Goal setting. The subject of many a seminar, book and audio presentation. Look it up on YouTube and you’ll be overwhelmed with responses. The ‘accepted’ mnemonic is SMART and, to be frank, this is as good a memory-prompt as any when it comes to this subject. BUT.

SMART applies only after you’ve identified a goal, at least in a general sense. You want ‘X’, so apply SMART to ‘X’. Or you can take the versions developed by those with sufficient ego to feel the need to add irrelevancies and try SMARTEST or SMARTER as your setter’s guide. W’evah. But to identify the goal, you first need a context for it.

I’m not all that athletic. I do want to be adequately healthy, though. I value health and ‘enough’ fitness. So I could set a goal of running a marathon if I wanted to address those values, but as I have no desire to run that far I’d set that goal in the knowledge that I was completely wasting my mental effort unless I had a context for its achievement. I cold SMART-ify it all I liked, and still not achieve it.

In my favourite books on the subject, written by different people who all ‘start on the same page’, as it were, there are two solutions to the challenge that lies between between setting a SMART goal for the sake of it, and achieving the sought outcome. Authors Charles R. Hobbs and his partner (and later court opponent) Hyrum W. Smith wrote the ‘same book by different titles’ (long story). Both opine that goals should reflect our personal values and both seem to suggest that knowing our values should direct the identification of our goals. Stephen Covey differed in his approach, suggesting that goals should relate to our life roles, which include professional but also private roles.

I have tried both approaches and discovered that Hobbs/Smith’s suggestion about setting a goal related to a personal value is difficult. Values tend to be intangible. They provide a motive behind a goal – a WHY – but ‘Excellence’ is hard to achieve unless you have a context in which to apply it. Excellent at what? With whom? ‘Integrity’ is a nice value to possess, but integrity where? Without challenge, how can you experience integrity?

In comes Covey, with a suggestion that in setting a goal we can use the context provided by careful identification and consideration of our roles. I was a police officer, so my goals related to promotion, specialisation, community-projects, specific investigations, and whatever else came to mind. I set a goal – and then I applied excellence towards that goal. I had other roles – public speaker, trainer, writer, family – and setting goals in those roles was easier than trying to ‘Be frugal’ with money. It’s easy to Be Frugal – don’t spend any money. Hardly a SMART-able goal, is it?

But having a context goals then allows you to apply your values to it. Study for a promotion exam? Then be excellent, be disciplined, be organised. Want a sports car? Then be frugal, work planned overtime. Want to specialise within your profession? Then do the study, join the Associations, meet the people.

Context goals. ‘What do you want?’, ‘what role will it serve or support?’ – and then ‘why do you want it?’

Make your goals real by knowing the context in which it needs to be sought, even if your first goal is to obtain the role itself.