March 28, 2023

Volume XIII, Number 87


March 27, 2023

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Setting S-M-A-R-T Goals for Future Success and Satisfaction

The start of a new year can be a time when you tend to take stock of where you are in your career, where you want to be, and what you want to accomplish. But too often and pretty soon after setting your goals, you find yourself being pulled in multiple directions, getting distracted, and wasting time on activities that drain your energy and are entirely unrelated to your stated goals. Part of the reason this happens is because your goals were too abstract, unrealistic, or overly ambitious, or because you never connected deeply with them in the first place.

The good news is that you don’t have to wait another year to avoid this cycle of frustration and resistance towards goal-setting. No matter what time of year it is, you can replace any of your aspirational goals that do not facilitate follow-through with more targeted goals that prompt intentional action and accountability. Turning your aspirational or general goals into more actionable ones increases the likelihood that you will achieve them because you are visualizing a path forward and giving yourself direction on how to do so.

Maybe your goals center around up-leveling your communication or leadership impact or skills, better managing your time, organization, or productivity in the face of increased or competing demands, focusing on career or business development planning, prioritizing your wellbeing, or strengthening relationships with colleagues and clients.

Setting S-M-A-R-T goals is one tried and true method you can use to position yourself for success.

Let’s say that one of your goals is to identify more opportunities to cross-sell the firm’s services to your clients. But the goal to “increase cross-selling opportunities” is vague and does not incorporate any concrete objectives or interim guideposts to help ensure follow through. Now try passing your goal to develop more cross-selling opportunities through the framework of the S-M-A-R-T goal model.



Be specific about the what, who, why, and how of the goal:

  • What do you want to accomplish?

  • Who else can help you achieve the goal?

  • Why is the goal important to you?

  • How will you achieve this goal?



Make sure you can measure your progress to determine whether you’re on track to meet your goals by asking: “How will I know if I’ve reached my goal?” or “What is an observable metric of progress towards this goal?”



Work towards a goal that you find challenging but can actually achieve, taking into consideration whether you have the right resources and capabilities to achieve the goal.



Be honest with what you are capable of accomplishing with the available resources and time constraints that exist.



Set a realistic end-date for your goal to stay motivated.

Other pro tips to keep in mind as you embark upon the S-M-A-R-T goal-setting process include:

  • Write your goals down. Various research studies indicate that writing down your goals makes it much more likely that you will achieve them. When you write things down, you signal to your brain that what you are writing is important and should be remembered (and there’s the added bonus of being able to put your written goals in a place where it serves as a constant visual reminder). The process of writing things down will also help you get clearer on what you want and how you can accomplish it.

  • State your goals in the present tense. Our subconscious mind only hears commands that are in the present tense, and also triggers us to be more focused on spotting opportunities and people that may lead us to achieving our goals.

  • Keep it positive. Focus on what you want or want more of, and not on what you don’t want or want less of, to cue your brain towards what you are seeking and to stay motivated.

With all of these things in mind, we can turn the example above into a S-M-A-R-T goal. The result will be something more like this: “Within six months, I am introducing at least two of my clients to attorneys in at least one other different and relevant practice area within the firm so that I can deliver more value to and strengthen my relationships with these clients.” 

Once you have developed this concrete goal, you can write down the smaller steps you will need to follow to achieve it – your “mini”-S-M-A-R-T goals – and then ensure that you capture related tasks on your to-do list. For example, you can identify that in one month, you will have identified the two clients that you believe could benefit from receiving additional services from the firm. This means that your to-do list for the next month may incorporate the following as tasks: identify clients with revenues over a specific threshold that would likely have needs for additional legal services; speak with those clients about what is going on in their business and the main challenges they foresee over the next 6-12 months; and set up a meeting with your practice group leader to discuss your approach.

Setting up a concrete goal grounds you in planning for what needs to be done to achieve success by prompting you to identify the smaller milestones that need to be reached, while an aspirational goal is likely to soon be drowned out by the never-ending cycle of returning emails, checking non-goal-related items off of to-do lists, and responding to client needs.

When you take the reins and set your own development goals using the S-M-A-R-T goal framework to create more ownership and empowerment, you increase the likelihood of achieving your desired results. And if you find yourself struggling with converting your general goals into more specific ones, you can always enlist the support of an executive coach to keep you on track.

© 2023 Foley & Lardner LLPNational Law Review, Volume XIII, Number 38

About this Author

Anjali D. Desai D.C. Attorney Coach Foley Lardner
Coaching Director

Anjali Desai is director of coaching with Foley & Lardner LLP and is a member of the Legal Talent & Development Department.  As a certified coach, Anjali coaches attorneys at all levels on a variety of topics, including career strategy and management, leadership and business development, productivity and time management, effective interpersonal communication, work/life...