How you know that your goals are specific enough?

July 5, 2017
In order to prioritize according to something other than urgency, we need to establish goals to put our tasks in relation to.

Goals help us determine how important a task is. But to really benefit from our goals when we prioritize, they need to comply with certain criteria.

Perhaps you have heard someone refer to SMART goals – meaning that they are Specific, Measurable, Attractive (or Acceptable), Realistic and Time-bound.

This is a well-established concept, which offers a practical standard when setting goals. However, the question is how much use we have of the acronym if we do not dig deeper into what these qualities really represent? If you ask me, the word “specific” for one is actually paradoxically rather unclear.

What do you mean, “specific”?

While writing my book on prioritization, I went through a lot of the literature regarding setting goals when trying to find a clearer definition and explanation of what “being specific” really means. Someone writes that the goal should be “concrete” and someone else that it needs to be “clear”. But to be honest, these are just synonyms for specific, not explanations, and thus they were not very helpful.

The number of to-do-tasks is what makes the distinction

Another writer takes a step in the right direction by stating that “it needs to be explicitly clear what we mean” when we formulate the goal, but it was not until I read the words of Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at University of California, Davis, that I found a hands-on definition we can really use.

He says that unspecific goals are unclear in terms of what we can do to reach them; meaning it is more difficult to think of what tasks that would contribute to us attaining the goal. Specific goals however, are more clear since we immediately know what we can and need to do to reach them.

The more concrete to-do-tasks we can think of that will bring us closer to reaching a goal, the more specific the goal is to us (our knack for thinking of specific tasks to do when working towards a goal may vary, but since it is our goal and no one else’s, that is perfectly alright).

Do this

If you want to check if the goals you have set are specific enough, do the following:

Take out your list of goals, or write them down so that you have them in front of you.

For each of the goals, take a few minutes and write down as many to-do-tasks you can think of that would contribute to your attainment of the goal. If you run dry after a while, move on to the next objective.

How did it go?

If it was easy to think of contributing tasks, the goal is probably specific enough for you, since when you are prioritizing amongst all the tasks you have to do, the challenge is to determine which tasks that contribute to reaching the goal and thereby are important – regardless how urgent they are.

If it was difficult to think of tasks that would bring you closer to the finishing line, you could probably be more specific when defining the goal or goals, otherwise it will be hard to determine what you have to do right now when prioritizing since you are not sure what separates the important from the only urgent tasks – seen in relation to your goals.

Not just by urgency

If you make sure that your goals are specific enough by doing this simple check, they will be of much greater use to you when you set your priorities throughout stressful days. You will find it easier to determine what to do next from all the tasks on your list (as well as tasks that continuously arrives via email and through your office door) judging by what is most important. Instead of just doing what is urgent, you will be able to say ”yes” and ”no” to doing tasks with a clear conscience, and have more time for what matters most.

How do you check?

Do you have some other way of ensuring that your goals are specific enough? If you do, please write to me and tell me because this is a theme that greatly interests me, and I am curious of hearing about your thoughts on the matter. You will reach me by emailing

Source: David Stiernholm, author or Super Structured

David StiernholmDavid Stiernholm is a trainer who teaches thousands of people every year in companies, government authorities, organizations and universities how to become more structured and attain a higher degree of personal efficiency.

Super Structured

“Information overload”, “too much going on”, “full email inbox”, “too SUPER STRUCTUREDmuch on your plate”, “heavy workload”, “ASAP”, “piles that keep growing”, it has to get better soon… Yes, there are many ways to describe the chaotic life many of us lead at work. But, if we create a better structure at work, we will have more time for what matters most to us and to our business. Super Structured is based on a highly successful training program and is for anyone who wants to create a workday that runs smoother and with greater ease. In short chapters with useful advice and tips


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