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The pros and cons of SMART goals

What are SMART goals? Are they always the right answer?

Everyone’s familiar with the SMART model of goal setting, right? Specific, measurable, etc? You should be. In corporate world, it’s the answer to all your goal and objective setting problems. Some coaches would insist your whole life is supposed to be SMART. Then, there are others who think SMART is the work of Satan!

Before I continue, let’s recap the acronym:

SMART goals, what does SMART stand for?

S for specific. Be specific about the desired outcome. “I want to be 80 kilos by Christmas,” is more specific than, “I want to lose weight.”

M for measurable. Agree how we will measure success and when and how we will check how on or off track you are.

A is for action oriented. In the SMART model, if there’s no action plan, what you have is not a goal, it’s a wish.

R is for realistic. Keep the goal realistic.

T is for time based. Agree the time scale and milestone dates.

There are variations of the SMART acronym such as specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time based, however all the variations amount to the same set of ideas.

There’s a lot to be said for SMART when it is used for the right reasons. It’s especially useful when your goals are in some way contractual between you and someone else, as corporate goals often are. If my bonus depended on me achieving the goals I agree with my manager, would I want them to be specific, measurable, realistic, etc? You bet I would!

When it comes to personal life goals, SMART can still be useful but it can also have downsides.

“You can’t have that goal—it’s not SMART!”

I once watched someone coach a client till the goal that once made the client’s eyes light up with excitement had become boring, but SMART. It was not a happy sight. The coach thought it was good coaching because he’d made the goal SMART. Personally, I can’t call any work of coaching good if it demotivates the client.

One potential problem with SMART is the edict to make your goals realistic. Now, it can be really useful to get more realistic sometimes, but not always. Sometimes, this condition can demote your goals from what you really want to what you think you can have. From inspirational to meh.

Besides, realistic according to who?

What would you say to a kid who dreams of being captain of the England football team? “Have you ever considered office work, son?”

It’s said the measure of your life’s goals isn’t whether you achieved them or not, but whether they made you come alive.

The real purpose of a goal is to inspire you. To this end, some coaches promulgate that life’s big goals should be uncompromisingly unrealistic, as long as they inspire and there’s ecology built in at all levels.

The trouble with deadlines

It’s often said a goal without a deadline is just a dream. I’m not sure when having a dream became such a bad thing.

A deadline often focuses the mind, which is the intended effect. Some writers really come alive when the deadline looms. There’s no time for analysis paralysis, you’ve just got to get your copy out.

The thing is, for a deadline to work, there has to be something real about it. Not getting a newspaper to press in time is real. You won’t get it printed and delivered to the newsagents if you are late. You will lose a day’s sales. Not being ready for your exams when you have to sit them is real. You won’t pass the exam. Not reaching your financial goals by July next year is not real. I mean, what’s really going to happen if you haven’t reached your financial goals by July? Nothing!

You could make the deadline more real by telling yourself you’ll be worthless if you fail. Y’know, give yourself something painful to move away from. If that brings you joy and gets you achieving your goals, fair play to you, but what if it doesn’t? What if it doesn’t get you achieving your goals? What if it only leaves you kicking and berating yourself?

That’s the trouble with fake deadlines.

Having a deadline has become one of the rules of goal setting and it seems predicated on the (false) notion that everyone needs a deadline to get motivated. Actually, not everyone does. If you really want something, you don’t need a deadline to get you off your bottom. Some people are actually turned off by deadlines, not turned on. Some people die off, rather than come alive. I know some people who got active on their goals just because they were following their inspiration.

Perhaps it’s not deadlines we need but more inspirational goals.

If you are truly inspired, no amount of motivation is needed. If you really aren’t, no amount of motivation will help.


Some of the greatest goals in history weren’t SMART

Was Kennedy’s 1961 dream of putting a man on the moon by 1969 realistic? Well, in hindsight, evidently it was, but would you have thought that at the time you were setting the goal?

Was Churchill’s goal of defeating Germany in World War II specific, measurable, realistic and time based? It was probably none of those things, but still worth going after.

What would you have said if Martin Luther King had come to you in 1960 for coaching in the goal of a racially integrated America?

Should we turn people away from a lifetime’s campaign to cure cancer because curing cancer isn’t SMART? A motivated, creative, inspired, compassionate life forged in the reach towards a world without cancer may result not only in great things but also personal fulfilment, even if the end goal is not realistically achievable in one’s life time.

When do you use a tool? When it’s the one that works!

Lest you think this is an attack on deadlines and the SMART model, it absolutely isn’t. Deadlines are one of the motivational tools we have available to us, and it can be a really good one in the right circumstances. SMART is an excellent way to structure goals in certain contexts and is an excellent antidote to certain problems.

I’ll tell you one context where deadlines are a great idea. When you’re so inspired that unless you set yourself a strict stop time, you’ll just keep going indefinitely.

My objection is SMART and deadlines being framed as always the right tool, especially when it’s trivial to demonstrate examples where it is not.

My personal recommendation

SMART is a great model for goals which are in some way contractual between you and another party. It makes sure you share the same expectations. It ensures the goal is fair and it sets up agreed objectives measures to avoid disputes later.

SMART is also a great way to create what you might call the incremental, tangible next-step goals within the big dream.

SMART is not a good model for the big dream itself. It’s not a good way to define those inspired life-long super-goals like ridding the world of hunger or ridding the world of cancer.

SMART is not the same as NLP well-formed outcomes

It surprises me how many people think the S, M, A, R and T represent the five “well-formedness” conditions for outcomes in NLP. To be clear, that’s getting things mixed up.

The classic NLP well-formed outcome model, or “the well-formedness conditions for outcomes in therapy” as they were originally called, is about building desired states and desired patterns of feelings and behaviours, not external goals per se.

Anyway, the conditions are:

SMART is for representing a goal on paper. It’s specified in data, digital.

The well-formed outcomes model is to frame and represent a new state or behaviour such that it can be installed into one’s unconscious mind to “directionalize” the brain. That’s why it’s specified in sensory experience rather than data.

Notice there’s no deadline condition for well-formed outcomes, though I find it is often useful to put some sense of time in to the sensory map.

Wishing you health and happiness,