Steve's Articles, Coach and NLP Trainer in Maidstone and London

The pros and cons of being SMART

What are SMART goals? And 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 extremely popular. Some coaches would insist your whole life is supposed to be SMART. And then there are others who think SMART is the work of Satan!

Before I continue, let’s recap the acronym:

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

M for measurable. Agree the measures for how on-track or off-track the goal is.

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

R is for realistic. Agree realistic targets and time scales, not unrealistic ones.

T is for time based. Agree the time scale and relevant mile stone dates.

(Please note there are variations such as specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time based, however all the variations amount to the same set of ideas.)

Look, 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 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 had become totally dreary—but SMART. It wasn’t 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 takes a client who was inspired and sends them away uninspired.

One potential problem with SMART is the edict to make your goals ’realistic’. It can be really useful to get someone to be 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 a career as an insurance clerk, son?”

It’s said the measure of your life’s goals isn’t whether you achieved them but whether they made you come alive—that 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.” Well, 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 just gotta get copy out.

The thing is, for a deadline to work, there has to be something real about it. Not getting the newspaper to press in time is real. Not being ready for your exams is real. Not reaching your financial goals by July next year is not. 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 shrink under them, rather than grow. 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.

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, 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 i;s 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. (That’s not using a deadline as a motivational tool so much as a ’stop yourself going on endlessly’ tool.)

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 most at home as a model for goals which are in some way contractual between you and another party. It makes sure you’re both share the same expectations, ensures the goal is fair and sets up agreed measures to avoid arguments later.

I think SMART can also be good for what you might call ’incremental’, step-wise goals within the big dream. It depends on the person and the goal.

SMART is not a good model for the big dream itself; or those inspired life campaigns 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, the M, the A, the R and the T represent the five well-formedness conditions for outcomes in NLP. That’s getting things mixed up.

Remember, the classic NLP well-formed outcome is about building desired states and desired patterns of feelings and behaviours, not external goals per se; and the conditions are:

  1. It is stated in the positive—it’s what you do want, not what you don’t
  2. It is initiated and maintained by the individual—you can own maintaining the desired state
  3. It is contextualised for ecology—you are clear where and when the new state or behaviour is desired and useful; and where and when it is not
  4. It preserves the positive by-products on the present state—so there isn’t a part of you that needs to resist and self-sabotage the change
  5. It is testable (some say ’specified’) in sensory experience—you can build a see-hear-feel map of what the desired state is and check for success against that

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 goal such that it can be installed into one’s unconscious 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,

Steve.

Labels: Coaching Articles, Self-Help, Goals, Goal Setting, SMART Goals, What does SMART stand for

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Stephen Woolston Training and Consultancy is based in Maidstone, Kent.