Why SMART goals don’t work. 7 problems with SMART goals.
And what to do instead to finally achieve your goals.
I admit it. I jumped on the bandwagon a few years ago. Read about SMART goals. Thought it sounded like great advice. And started parroting it.
I added it to the goal worksheets I was making at the time. There still might be some references to it floating around on old printables or older posts on my website. I started talking about it like I was actually doing it.
Which is ironic. Because I started sharing the goal breakdown system I used BECAUSE it worked. I had done it. Not because some expert had said it worked.
(And one of the fundamental themes of my site is that I actually test and refine the recipes, I actually use the printables I produce, I actually cleaned the long-term stains out of the damn microwave…even though it took 15 cleaning experiments to find a solution!)
Then I read more about SMART goals. And actually tried applying it to my own yearly goal system. And realized there are some serious flaws with SMART goals.
Here’s the truth. Parts of the SMART goal system work (to some extent). And parts of it just don’t.
Table of contents
- What are SMART Goals?
- What’s Good About SMART Goals
- Why SMART Goals Don’t Work
- 1. Specific only works up to a point.
- 2. We often don’t know what is attainable (underestimate what we can do).
- 3. We often don’t know what is attainable (overestimate what we can do).
- 4. There is no motivation in attainable.
- 5. No allowance for course corrections.
- 6. There isn’t room for partial success.
- 7. You can get in the trap of sacrificing long-term success for short-term success.
- What To Do Instead
- What Has Been Your Experience?
What are SMART Goals?
In case you haven’t heard of them (or don’t remember the exact acronym), SMART goals are:
S- Specific. What needs to be accomplished? What specific action steps need to be taken?
M- Measurable. What specific numbers qualify as success? (Pounds lost, pace and time running, money saved, etc.)
A- Attainable (or achievable, depending upon who you ask). How realistic is this goal, based on constraints in your life?
R- Relevant (or realistic, depending upon who you ask). Is this goal important to you and your values? Does it match what is going on in your life?
T- Time-bound. When does this goal need to be accomplished by?
What’s Good About SMART Goals
The specific, measurable, and time-bound part of the goal system works. To some extent, not completely.
Specific is good up to a certain point. Knowing exactly what you want to accomplish and the actions steps to get there is important.
Measurable is absolutely vital to goal-setting. Too often people set vague goals such as “get healthy” or “be well off financially,” only to discover that they either:
1) don’t recognize when they’ve achieved success and always say they haven’t reached their goal (moving goalposts) or
2) they stop well before what healthy or financial wellness is for them. But since they’ve made some improvements, they’re satisfied.
So having a measurable goal such as “I will get out of debt, have student loans paid off, and be putting 10% towards my retirement within 2 years” is a great way to know if you’ve made progress.
Time-bound is also a good feature for a goal. You might have noticed the example I just gave included a deadline of 2 years.
Now that I’ve shared a little of the pros of SMART goals, let’s look at what SMART goals are lacking.
Why SMART Goals Don’t Work
1. Specific only works up to a point.
With short-term goals, it may work. But with long-term goals, especially ones you’ve never done before, the future steps are vague milestones. You have no idea what the action steps are. If you lock yourself into specific action steps, you might miss opportunities. Or achieve your goal and realize you don’t really want it.
For example, when I started this blog years ago, I had no idea that I would have to learn: food photography, SEO, copywriting. I also didn’t know printables were going to be so popular that I ended up starting a store selling them! Had I locked myself into the blog (and not allowed course corrections), I would have discounted the potential of printables.
2. We often don’t know what is attainable (underestimate what we can do).
I don’t know for sure, but I’m betting when Bezos started Amazon- working with 5 of his friends out a garage-, he had no idea it was going to grow to a 300+ billion dollar business that was dropping off deliveries by drone.
SMART goals cause us to think small. They don’t encourage us to reach for the stars.
3. We often don’t know what is attainable (overestimate what we can do).
On the converse side, plenty of women have set the goal of weighing 100 pounds when it’s just not ever going to happen. Not without a slight eating disorder and a lot of unhappiness over indulging in a whole 100 calories of unhappy low-calorie tasteless faux ice cream.
We’re just not good at judging attainable. And attainable shouldn’t apply to goals anyways.
4. There is no motivation in attainable.
If you stick to the attainable, you’re going to lose all the fire and motivation. For you to 100% know something in attainable, it has to be ridiculously easy to do. Then it’s not a goal. It’s an item on your to-do list.
5. No allowance for course corrections.
Getting locked into a specific path with SMART goals doesn’t allow you to make course corrections. As part of my goal-setting system in my Goal Achievement Binder, we do monthly, quarterly, and yearly reviews.
And it emphasizes that goals are flexible. For example, let’s say your overall goal is to build a million dollar website. As you work over a three year period, you start to realize that you’re actually meant to be a writer. In fact, the couple of short books you’ve churned out to attract readers to the website are making some serious money. Are you a failure if you decide that the website is going to be a side-thing and that you’re going to focus on making a million dollars selling books? Nope. But if you cling too tightly to a SMART goal, you might never take the plunge to become a NY Times Bestselling author.
6. There isn’t room for partial success.
SMART goals are very binary on success- you either achieved your goal or you didn’t. For example, let’s say you set the goal of “I want to have a million dollars in retirement in 15 years.” Judging your overall success and failure by that can be a bad idea. Because if you only hit 950K, you still did a hell of a job. But according to SMART goals, you technically failed at your goal.
7. You can get in the trap of sacrificing long-term success for short-term success.
Let’s say you’re a blogger and your goal for the quarter is to grow your social media presence. Your long-term goal is to build a sustainable website with long-term traffic. You can build your social media presence and get a temporary boost in traffic on a platform that your long-term fans- who are actually going to visit again and buy products- aren’t on. You collect a bunch of one-time visits that look like success. But you wasted that entire quarter and didn’t do anything to reach your long-term goal.
And the example often given is about businesses who focus so much on meeting their quarterly earnings reports in fear of a stock drop that they cut corners (or lie on their accounting). Actions that will hurt them in the long-term, but help them meet their current SMART goal.
What To Do Instead
You now know why SMART goals don’t work. But what do you do instead?
First, figure out exactly what your goal is. Feel free to use the specific and measurable part of the SMART goal system when defining your goal. But dream big.
Then, figure out which type of goal it is:
• Breakdown type. A complicated goal with multiple steps (or longer time frame). For example, starting a blog might involve a lot of different steps and changing behavior as you reach various milestones.
• Non-milestone type goal. A goal where your actions at the beginning are going to be the same as at the end. For example, when you’re losing 100 pounds, the same actions are going to lose the first 10 pounds as well as the last 10. There are no milestones or behavior changes occurring.
If it’s a breakdown goal, grab my Free Printable Goal Workbook.
If it’s a non-milestone goal, visit my post Free Printable Goal Setting Worksheet. It has some great information as well as a free printable to help you.
Use the free printable and get started achieving your goal!
What Has Been Your Experience?
What has been your experience with SMART goals? I would love to hear it- both the good and the bad. Comment below. Do you agree with my assessment of why SMART goals don’t work?
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