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The stupidity of SMART goals

Harvard once did a study on their business school students. They found that only 3% of students had written down their goals. Quite a low number considering that Harvard students are meant to be some of the highest achieving individuals. The interesting thing was when they revisited those students several years after they graduated, they found that the 3% of individuals who wrote down their goals were earning ten times as much income as the other 97% put together.

The moral of the story obviously being if you want to get rich write down your goals.

I doubt anyone reading this disagrees that setting goals is important. But the ‘how’ of setting goals is rather different.

I was introduced in high school to the acronym SMART by an earnest motivational speaker. She spent a couple of hours informing us of the necessity of setting goals and then telling us that for us to succeed at our goals they had to be SMART goals. Otherwise we were doomed to a string of depressing failures.

Since leaving school, I’ve come across the SMART goal model at university, in the workplace, in sports and from other earnest motivational speakers. Although there are a few variations, SMART usually stands for:
S – Specific. You goal should be clear, precise and unambiguous
M – Measurable. Someone else should be able to say whether or not you’ve achieved your goal
A – Actionable. You have to know how you are going to achieve your goals, the steps you will take
R – Realistic. Your goal needs to be readily achievable for you
T – Time. There must be a deadline or a timeframe for your goal

The problem is it doesn’t always work.

And the reason is your goals need to be set in a way that works for you. And to make it more complicated what works for you can change too.

Let’s take a deeper look at each of the letters.

 

Specific

In 2014, I quit my corporate job and bought a one-way ticket to California. My goal was simply to ‘get better at beach volleyball’. This is the type of goal that they show as an example of how not to be specific. What does ‘better’ even mean? Frankly I didn’t even know.

In any event, the goal worked for me. I played as much beach volleyball as I could (usually at least twice a day), tried to eke out my savings so I could not only stay in California but also continue to eat, and I tried ‘to get better’.

Two months into my stay I entered a major national tournament with zero expectations, and certainly no specific goals. The USA is home to many of the best beach volleyballers in the world so to say I was out of my league is an understatement. In fact, my partner and I barely made it through the qualification tournament and only just scraped into the main event. But… we ended up winning the entire tournament. Not bad for having a goal ‘to get better’.

Specific goals are useful most of the time. Want to lose weight? Well how much weight? Want to get rich? How many dollars do you need in your bank account? Want to travel? Where are you going?

However, there are instances where you should throw specificity out the window. Any time you are trying to learn, grow, explore, be creative and so on it becomes difficult to be specific. In fact, specificity in your goals can lead you to put blinders on and miss other opportunities.

Think carefully whether you need the S in SMART goals.

 

Measurable

In most cases having measurable goals is a good thing. You want to be able to know whether you’ve achieved something. You want to be able to put a big tick next to it.

Many goals are measurable, and should be measured. Win a competition. Learn a skill. Reach a certain income. Buy a house. And so on. But some goals are not so measurable. A goal that relates to your lifestyle is more of an ongoing goal.

If someone had the goal to quit smoking and they stopped for a day, or a month or a year, have they really achieved their goal? All it takes is one relapse and they are back to zero. There is no end date on a lifestyle goal because you need to continue to make choices every day to create that life for yourself.

A few years ago I set a goal to ‘have a nomadic lifestyle’. To me, that means being able to pick up and move countries at the drop of a hat, to limit my personal belongings, and to not have my income tied to a particular location.

2 years down the track I’ve certainly been living a nomadic lifestyle. I’ve spent periods of 6 months in the USA, Australia and Brazil. And I’ve traveled to over 10 other countries in that time as well. But I still can’t tick that goal off my list. It’s not exactly measurable. It’s ongoing.

Habit or lifestyle goals don’t work in the SMART goal system. But they are still important goals to have. Perhaps you don’t need the M in SMART either…

 

Actionable

What’s the point of having a goal that you don’t know how to achieve? That is not actionable?

