How smart are SMART Goals?
Updated: May 20
You've probably heard the term SMART goal at some point in your life. Although you probably know what it means, let me remind you again in case you don't remember. It's an acronym that stands for:
This is a framework to guide people to create more effective goals for themselves. Let's explore each of these characteristics of SMART goal in a little more detail so we can discuss the strengths and weaknesses of creating these types of goals overall. Throughout this discussion, I will share my opinions on different aspects of SMART goals.
In some ways, specific isn't really a specific word. What does it mean for a goal to be specific? On one level, I feel specific could be considered redundant with the words "measurable" and "time-based". I think that's where a lot of the specificity of a goal comes from. As it relates to OnTrac, our SMARTracs focus on guiding our users toward a measurable (quantitative) and time-based goal, and each SMARTrac is for a specific goal. As we move out of the beta phase, we envision creating essentially limitless SMARTracs for very specific goals. Outside of OnTrac, there are almost infinite ways to make goals more specific beyond making them measurable and time-based. For instance, someone's goal could be to make $10,000/month with in the next 12 months. That is a measurable and time-based goal. However, it is not really "specific". For example, is this pre-tax or post-tax? Is this passive income or earned income? If it's passive income, through what passive income channels will it be earned? If it's earned income, what type of job will it be earned through? These are all relevant questions, and the answer to these questions can have a material impact on the actual goal itself as well as the specific plan needed to achieve that goal. Each additional piece of detail added to the goal itself has the potential to make the specific plan of action that much more clear. For instance, if the goal above was to make $10,000/month by becoming a lawyer, then going to law school is most likely a critical step to achieving that goal.
There is the old adage written by management guru Peter Drucker in his 1954 book, "The Practice of Management", "What gets measured, gets managed." You may have even had a manager say it to you at some point (I know I have). I think there is definitely some truth to this. However, I'm also very pragmatic. I would tweak this statement to say "What can be measured is easier to improve". I think this goes back to an earlier post where I talk about the importance of breaking goals into smaller pieces, goal tracking, and actually seeing progress. If you set a goal that cannot be measured (i.e. is not quantitative), how can you see progress? You can't. That is why I'm a huge advocate of making that majority of your goals quantitative in nature. You may have to start with a qualitative goal, but for the goals to be most effective, you should really break them into quantitative components. For example, one goal you might have is to have a better relationship with a loved one. That clearly is qualitative in nature. What does it mean to have a better relationship with someone? But perhaps you can break that qualitative goal into "leading indicators" of a better relationship that are quantitative. For instance, you could have as goals, spend at least 15 hours a weeks with that loved one or to go to one hour of therapy together for three times a week for at least 3 months. If you do those things, will you definitely have a better relationship with your loved one? Of course not. But boy, it's a certainly a good start.
This is probably the one letter in SMART that is actually the most controversial ("SMART Goals Can Sometimes Be Dumb"). While I understand the criticism, I don't necessarily agree with it. Achievable just means that one should set a goal that's realistic. The biggest argument against this is setting goals that are achievable might be making one that is too easy and doesn't "challenge" the individual. However, while I see that the bigger danger though is setting a goal that is so unrealistic that you don't see progress toward it, you get discouraged, and you quit. If you set a goal that's too easy and you achieve it really easily, there's a really easy solution for that: set a newer, harder goal. Rinse, wash, and repeat. A good friend of mine is a psychologist and as a former competitive wrestler, he works with a lot of athletes on sports performance. One of the things he has told me on multiple occasions is that most people fail to achieve their goals because they set unrealistic goals. So while it's okay to always have your BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal, a reference from Jim Collins "Built to Last" book), remember to break bigger goals into smaller pieces to maximize your chances of achieving your goal.
I think that Relevant is probably the most subjective of all the parts of elements SMART. To me, Relevance is all about motivation. If it doesn't matter to you as the person setting the goal, how motivated are you going to be to achieve it. In other words, this goal has to MATTER to you. Otherwise, what is going to make you want to work to achieve it. As you are setting your SMART goal, make sure you ask yourself, will achieving this goal make a positive impact on my life? If so, how will it impact my life? Having that mental picture of the positive impact on your life will only help to maintain the level of motivation you will need to achieve that goal.
Next to Specific and Measurable, I'm a firm believer that this is one of the most important elements of SMART. As I mentioned before, I also think that Time-based works very closely with Specific and Measurable. The timing of the goal is part of what creates the specificity of the goal, and the measurement of the goal has to include a time element. For example, earning $10,000 has a very different meaning if it is over 1 month than if it is over 1 year. Those are fundamentally two different goals with two very different plans. The actions you would make to earn $10,000 in a month are extremely different that those you would take to make $10,000 in a year. Another important point about time element of a goal is it does one crucial thing: create a sense of urgency. When a goal is open-ended from a time perspective, there is no urgency to complete activities and tasks that are vital to completion because it doesn't matter when the goal is complete. On the other hand, when there is a deadline, you know you have to get things done within a certain time frame and therefore, the task related to that goal take on a higher priority.
Are setting SMART goals the only way to set goals? Of course not. Is the framework perfect? Probably not. There are probably instances where another framework may be better. Although candidly, I can't think of a situation where they can't work. I actually looked around for examples from others on situations where SMART goals don't work that well. The examples I found I felt were simply poor implementations of the framework. However, just because I can't think of an example doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. That being said, we at OnTrac, are big advocates of SMART goals and have incorporated many of the principles into the app. Well, we've at least incorporated the SMT part of it. Our goal is to eventually help people with the A part, but not until a later version. For the next goals that you set, use the SMART lens on them and see if they are smart goals you are setting for yourself. If they're not, try to re-frame them so that they are. Then let us know how you do!