This is the sixth in a series of articles about using SMART as a checklist to help get better outcomes for you and your team. I recommend you read my intro to this series for more information about the background of SMART, clarification of what the letters mean, and a general pep talk on why you should set aside any ambivalence you have for SMART and read on.


The percussive end to SMART is T. For me (and in most of the references I’ve found), T always stands for Time-bound. I’ve seen is referred to as timely and time-based, but almost all references point to something about time. There are a few references to is standing for “testable” – which is a pretty specific application of this concept, and I’m going to ignore it for now.

And I like the phrase time-bound because it implies finishing the work within the time specified. The other language – time-based or timely – seem a little wishy washy to me. Remember, language matters.

Time-bound is the classmate voted mostly likely to compromise—at least in the beginning as you’re getting the work organized and clarified. Time-bound is strongly influenced by Achievable and vice versa. One of the ways to make work more or less achievable is by tinkering with how long you allow for the work to get completed. Time-bound also challenges Achievable’s tendency to be risk averse (and thus set the bar too low) by asking – are you sure that you can’t achieve this in LESS time, because I think you can.

Use caution here, though. Bad managers the world over are continually grossly underestimating the time that something takes to complete, setting unrealistic timelines, and then just expecting that staff will “do what it takes” to get the work done in the time allowed. Make no mistake – this is bad management. It is demotivating, disrespectful, and the surest way to staff burnout and the loss of your best people.

But, without a clear expectation for when something needs to be done, people often have trouble. Some folks, the first in/first out folks, believe that everything needs to be done today. And new items always go to the top of the list. Others, the just-in-time folks, tend to leave things to the last minute, sometimes pulling all-nighters once they learn that something needs to get done. And we’ll just put off talking about the procrastinators for now.

By setting a realistic timeframe for when the work needs to be completed, you can create guardrails that people can work within. This alone can create motivation for some, for others, it allows them to plan for getting the work down in a way that lowers stress. There are always going to be those folks for whom deadlines are stressful; finding and working with these folks to help them overcome that anxiety will be a helpful thing.

Time-bound is also a truth-teller. Managing time is a hard thing for most of us. When we miss a deadline (or pull the all nighter or short cut the process to meet the deadline), we can see that as a failure. Before you dive into negative self-talk, or as a manager, before you criticize your staff, first ask – why didn’t we meet the deadline? Be honest and curious about the answers:

  • What other things happened or what other tasks took priority? Why? Were those planned or unplanned things?
  • Did you put off doing the work? Why? Was it because you didn’t really know how to do it? Or where to start? Or feared failing? Or something else?
  • Did you manage the time poorly? What did you spend your time on?
  • Did you work on the task, but it just took much longer that expected?

The answers to these questions help you understand the truth in the situation. And knowing that gives you the means to address issues and try again. As a leader, when you get insight into what is preventing your team from achieving goals or meeting expectations, you can very often eliminate that obstacle and set them up for success.

So by the time you’ve reach the cymbal crash of SMART, you should have clearly defined work tasks that staff (or you) can successfully complete. Let’s take one last look at how all the letters come together as a tool to help you get better outcomes. You can read back through the other letters here: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, and Relevant.