4-year-olds and SMART goals

Art Linkletter was right: “Kids say the darndest things.” Reflecting on time spent recently with Miss Kylie, a 4-year-old who often visits us, I have come to realize that toddlers also have much to teach adults about SMART goals.

SMART is the goal-setting acronym first introduced to the business world in 1981 by George T. Doran in his Management Review article, “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives.” While it was originally touted as a project management tool, it’s since been widely applied to all types of goal setting—from personal and career goals to financial and health goals.

Once you become familiar with each of the letters in SMART, it’s pretty easy to see how it applies to goal setting:

S – Specific
M – Measurable
A – Achievable
R – Realistic (or Relevant)
T – Time-bound

I would say planning activities for a 4-year-old definitely puts the SMART concept to the test!


SMART goals and kids go together like peanut butter and jelly.

With Kylie, it’s best to define early in the day what our specific, measurable goals will be. It’s not enough to say, “We are going to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.” You need to add that we will be seeing dinosaurs and bugs. And noting that we’re taking the Metro is a huge bonus. The specific, end goal needs to be clarified and frequently repeated during the process. The goal has to be clearly understood, and there definitely has to be buy-in!

Achievable and realistic are an understatement when it comes to 4-year-olds. You quickly learn that there is no bigger disappointment than an unachieved goal. One activity—like buying and decorating a Christmas tree—is about all you can fit into a single day, what with naps, books and videos.

Time-bound, you bet. Four-year-old time is not the same as adult time. But how often have you set a goal and found as you pursued it, you were wildly unrealistic in your expectations? Even professionals and respected companies fail to deliver products and services on time. In the business world, it gets called cost overruns; for 4-year-olds, it’s called “When are we going to get there?” Either way, the client or child is not a happy camper.

When it comes to setting personal goals, I often get stuck on “should” versus “want” goals. Several years ago, I was convinced I had to join a gym to get in shape. I visited local gyms and was close to signing up for a membership. But friends who knew me well told me I would be wasting my money. How often would I really go? Finally, someone reminded me that one of the things I enjoy doing is hiking, so why not do that? So I joined a hiking club instead and was much happier.

Obviously you have to be committed to your goals, but not every goal can be fun or exactly what you want. However, the more you can “own” a goal, the more likely you are to achieve it. And as a manager and leader, the more you can demonstrate that your goals support your organization’s vision and will result in tangible benefits for your team, the better your chances are of actually realizing those goals.

Achieving a goal, no matter how small, results in great satisfaction. Making the life of a 4-year-old a bit brighter is its own reward. By applying SMART techniques, the chances for success are dramatically improved!

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