Whether we’re using SMART goals to break a process down into something less intimidating, or for our lofty ambitions, no one is entirely sure what the acronym stands for: Specific Measurable Achievable Realistic Timely, Small Material Attainable Relevant Time-bound, or Sporadic Mixed Abstract Romantic Transcendental (probably not the last one).
SMART goals are a great way for businesses to fully articulate ambiguous “commitment to excellence” mission statements. They provide a quick mnemonic to improve employee output, but for those of us aspiring to make big life changes, SMART goals can leave us wanting. If your goal is to write 2,000 words a day and a sick day has you coming up short that slight deviation will make you feel like you failed the system. Research shows minor setbacks can derail these types of outcome driven goals.
The best system for improving retail sales, might not be the best system for quitting smoking. What if it could be repurposed to help your writing? I’m not talking about setting a goal to get published by the end of the year, I’m talking about making one of your characters use the system to show you something.
I propose warping SMART goals into a character building exercise, a way for your protagonist to state their desires, while showing if they have the presence of mind to acknowledge what’s preventing them from getting there.
The following excerpt is a SMART goal written by a character in a situation where she ought to be panicking.
SMART Goals for a Character in Peril
My name is Cameron Mendax, full time blogger part time prisoner. I’ve been arrested by impostures, posing as highway patrol officers. I broke out of their interrogation room to discover a wall full of my online credentials and social network thumbnails, as well as several other bright young faces.
These mock-cops, with their frayed patches, have me in solitaire until they can figure out what to do, now that I’ve had a peek at their plan. This compromising situation offers few options, but rather than give into despair, I’ve decided to upgrade my SMART goals to pass the time.
My general goal is to escape. I realize there’s precious little time to work out the specifics. All those “W” questions:
Who is involved?
The arresting officer, who was far outside the jurisdiction printed on his squad car. An older man, with a face like tattered boots, who might have been a real cop in a past life. He seemed to know his way around an interrogation room. Not to mention the two others he yelled at over the radio, Cyrus and the one he called, “The Poet.”
What do I want to do?
If life had a God-mode that made me impervious to bullets, I’d like to investigate further, figure out exactly what these boys are doing here, but since it doesn’t, escaping with my life will be a fine consolation.
Where do I need to execute my plan?
Here in this cell, before these cosplay cops move me someplace they have more control of. I get the sense they don’t know this precinct or its equipment as well as their uniforms imply. I was able to get out of those ancient cuffs by wedging a pen clip in the teeth. The bolts keeping the interrogation chair fastened crumbled in my fingers. This room must have a similar weakness worth exploiting. A handful of gravel would make a decent distraction. A loose chunk of concrete would make a fine club. If I’m lucky, I’ll have time to fashion a shank.
When should I act?
When my captors let their guard down.
They’ll be in numbers when they come to transfer me to a torture chamber or a shallow grave in the middle of nowhere. If I can get the door open I can get the jump on them. Maybe I should pretend to go into convulsions. What if they’ve already seen the same prison movies I’ve been watching? Maybe I could lay my hoodie on one side of the room as a distraction, so I can attack them from the darkness, drop from the ceiling, maybe even get myself a gun.
Which requirements and restraints will I have to work with?
I’ll have to commit to one of these scenarios and practice it. Once the fear kicks in, I’ll find myself stuck between fight and flight, in a mode I call “Deer in headlights.” If I pry a chunk of drywall free, I’ll need to practice swinging it. If a sharp bit of rock breaks loose, I’ll have to practice slicing my shank across my captor’s throat.
Why do I need to go this far?
They’ve knocked me out twice. Once with chemicals dispersed from a breathalyzer and once by clubbing me in the head. If the room with all the photos and social media profiles is anything to go on, these guys have been at this for a long time. Since I didn’t hear any voices in my brief jaunt down the hall, I have to assume I’m the last one. I have to act or I won’t live long enough to see how Marvel’s thirty-part film franchise pans out.
How much will I have to do? At a minimum, I’ll have to assault or vault over two armed men, this is with limited martial arts and track and field experience.
How will I know when my goal is accomplished? When this run down police station is a dot in my rearview mirror, preferably with flames billowing out the windows.
As long as I don’t starve, never fall asleep, and channel a level of Herculean strength I’ve never been able to muster in order to do a pull up, we’re golden.
If Hollywood has taught me anything, skinny models can clear a room full of armed guards by power-sliding in with both guns blazing. Imagine what a girl with an average build can do. Here I am clawing at the walls, hoping a club will fall into my lap, but really, all I have to do is wait for the slow motion to kick in, run up one of my assailant’s chests, do the splits, and knock ‘em both in the noggin. Easy peasy.
Ideally I’ll accomplish my goal before I get maimed, short of that, before I get completely dismembered.
Here in the maddening dark, I doubt I’ll lose my sense of urgency and start slacking. If they do give me that kind of time, I’ll start doing pushups so I can go full Linda Hamilton all over their asses.
That is if “T” stands for “Timely.” If it means “Tangible” then I’m totally screwed.
It’s clear Cameron’s in a tight spot, but her musings have revealed several directions the story could go from here. To me the most interesting one involves her attempting to play possum and failing to slice her assailant’s throat with a dull bit of rock.
Cyrus clutched his throat.
Garret steps into the cell. “What happened?”
Cyrus smirked. “She grazed me.”
“Are you hurt?”
Cyrus shook his head. “Nah, just confused. It felt like she was trying to tickle me or something.”
From here, the cosplay cops drag Cameron out of the frying pan and dump her into the fire. Still, she’s resilient enough to set another set SMART goals.
What’s the Big Ideation?
Though not a requirement, a character background is a good source of inspiration to fuel your writing. What’s great about this exercise is that it taught me things about Cameron I didn’t know going in.
You probably don’t need to fill out a Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory on behalf of your characters, but it doesn’t hurt to have some idea how their outlook differs from your own. If your story isn’t written in the first person, this exercise can tell you what your characters’ are thinking.
The urgency of this adventure won’t afford Cameron too many detours for her backstory. Her personality has to surface while she’s coming to terms with her environment. This SMART goals activity lets me fire up my imagination, without overwhelming it with too much information. It’s a character development exercise woven into the plot, not a sprawling character bible full of random details I may never use.
Give it a try, before you start writing, or even when you’re stuck in the middle of a scene.