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How to Be ‘SMART’ Like Ben Franklin

September is National Self-Improvement month, giving us the opportunity to participate in a Twitter trend (#SelfImprovementMonth) and, more importantly, take some time to reevaluate our goals, create a plan for bettering ourselves, and take concrete steps toward achievement.

Self-improvement is a concept as American as apple pie, going back to Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, where the famous scientist, entrepreneur and Founding Father laid out his 13 virtues and his methodical blueprint for bettering himself. It’s astounding today to read his book and see how detail-oriented he was about his plan. He created a day-by-day table and put a check mark where he lived out his virtues, which included temperance, industry, humility and more.

While Franklin’s virtues are certainly a fine place to start a project of self-improvement, what made him unique was his ability to put words into action. In the 200 years since Franklin’s time, psychologists, business professionals, management consultants and others have discovered some key principles of human motivation and achievement.

High among those is the recommendation that you should, like Franklin, write your goals down. The physical act of writing your goals on paper will make them seem more real, and thus will make you more likely to act on them. Equally important, your goals should be “SMART”—an acronym that will help you define and accomplish realistic goals.

What is a SMART goal? A SMART goal is:

Specific. “I want to get stronger” is a fine goal, but it’s also vague and abstract. Stronger how? Physically? Mentally? And what constitutes as stronger? By contrast, saying “I want to deadlift 200 pounds” is concrete and specific. It gives a clear explanation of what you want to achieve.

Measurable. In addition to being vague, “stronger” also fails to offer any metrics. But if you can barely pick up a barbell this week, you have a baseline of measurement by which to track your strength. All of your goals should have some type of metric, like “200 pounds” to track your progress against.

Achievable. Big and abstract goals may be daunting, but even specific goals can be meaningless if they are impossible. Saying, “I want to be the next U.S. president” or “I want to play in the Major Leagues” is not achievable for most of us. But saying, “I want to learn how to throw a curveball” or “I’d like to run for local office” is something you could accomplish. One key to “achievable” goals that they focus on action (throwing baseballs) rather than results (starting for the Orioles).

Relevant. If you are extremely fit, a goal of “getting in shape” might not be relevant for you—and therefore would be meaningless. It’s important to set goals that would mean something to you, goals you could and would work for.

Time-bound. Time-bound goals offer a deadline—perhaps six months. Something that would take ten years might not be specific or achievable enough, whereas something you could do in a day might not be a relevant goal. Try to think of something you can do over the course of a few weeks or months—or a year at the outside.

This formula can help you translate an abstract, meaningless goal like “I want to get in shape” into something concrete like “I want to lose ten pounds by the end of the year.” The former “goal” doesn’t give you something to work toward, whereas the latter gives you something specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound.

We’ve come a long way from Franklin’s 18th century printing press and horse-drawn carriages, but his method of self-improvement—writing down his goals, tracking his progress, and committing every day to achievement—is something we can still replicate. Onward!