Goals. How do they work? They’re as mystifying as magnets. Apart from very concrete, snaggable things—a new job offer, a school acceptance, sufficient savings for a new car—lots of people just try to do things well until they get incrementally better at the thing, never having any firm standard to measure themselves against. If, like me, your phone is littered with the partially complete skeletons of to-do lists past, you may realize this is not the most tactical way to live. So my most immediate goal is to set better goals.


Let’s start with a snappy biz-schoolish heuristic that’s long been making the rounds. It takes the form of acronym, that timeless device for teaching schoolchildren the planets and helping high-powered executives set objectives. Goals should be SMART. That means they have to be:






Try taking a goal of yours and lining it up against this rubric. I want to get better at cooking, for example, is not specific or measurable or time-based—even tacking on “flourless chocolate cake” or “by June” to the end of that one improves it. Meanwhile my pseudo-goal for 2015, dunking a basketball, was specific (touch the hoop while depositing the ball in the hoop), measurable (did the ball go in the hoop), and time-based (put the ball in the hoop by the end of the year). Given the unavoidable reality of the situation, however, this was neither realistic (I cannot escape my genes) nor achievable (I am not Spud Webb).


Those last two are easily the trickiest to assess, as noted over at FastCompany, and to my eye seem roughly interchangeable, as if they were both slopped on there to fit the acronym’s neat scheme. Both boil down to: given the physical laws of the universe, and the extent of your willpower, can you actually get your body to do this thing?

That evaluation is difficult enough in the abstract, and not by accident—if it were cut-and-dry, it’d be an item on a grocery list, not a goal. The ambiguity is intentional. Goal-setting enthusiasts suggest using your emotional response as a guide: a good goal should put you in the “discomfort zone,” and should elicit “some fear, some uncertainty, some doubt.” It should get you churning, strategizing how to approach it, taking stock of your current resources. If you can state your goal and not shudder, maybe it’s too easy.

Flossing every single day of May will make my dentist happy and my gums sad; it fills my mouth with anticipatory dread. These are good signs. I’ll pursue this goal with the one lifehack I regularly use: jot your goals down, and set the image as the wallpaper of your phone. That way every time you compulsively check it, you’ll get some gnawing reminders of what you should be working at, at least until you are desensitized to that image, too.