For some time now I’ve had a few issues with SMART goals. They’re not quite all they’re cracked up to be. Now I’m aware of the mountain of research that says they work, and I’m not saying they don’t, I just see some limitations in their structure, particularly for us regular people making our regular goals.
The SMART (Specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-oriented) goal format is at odds with how regular life works, and here’s why:
Specificity is often arbitrary
We often don’t know what we’re capable of and so are usually just guessing at what we want to achieve. We may be making things too easy or too hard on ourselves. Think about where you thought you would be a year ago, 2 years, 5 years. Are you there? Or are you somewhere completely different? Do the goals you set then make sense to you now? Or would you have made different goals if back then you had the information you have now? The specificity that we are encouraged so strongly to set out when we make our goals is often a complete guess. Is it your goal to lose 10kg? If so, how did you arrive at that number? Is it too much? Is it too little? SMART goals tell us that we need to have something specific to aim for in order to achieve, but often we don’t have enough information (because we’re not fortune tellers) to make this specificity relevant to us.
They limit potential
Even having a specific goal that is based on evidence, rather than a random guess, can be extremely limiting. By placing a value on our goals, we essentially limit our potential to the parameters of that value. By telling your staff they need to reach a certain monthly quota, they will often reach it and then relax. By telling yourself you want to do 12 reps in this set, you get to 12 and then put the bar down, even when you know you were capable of pushing 2 or 3 more (which is where the majority of the benefit comes from). Making our goals finite is a surefire way to keep us boxed in to the limits of what we (or others) think we can achieve, rather than allowing us the freedom to reach our full potential.
They neglect the process
Goals tell us where we ultimately want to end up, but they don’t tell us how to get there. The processes we put in place will be the deciding factor in whether we achieve our goals or not, not the goals themselves. By focusing on the outcome, rather than the input, we become fixated on that which is out of our control, and forget about what we actually can control, our process. The only thing we can control is the effort and attention that goes in to achieving our objective, whether we achieve it or not may come down to factors that we can’t predict. Every sporting team that takes the field has the goal of winning the game, but only one can do it on the day. Staring at the scoreboard will not change it, the only way to do that is to play the game, and the one who ends up on top will be the one who puts the most into the process. So we can see that no matter what our goals, without following the proper process, they are merely wishes. Focus on your input and the outcome will take care of itself.
They’re almost all failure
Goals are, by their very nature, an end result of our effort and ambition, with ‘end’ being the operative word. This means they can be days, weeks, months or even years of not achieving your goal, followed by a short period of success or failure once you reach them or not. So, everything leading up to the achievement of the goal was, essentially, failure until the goal was reached. Pretty bleak way of doing things, isn’t it? To keep focused on an end result, whilst continually being short of that result requires a great deal of willpower and, as we know all too well, willpower is a fickle thing. It can also make it incredibly difficult to stay focused when you see your end goal slipping away. How do you turn up each day and do your best when you see that the result is out of your reach? How many times do we give up on our goal completely because we knew we would fail at it, even though if we kept trying we would be far better off than we are now?
They’re not built for long term success
Goals are regularly treated as separate entities with finite parameters. In fact the T in SMART tells us that we should set a time in which the goal should be achieved. If we don’t achieve it in that time, there are often consequences, if we do manage to achieve it, then it’s time to relax. Think about a marathon runner as opposed to someone whose goal it is to run a marathon. They both need to train, prepare and and put in the effort to get them to the race and over the finish line. The difference is that once the race is done, one will kick back and relax because their goal has been achieved and the other will go right back to training for the next one. That’s fine if all you wanted to do was run one marathon, but you will never succeed long term as a runner with that mentality. Now the next logical statement would probably be ‘Running a marathon is a bucket list item. I don’t want to be a runner long term!’. Ok, fair enough, but chances are you do want to succeed at your career long term, so why are you setting your goals in the same way as you would for a one off event?
They limit happiness
When you set end goals you limit your happiness and success to the achievement of that goal. If you don’t achieve it, you won’t be happy, and if you do achieve it, you won’t be as happy as you thought you would be. Whenever we get what we want, we always want more. It’s human nature. This is one of the factors that keeps us driven and helps us to achieve, but it also keeps us unhappy, as what we want is always just out of our reach. If we tie our happiness to the achievement of our goals, it will always be just out of our reach. If we instead devote our happiness to the process of achieving our goals, we can be happy as long as our process is running, which is every single day!
They’re associated with a fixed mindset
A fixed mindset tells us that our attributes are determined and they can not be improved, so we set our goals with the information we have about ourselves. We base the end result on what we think we’re capable of instead of continuing to grow and believing that we’re capable of more. You might shy away from setting yourself a goal of a yoga pose because you’re ’just an inflexible person’, or maybe you think you could never be a pilot because you’re ‘not very good with numbers’. A fixed mindset limits us in so many ways by telling us that we have to work with what we currently have, when the truth is that everything about us can be improved with effort, attention, and practice.
Let me reiterate, if SMART goals work for you, that’s great. I’m not here to try and rubbish anyone’s ideals or pick apart your approach. What I am here to do is help you see some of the limitations of the traditional process and offer an alternative perspective.
Read through the article again and apply it to how you set your goals in life, love, business, health and everything else. If you think there’s some truth to it, tune in next week where we’ll take a look at an alternate approach to goal setting that addresses these issues.
Bear in mind I couldn’t come up with as sexy an acronym as SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-oriented), but I think DIPMCS (Direction, Identity, Process, Milestones, Consistency, Self-kindness) totally stands up!
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