It’s probably a good question for Elon Musk to answer. As a teenager, he wrote a goal to ‘change the future of humanity’ through either the internet, space exploration, or extending the human lifespan. I highly doubt he had an exact road-map of how to go about it. In fact, despite making huge inroads into all three of those things, he’s probably still figuring it out as he goes along.

Not knowing how you are going to achieve your goal may not be a bad thing. It makes you more creative in finding a solution and realising there isn’t just one way to do things. It also means that you don’t become attached to the path of achieving your goal – if one path fails it doesn’t mean you failed at your goal, you simply picked the wrong path.

Don’t be afraid to write down goals that you aren’t sure how to achieve. After all, dropping the A in SMART goals may lead to you changing the future of humanity…

 

Realistic

R is the letter that I take the most issue with in SMART goals. Frankly, who wants a realistic goal? If it’s something you know you can achieve then you won’t be inspired to leap out of bed in the morning and throw yourself into the challenge. Instead you’ll approach your goal with all the drudgery that you approach your to-do list.

If your goal doesn’t scare the hell out of you, and excite the hell out of you, then you have no business writing it down as a goal.

A realistic goal for an athlete might be to finish top 3 at Nationals. But it is hardly inspiring. It’s better to have the goal of winning, or going to the Olympics, or setting a record, and simply smash through that ‘realistic’ goal of top 3 on your way to the top.

And even if you fail to achieve your unrealistic goal, you’ll still achieve more than if you set you sights lower on something more realistic. So remove the R from SMART, you don’t need it.

‘So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable.’ ~ Christopher Reeve

 

Timed

Without a deadline a goal is just a dream. Right?

Or perhaps not. At age 16 I wrote a list of a hundred goals I wanted to achieve in my life. There was no deadline (beyond death) for most of those goals, but I put a fair bit of time and thought into the list. I looked at my list daily for a couple of weeks, and then promptly lost it in the hustle and bustle of high school. In fact, I didn’t look at the list until I stumbled across it cleaning out old cupboards last month, and at 28 I found I had completed 70% of the goals on the list. There was no timeline on those goals, I didn’t revisit them for 12 years, and yet they got done anyway. Not bad for a bunch of goals without deadlines!

Simply writing down goals without deadlines and forgetting about them isn’t perhaps the best way to go about life. But there is another situation in which the T in SMART may not be warranted either.

Some people hate pressure (I’m not one of them but I know they exist). Put a challenging deadline on their goal and they’ll be filled with anxiety about the time pressure. If you are filled with anxiety you can’t be filled with motivation and inspiration. For these people deadlines actually hinder goal achievement. That T isn’t so handy for these people.

Most goals do need deadlines. Some goals even come with built in deadlines that you can’t avoid. For instance, want to win a competition – well that competition will have a date and that’s your deadline. But once in a while you may want to drop the T from SMART, live on the edge, and make the only deadline for your goal the day you drop dead.

 

So are SMART goals stupid?

Goals are funny things. We know they work, but they work differently for everyone. There is no single correct formula for setting goals. Certainly, the SMART goal formula doesn’t always add up to success.

Aiming to grow, explore, discover and be creative? Maybe you can ditch the Specific in SMART.

Changing a habit or building a new lifestyle. There’s no real end point for your goal so you probably don’t need the Measurable in SMART.

Seeking to change the future of humanity but not really sure how to go about it. There’s usually more than one way to succeed, more than one path you can take. That Actionable in SMART that tells you how to go about your goal… you might not need that either.

Do your friends tell you your goal is crazy? Good. No one gets out of bed for a goal that seems easily doable. Get rid of that Realistic in SMART.

Hate pressure? Remove the tight deadlines by throwing away the Timed in in SMART.

SMART goals work sometimes, but not always, and not always for you. Pick and choose your letters, and write your goals in a way that makes sense for you.

Be smart about it.

April 23, 2017

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