Oddly enough, one of the few things I remember from my MS I class is goal setting. "What does SMART stand for?" was one of the questions on my final exam for that class. I thought it was silly at the time, but now I use this method regularly to help me set new goals.
SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time. Using this method of planning out goals not only limits them to ones I am actually going to achieve, but helps me think through how I'm actually going to achieve them.
For example, one of my goals for 2014 is to run a marathon. I was able to narrow this down to a specific marathon, the Rock N' Roll USA marathon in DC in March. I picked this because it's at the beginning of my spring break, so I'll have some time after to completely veg out, er, recover; it's local; and, I've heard good things about the course.
I think a marathon is inherently measurable, as in, it is going to be 26.2 miles. I usually tack on a measurable time goal as well, though, with a backup time goal so I don't feel bad when I don't actually BQ.
Is it attainable and realistic? Based on my current running capacity, I think yes. The first time I thought a marathon was a good idea was after an easy ten mile run. If I can run ten miles, surely I can 26.2. this past fall I completed a 70 mile triathlon, so, even though it was a lot harder than I expected and I cut down running to make time for all the swimming and cycling, I am confident in my ability to move forward for several hours. If you feel like a 5K is hard, though, a marathon might be the most realistic goal for this year.
Time based, I think, could refer to different things. It could refer to my previous goal of a specific time to complete the marathon. It might also refer to the time to prepare and train for the marathon. By registering for an event in March, I gave myself a good 16 weeks of focused training to prepare, but doing one later in the year may have been a better option.
As an ending note, I'd recommend against setting a goal that is subjective to something else. Something else might be your health (running a marathon is hard with plantar fasciitis/IT band problems), or another person (for example, get an A in XYZ class might not be attainable by yourself, but study 3 hours every weekend and turn in the paper a week early might be).
This SMART method can be used to plan out any goal, from reading more Shakespeare to watching every season of West Wing on Netflix. It takes a plan to get anything done smoothly. If you are a big planner like me, you can even take even phase of the goal and create a more specific SMART plan for each phase. Checklists, calendars, color coding...the possibilitie are endless.