You’ve almost definitely heard of S.M.A.R.T. goals.
Heck, you’ve probably set a few yourself.
The fact is, SMART goal setting is talked about like it’s the end-all of goal setting. As though it is THE way to reframe your goals for optimum success… basically, like it’s the end all be all.
Except, honestly, SMART goals aren’t necessarily all that they’re cracked up to be. And in fact, framing it as though the SMART rubric is all you need for goal-smashing success does way more harm than good.
I’ve been doing a lot of research on how we set goals, and how we achieve them – or don’t. For me, I entered my 30s sitting on a pile of un-smashed goals, forgotten goals, and goals that I’d entirely given up on. Things that I wanted, really really wanted to achieve, I hadn’t. I felt like a failure.
What was I doing wrong? My goals were specific and measurable. I knew what actions I needed to take. And they were, of course, realistic and timely (eye roll). SMART was built right into my goal-setting process. So what was wrong with me?
The answer is nothing – I just still wasn’t approaching my goals the right way. Because SMART goals might be a good starting off point for thinking about setting and achieving big dreams, but they are FAR from what you really need.
So What’s Wrong With SMART Goals?
Well, first let’s start off with what’s good about SMART goals, because it’s not all bad. Most of the things in the acronym are stuff you need in a good goal setting process.
SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic and Timely. Meaning you should know exactly what you what, you’ll know when you’ve achieved it, it’s something you can work toward, it’s realistic (more on this later), and you’ve set an end date for when you’ll have accomplished it.
The specificity here is good. The focus on clarity – knowing exactly what you want and when you want it by – is very good. These are the best things about the SMART goal system.
But – it holds you back
For one, I have a bone to pick with the inclusion of “realistic” here. Who decides if your goal is “realistic enough”? It is an entirely subjective qualification, and doesn’t jive with the rest of the acronym. What if your goal is to sing on Broadway? Many people would say that’s an unrealistic goal – but enough people have actually sang on Broadway to prove that, yup, that’s definitely a thing that happens. It’s clearly not impossible. “Realistic” is a term that overthinkers use to tear down dreamers (and if you’re both an overthinker and a dreamer, like me, it can often be a word you don’t realize you’re using to hold yourself back). I don’t like it.
It doesn’t work for real life
The SMART goal rubric works on a rigid pass/fail system. While there’s nothing wrong, per se, with assigning a goal an end date to keep you accountable with your time, that’s… not really how life works.
So, if you don’t hit the goal by the end date, what? You failed? You start over? You give up? Why?
Did you want this thing or not?!
If you didn’t hit your goal by the date you set, that doesn’t mean you failed. You’re still working on it. There’s no professor or teacher you have to email to ask for an extension on the assignment – this is your life, and you’re accountable to yourself. Things happen, and we need to work around them – that’s just life.
It leaves out the most important part
Okay, yes, your SMART goal is Actionable. That’s… pretty great to hear.
(What would a non-actionable goal even look like? I tried to come up with a goal that’s not actionable at all, and I drew a blank. Even winning the lottery is “actionable” if you commit to buying a million tickets for every draw)
So what are your Actions?
Saying “a good goal must be actionable” is like saying “before you climb a mountain make sure you own shoes”. It does nothing to prepare you for the work ahead, and you definitely could have figured that part out on your own.
What are the actions? What is your plan?
It’s not enough to say, “If I do these following actions, I’ll get this desired result”. Most of us know that already. Take weight loss for example – if you surveyed a group of people who are trying but struggling to lose weight what actions they need to take to shed the pounds, they could all tell you. But actions aren’t a plan, and if you can’t figure out how to fit those actions into your life in a way that sticks, that end result is just as far away as if you didn’t know what actions you needed in the first place.
Goals aren’t singular, lone things you go after once
The SMART goal crowd tends to talk as though each goal you have is on its own, like you just want this one thing and so you set a goal, go get it, and then you’re done and you set the next goal. It’s almost like goals are designer shoes that you pick out, save up for, then buy until you get the hankering for another pair.
I don’t know about you – but for me, my goals aren’t structured that way. That’s not how my plan for a better life works.
When you set a new goal, maybe sometimes you’re starting from scratch. People change their minds about what they want, and that’s okay. But goals work best when you stack them. Each goal should be part of your overall life plan, and you build on them and create growth.
If your goal is to run your first marathon, you’re not going to achieve that and then stop running. If your goal is to make your business profitable – that’s going to be followed by further growth. If your goal is to write your book – well, did you really only want to write one?
Your goals shouldn’t exist in an echo chamber, separate from your other goals. Think of goals as pack animals – they need to play off of each other, build on each other, and pull motivation from past growth.
If your goal is one singular lone wolf – then you probably have a really big goal. And that’s great! But then you definitely need a focused action plan, and the SMART goals rubric isn’t going to cut it.
If SMART Goals Aren’t It – Here’s What You Need Instead:
So if I’m saying that you should throw out the SMART rubric altogether (and make no mistake, that’s exactly what I’m saying), then what do you do instead? Am I just setting you adrift on the wind, no guiding force in sight, to flounder helplessly in the wilderness of your dreams? No I’m not. (I wouldn’t do that to you).
A Clear Vision of Success
As I said above, one of the good things about SMART goals is the emphasis on clarity.
You should always be going into goal work knowing exactly what you want.
But don’t stop at nailing down a specific goal (such as reframing “I want to be a better athlete” into “I want to win this specific competition”). Nail down exactly why you want this.
What is it about achieving this goal that you want? Why are you fired up about this specific thing? What do you think it will do for you? What effect will it have on your life?
One of the first things I tell people to do when they start the goal setting process is to close their eyes and imagine a perfect day in their dream life. If you could live any life you wanted – what would your one true dream life look like?
That’s why I recommend creating a Dream Life Manifesto. It gets you in the frame of mind to design the life you truly want to live – and helps you get crystal clear on what it is you need to work toward.
An Ongoing Plan of Action
If a solid goal changes something about you, then a goal can’t be just a singular achievement. It’s a piece of your overall life plan – and that’s not something you’re ever really done.
Because most goals aren’t something you’re going to do once and then never again. Like I said above, do you really only want to write one book? Or is the book your goal because you are a person filled with stories and you feel compelled to bring them to life and share them with the world?
While creating an action plan for your entire life all at once isn’t something I’d ever recommend you do (that sounds daunting and exhausting), you do need an action plan for your goals that fits your life. Knowing what steps to take to achieve your dreams is useless without being able to structure those steps into your day to day life in a way that keeps you engaged and engaging with your goals.
An Emphasis on Self Improvement
This might be the most solid piece of goal-setting advice I have:
A good goal changes who you are.
I mean it. I’m not talking about a 100% personality shift, or turning into a different person altogether. But a good goal changes something about you that makes your life better.
Achieving that goal should feel like stepping through a doorway into a better life somehow. It should impact how you see yourself and how you feel about yourself.
Every goal is a step toward you becoming the best version of yourself, even if right now all you want to do is perfect your chicken casserole recipe.