Setting SMART goals is an easy strategy to increase your focus. Learn how to use the method and get our free template to help you with it.

Tame your projects

Starting with a new project can be scary – double and triple scary if you know that project is going to be long and painful, and if you have no idea how it is supposed to work out. While doing your PhD, you will be challenged with many big, fat, and seemingly impossible projects. One thing will help you manage them better: setting your goals ahead.

A technique that has worked very well for me is the SMART method for goal setting. SMART has been developed by project managers – and as a PhD candidate, you are exactly that. The method is a very handy tool for anyone starting a major new chapter. On the road to the next paper? Planning new experiments? Map out your goal in advance, and getting there will become easier. Fill out our free template, hang it on your office wall and get crackin’!

Everything you need to know is described below.

SMART Goal template from The PhD Lab

Setting SMART Goals

The goal you set should be serving you – and not the other way around. Therefore, your goal needs to be: Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Relevant, and Timed. As an example, let’s say you want to want to write a paper.

SSPECIFIC: Which goal do you want to achieve? 

Aim high, but don’t go off the charts – you want to push yourself to get better, and not to get depressed because you failed to meet an unrealistic expectation. Just as important: Choose a goal that is entirely in your control.

For your paper, “Publishing in Nature” is a bad goal – success or failure depend too much on outside factors. “Submitting the manuscript” is better, but still depends on the schedules and opinions of all co-authors. A good goal would be: “Finishing the paper draft.” This one is yours to control, you just need to sit down and do it.

MMeasureable: How long/large/much will the outcome be?

Setting a measuring standard for your goal will help you review your progress in times when you feel lost. Even if such a standard does not seem to apply, try to find a measurable parameter.

“The draft will cover my last 6 months of experiments. It’s going to have 5 figures and will be about 5 pages long. “

AAgreed: If other people are involved in your project, are they on board with your plan?

You don’t have to check in which everyone. Still, collaborative projects require that the closest people involved (e.g. your supervisor, your colleagues, …) understand and approve your plans. Communicating your goals beforehand will save you from doing double work.

RRelevant: Why is it important for you to reach this goal?

Even your most brilliant project ideas will not be realized if you have no motivation to reach your goals. Ask yourself why the goal you set truly matters to you. Getting this aspect sorted will help you stay focused on the road. 

“I want to build the basis for my next publication, because this will take me closer to getting my PhD.”

TTimed: By when do you want to achieve this goal? 

Set a clear timeframe and you will see your procrastination giving way to your productivity.

“I will have the draft ready beginning of next month.”

Most important

Which part of the process will you enjoy?

Why did the world’s best artists become so good at what they do? Not necessarily because they set good goals for themselves. To become really good at something, you need to enjoy the process of getting there. Great artists became so great because they ENJOY making art, even though it can be an incredibly painful process. Your project is going to have many ups and downs along the way. To make it easier to face them, ask yourself: Which part of the process are you looking forward to?

A final note

With all the helpful aspects for better goal setting, don’t just run from goal to goal. If you base your value and confidence only on which goals you can check off from your to-do-list, you might get more productive, but you will lose your personal balance. From time to time, you will not meet your goals – that is not because you are failing, that is because you are human. Instead of glorifying the goal, find joy in the process, and you will be able to maneuver even the most difficult projects.

Did you try out the SMART goals method? What effect did it have on your work? What other tricks do you use to be more productive? How do you measure your progress? Share your wisdom in the comment section below!