keep in mind (you know, the reason why you took on the Online MBA in the first place).

calendar planning

But you shouldn’t just assume that’s the case. Find ways to connect your short-term goals (i.e., paper and project deadlines) to your long-term goals. What do you hope to do with your MBA, and can the things you’re learning now help you get there? If that picture is a little fuzzy right now, that’s okay… but then what would you need to clarify that picture? Will it help you to try out certain approaches or research certain companies? Parting of making good goals is helping your goals to align with each other so that you’re not just checking boxes off a to-do list, but you’re helping create a synergistic flow that can propel you forward.

And maybe the idea of making these connections feels daunting. If so, that’s okay, too. It can be tempting to put off the larger questions when you are staring down more immediate deadlines. 

But take some time to at least write down your bigger questions and bigger goals and keep them near the computer where you work on your online classes. Then, whenever there is an aspect of a paper or project that you have an option to select, incorporate your longer-term goals and questions into that selection.


This one is important. Your goal should support the moral or ethical framework to which you subscribe. Maybe that framework is a code of ethics by which you’re required to abide in order to participate in your industry. Maybe that framework aligns with a religious belief, or maybe it’s based on the culture of the company to which you belong. However you come across them, you want to make sure your goals are in alignment with those ethical boundaries and not in violation of them. Otherwise, you’ll be bothered by a sense of cognitive dissonance, where your brain tells you something is right, but your heart says it’s wrong. In life, as well as in business, you’ll face enough opposition as it is – don’t make it even harder by opposing yourself.



And finally, you want to make sure that achieving your goal will bring with it additional rewards besides the most obvious ones related to career success and/or money. You want your goals to help you feel good about what you’re doing. You want to have additional peace, joy, or happiness. Maybe you want to be helping others. Maybe you want your goals to assist you in becoming more physically fit or mentally tough. Whatever rewards most appeal to you, make sure you’ve tied your goals to those rewards. Goals that reward us help keep us motivated and on track for whatever we’re working toward.

Action Plans

Now it’s time to put this framework into action. Think of a goal and intentionally make it specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound, ethical, and rewarding.

You might want an example of a good goal. Here’s one you can start with:

I will spend at least 15 minutes (specific and achievable) before noon on Monday (time-bound) researching honorable companies (ethical) that align with my long-term plan (relevant) and select one of those to use as an example for my paper that is due on the 15th, which will help me to relax and not stress out about the assignment (rewarding).

Not every goal needs to be that wordy. But if you want your goals to help propel your career forward, make them SMART. Better yet, make them SMARTER.

Related Resources:

Top Online MBA Programs
Reasons to Get an Online MBA

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