Torah Musings: SMART Goals



Sarah Pachter

I have always believed in the concept of growth charts. I don’t mean the kind that you find at the pediatrician’s office. Nope, I’m talking about self-improvement.

Usually, we approach January 1st and think, Oh man, I’m just about where I was last year and nothing has changed.

I always had the feeling I was working on some of the same things year after year, but this year was special. I compared my list to last year’s and—I am interjecting zero poetic license here—it was exactly the same list.

Pretty depressing.

At this point, I had one of two choices: either give up, or get up for another round.

I got up.

The silver lining was that at least I knew what my priorities were, and had the tenacity to keep trying. But this year, I didn’t want tenacity. I wanted results.

So here is how this year’s January 1st came around, and I beamed from following through.

Throughout my research—and from trial and error—I discovered that all change can essentially be broken down to three micro-steps that anyone can accomplish. Even before goal-setting, creating a chart, or any form of accountability, is essential because it provides subconscious feedback that what you are doing is worthwhile.

You may think a growth chart is excessive. However, Rav Eliyahu Dessler, and other mussar masters, extolled the benefits of a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul, and would review their actions daily. In fact, the entire infrastructure of Torah study is based on chavrusa learning and having a Rav, both of which revolve around this precept of accountability.[1] Once you have committed to a system of responsibility, you can determine your goal.

Ask yourself, Is my goal a S.M.A.R.T. one? Smart goals are:

S- specific

M- measurable

A- attainable

R- relevant

T- time-bound


My student, Angela, and I were reviewing her Rosh Hashanah goals. She desperately wanted a better relationship with her mother and wanted to commit to stop yelling at her. She was entrenched in a vicious cycle of getting angry, showing disrespect, and then feeling guilty, which led to more shouting.

Even though her goal was specific, I felt that it was still too broad, given the consistency of her behavior. I suggested she sharpen it further. She decided to focus on a specific positive action, and therefore committed to texting her mother a loving message twice weekly. This goal was more specific and measurable. Which leads me to…


I was enjoying a day at the beach with my family when I set a ten-minute timer to edit this article.

The boys began digging a hole, and soon after my daughters decided to copy them. I watched them for a few moments and realized this activity would quickly lead to boredom and frustration. Trying to lengthen this project for as long as possible, I asked, “Okay, kids! Want to set a timer and see whose hole is bigger when it goes off?”

The children shot up with electric energy and raced to dig faster. (All they needed was a timer!) I watched them run and shriek, “How much time is left?” The kids were happy, and I was able to reach my own editing goal. Mission accomplished.

The timer created a measurable, time-bound goal, both for myself and the children. When digging an endless hole—metaphorical or literal—we easily lose interest and stamina. However, when we incorporate a boundary, such as a timer, we are pushed to accomplish much more.

This holds true even in the most mundane of subjects: advertising. When advertisers place a time limit on a sale, such as “today only,” they are far more successful than just adding the word ‘sale’ by itself.

It seems silly, but putting a measured limitation on the size or duration of the goal ensures that we can rise to the challenge.


Incremental change is better than ambitious failure…success feeds on itself.

  • Tony Schwartz

When my daughter spent a weekend in the hospital with pneumonia, we were blown away by the staff’s kindness and propensity to understand the needs of children. In fact, they showered her with so many gifts and attention that when we left, she said, “Mommy, I want to go to the hospital next Shabbos, too!”

The gift that made the greatest impression was an enormous Lego set, complete with Frozen figurines and a three-tiered ice castle. Step by step, page by page we built the entire structure together. My daughter’s face was radiating happiness, despite her illness.

One look at the thick booklet of instructions made me want to give up before we began, but Lego has the magical gift of breaking down the process into simple parts. Each small step is crucial to completion. Lego sets serve as a great analogy for how attainable steps leads to success.

Rav Dessler writes in Strive for Truth, “We can set about increasing the number of positive acts that we do each day. They need not be “big” acts, on the contrary, many small acts are more effective than one “big” one.[2]

In his bestselling book, The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor writes about our circle of control. “When our stresses and workloads seem to mount faster than our ability to keep up, feelings of control are often the first things to go, especially when we try to tackle too much at once. If we first concentrate our efforts on small manageable goals, we regain the feeling of control so crucial to performance.”[3]

Achor goes on to explain that there is another important element to make goals attainable. Placing our goals on the path of least resistance makes reaching them almost “unavoidable.” He calls this concept the twenty-second rule.

He claims that activation energy, the initial energy we expend when moving from inertia to action, is one of the most difficult aspects of completing a task. Therefore, if we decrease activation time to less than twenty seconds, the likelihood of completion rises greatly.[4]

I discovered this concept in action at a friend’s home. When helping in the kitchen, I noticed several toothbrushes in a cup next to the sink. The hostess explained that the kids were brushing their teeth before breakfast, but never afterwards. Getting them back upstairs required too much energy, so she started keeping a set downstairs.

Although a simple change, she was on to something genius. Just moving the toothbrushes downstairs decreased the activation energy time—and voila—no more cavities!


If the goal does not feel relevant and you are not passionate about achieving it, it will fall flat from setbacks.

Nothing is more powerful than our ratzon, our will, and this requires that our goals feel intensely relevant. Only you have the power to determine what your goals are, which requires honest assessment.


As I type, I am preparing this article to present at a writers’ meeting with fellow authors. Before the deadline of the meeting, I was casually editing (by the beach, for example) when time permitted. When notified of the looming meeting, the motivation to present more polished material skyrocketed and I suddenly found more time.

Although counterintuitive, deadlines and other boundaries actually increase our creativity and productivity by providing much-needed structure to our limitless flow of ideas. No one has the stamina to work forever. Therefore, by putting a stopping point to our goals, we feel in control and capable of achievement.

External motivation, such as charts, deadlines, and chavrusas can affect change. They are the pre-step to reaching our goals. I challenge you to consider your S.M.A.R.T. goal as you stay tuned for next week’s article, where I will elucidate the three micro-steps to achieving any S.M.A.R.T. goals we have committed to.

[1] Pirkei Avot 1:6

[2] Dressler, Eliyahu, Strive for Truth, pg 76; (Rambam who comments on the Mishnah Avot 3:15)

[3] Achor, Shawn, The Happiness Advantage, pg. 129

[4] Achor, Shawn, The Happiness Advantage, pg. 160-161