Plan a SMURFY Short-Term Goal (6 months)


Smurf Definition
Image taken from

I recently asked a group a grizzled college veterans--that is to say, students who were just about to graduate--what they would recommend I do with my first year students. (I'm always trying to swindle people into giving me free advice.) Here was how I put it: "Imagine that I only had time to do one activity with this new group of students. What should that activity be?"

I wanted my students to think big. If they had learned one thing in an introductory course, what do they wish it had been? You have probably guessed what my veteran college students came up with, because it is the title of this post: they thought I should have new students practice planning short-term goals. What they actually said was, "have them make goals, like, following the smurf thing or whatever." 

I explained that I knew what they were talking about, even though I didn't realize that the acronym was wrong.

Long term goals are easy to come up with. "I want to graduate" or "I want to get a job where I make at least $60,000/year" or "I want to qualify for the Olympic trials." But they are the kinds of goals that are followed by an impotent flash of enthusiasm. 

A short-term goal is on a much nearer horizon. If they are good, by which I mean they follow the SMURFY acronym, then they will be challenging but achievable. But goal achievement requires work, which is where most people give up. This is an invitation to avoid being like most people. Choose a goal, and make sure that it it follows the steps of SMURF, which our class decided probably meant "specific, measurable, understandable, reliable, and functional."

When I sat down to write the activity after plagiarizing my students' idea, I realized that the acronym was SMART, which isn't nearly as much fun.

Step 1: Identify a Goal

Do you have a GPA goal for this semester? Do you want to grow a twenty-pound potato? Do you have an occupational goal for the next six months? Do you want to finish reading the life-changing book Life Is Easier Than It Seems? It doesn't matter what your goal is, as long as it is important to you and fits the criteria below. 

Because it will be really easy to use as an example, I will describe the goal of beginning a regular exercise routine. Here is how that goal might sound: "In two months, I will finish a 10k."

Now ask yourself: "Is this a good goal?" In order for a goal to be a good one, it has to meet the following criteria: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. It has to be SMART.

I am not the inventor of this useful acronym. It was actually explained to me by a colleague (the Chair of Teacher Education) during a workshop I gave on helping students design learning objectives.

Step 2: Is My Goal Specific? 

Notice how my example goal is to finish a 10k. It would be vague had I said "finish a race" or "run more." Both of those goals have a huge variety of possible meanings. There is lots of wiggle room. But entering and finishing a 10k race is specific. No wiggle room. A better and more specific version would be, "I will finish the Harvest Run 10K in Leesburg, GA," which is an actual race near our university. This is useful if you have a running distance goal, because paying the race entry fee adds another layer of accountability. You've paid for it, so you might as well train for it.

Don't just say "I want to do well in my classes." Be specific. Say "I want to get a 3.5 GPA this semester" or "I want to be in the top 10% of my classes this semester."

Step 3: Is My Goal Measurable?

10 kilometers (6.2 miles) is a popular road racing distance. I will know when I am capable of doing it, because I can break it down into smaller distances that I can work towards. I will first have to cover 1 mile, then 2 miles, and so on. In other words, I will know how far I am from my goal at all times.

With GPAs, you can calculate exactly what you need to get the 3.5 you are after. You can look at how GPA is calculated, and then figure out the grade you need for each class in order to achieve your goal. You might decide that your statistics class will probably be hard, so your goal there is a B. But then in your other 3 classes you will need an A. And so on. Use a GPA calculator if you are unsure.

Be sure not to choose a goal that is measurable but unchangeable, such as growing four inches taller.

Step 4: Is My Goal Achievable?

This is the banana peel that goofs up many a SMURF. A person picks a goal that is unreasonable or unobtainable. I've talked to a number (the number is 2) of hopeful runners who want to finish a marathon (26.2 miles) or even an ultramarathon (such as 50 miles). This people who cannot run a mile. It has been my experience that people who go after such extreme goals wind up miserable, overwhelmed, and easily defeated. In the case of running, they usually get injured, too.

I think the best goals are just outside what you feel is possible. In other words, if you feel like you could probably get a 3.0 GPA for a semester, then increase that goal to 3.2. Don't jump to 4.0. If you think you could finish a 5K, then increase that to an 8K or 10K. Don't jump to a half marathon. You can always plan a second goal cycle where you will achieve a higher order goal. 

Step 5: Is My Goal Relevant?

I have twice tried to keep up a regular YouTube channel. I chose video creation because I thought that people would be more interested to watch me than they would be to read me. The problems were that I am not a videographer, I'm not comfortable in front of the camera, and I hate editing video. My goal wasn't relevant to me.

A relevant goal is one that fits in with the rest of your life goals, your personality, and maybe your current job and relationships. It sounds like you. As a runner, for example, a running-related goal would be more relevant to me than a cycling or swimming related goal. As a writer, a writing-related goal (such as keeping a daily blog) would be more relevant than keeping a daily Vlog. 

Step 6: Is My Goal Time-Bound?

Just like step 2 (which was choosing a specific goal), having a time-boundary is helpful for planning your goal. If you keep the timeline wide open, then you won't know what you are supposed to be doing today or next week. You could do nothing and still be on track for your goal. Having a time-boundary keeps you accountable.

I gave my hypothetical person two months to finish a 10K. Say this hypothetical person can walk/jog one mile. We can intuitively break this down into 8 weeks:

  • WEEK 1: Jog 1 mile (1.6K)
  • WEEK 2: Jog 3K
  • WEEK 3: Jog 4K
  • WEEK 4: Jog 5K
  • WEEK 5: Jog 6K
  • WEEK 6: Jog 7K
  • WEEK 7: Jog 8K
  • WEEK 8: Jog 10k
Of course, a person wouldn't do a single solitary run of increasing distance each week. There would be a lot of 1-2 mile runs sprinkled in there. But you can see that each interim goal is only a little bit higher than where the person is currently. This is important because they will know exactly what the objective is for each week. 

You should never be wondering, "Now what am I supposed to be doing to support my goal today?" This is an example of poor planning.

Conclusion: Why it Works

It might seem like a lot of work to go through all of this planning. You might even be wondering how much you could achieve in the time it would take to make a plan. But here's the thing: planning it out allows you to be intentional with how you spend your time. You will not get dragged along by life and fate. You will become the master of both. 

For example, students explain to me how such-and-such a professor ended up being hard, so they got a C in that one class. I always wonder: "didn't you know that in advance?" If not, then why didn't they? Couldn't this student have asked around? Checked ratemyprofessor? Or even once they were in the class, did they not explain what their goal was and ask for the professor's guidance on how to accomplish their goals? This is standard SMURF procedure.

In the end, the amount of time-investment is minimal when you consider the amount of actual work that goes into achieving the goal itself. An extra 30 minutes of planning at the beginning and 5 minutes per day is small compared to the hours and hours of aimless work you would otherwise do without a specific goal and steps to follow.


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