Why I hate SMART goals and my 7 Alternative Steps to Goal Success

Updated: Aug 9, 2018

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

Do you tend to set goals but rarely achieve them? Whether it's going to the gym more, finding a new job, saving money, becoming a millionaire, we can quickly lose sight of the things we want to achieve. Without a considered process, goals can easily become daydreams with little chance of becoming a reality.

Setting structured goals is undoubtedly something that is mirrored in the behaviour of high achievers and is very likely to be a trait within people to whom you aspire. Usain Bolt stated before his final Olympics:

“It is important to set goals in life. I set mine to the highest standard I can achieve“.

If you do any research on goal setting, you'll quickly come across the acronym SMART and you've probably set SMART objectives before in work-based performance reviews.

SMART is a mnemonic for

  • Specific (or simple)

  • Measurable

  • Attainable (or achievable)

  • Relevant (or realistic, or results-based)

  • Timely

Bored yet... I am.

Why SMART doesn't work

There are a few problems I have with SMART goals and objectives. Firstly, the mnemonic is so dull I can never remember what the SMART acronym stands for, and as you can see above it varies depending on context. The second is it feels too much like management speak to me. It reminds me of an objective you'd agree with your manager to ensure accountability, but not something you were necessarily motivated to achieve. And that's my biggest issue with SMART - it lacks passion, desire, motivation and commitment.

In some explanations of the acronym, the "relevant" step is where desire is formed, i.e. if the goal is relevant to your life then it will create desire. Urgh! Desire is critical to success; it should be step 1, not step 4.

Of course, being paid to achieve a goal or task might be enough to ensure you complete it, but when considering goal-setting for our own aims, not those set by others, desire is the driving factor to success.

Without the desire to succeed, the goal will fail at the first hurdle.

To me, SMART feels like a bad marketing campaign where the acronym has been fudged to suit a [reasonably] clever tagline.

However, goal setting is a science, and there are loads of articles you can research which look specifically at the success of goal setting and the theory behind it, most of which stem from Edwin A. Locke's studies from 1968 and then a joint publication of Locke and Dr Gary Latham's work in 1990, The Theory of Goal Setting and Task Performance

In fact, the plethora of published books and articles on the topic of goal setting is phenomenal. Just type "Goal setting" into Amazon, you'll see what I mean.

We know the intentions around SMART are undoubtedly useful when defining goals, but SMART doesn't work for everyone.

The 7 Alternative Steps to Successful Goal Setting

Instead of SMART, I like to use the following 7 step strategy:

Step 1. Write it down

Goals that are merely in your head can become jumbled up with the hundreds of other things that you are trying to do on a daily basis. Go through the steps below, writing down as much as you can for each. The act of writing forces you to clarify the goal and be attentive of it. It allows you to consider the complexities of achieving it, and to formulate a plan for overcoming these. It also enables you to reflect accurately on your progression as time passes. Goals that are not written down are less likely to have been thought through to such detail, and therefore the challenge of seeing them through is heightened and the likelihood of failure increases.

Step 2. What is your goal?

Be very specific here, define what it is you want to achieve. Lofty goals are likely to be more challenging and therefore, potentially, easier to abandon - but that shouldn't stop you. However, to give yourself a better chance of success break the loft goal down into smaller, mini goals, which help support the broader objective.

For instance, I might want to own a yacht by the time I'm 40. But at the moment I may not even own a car or my own house. To start, I would consider the steps required to achieve my goal and build smaller supportive goals around those steps, e.g. source a job that will help me gain the necessary income to own a yacht, research the skills required to earn a high salary and then learn those skills, or start a business in an area where you see potential for high growth, all of which will, in turn, have smaller supporting goals that help to achieve the overriding goal of owning a yacht.

Similarly, if you set too many goals at the same time, you may lose sight of which ones are the priority to you and which ones may become a distraction.

The goal should be motivational and exciting, something that whips up emotion and encourages commitment.

Step 3. Why?

Ask yourself why you want this goal. When you write this down, consider what will bring your goal to life - add imagery if appropriate, give it meaning and purpose and bring it alive both in your mind and on the page. Describe how it will make you feel when you succeed. What other emotions could you consider? Detail all the reasons behind your goal. Consider your core values, how does your goal support those?

Step 4. How?

Plan how you will achieve your goal. Who and what do you need to support you in achieving your goal? How will you find those people? Will you use friends, family, social media, your extended network? Will you need to reach out to others? Don't let fear of rejection hinder your objective. This process, in combination with the "why" stage, builds positive and powerful affirmations within your mind. Prioritise - consider if there are other goals that you may have to sacrifice or alter to achieve this one. Which is your priority? I'm not advocating that you flit from one intention to another, but there are some goals that you may strategically postpone or stop because they will not contribute towards your target or will get in the way of it.

Be open to opportunities and seek out the paths that will lead you to where you aim to be. This requires mindfulness and attention. Be cautious of not always waiting for the "perfect" opportunity to come along; you might be waiting forever. Instead, take calculated risks and understand how you can make "good" opportunities to work to your advantage.

Step 5. When?

By when do you want to have achieved the goal? It's essential to add a timeframe and deadline to your goal. When will you achieve it by? If you have supporting goals which help you accomplish this one, then you'll need to consider them within this timeframe. Be realistic but challenge yourself.

Step 6. What if?

Consider the plan you've just written and then write the alternative, but always keeping the goal in mind. What if things start to go wrong, what will you do to get back on track? How will you change your plan without giving up on your goal? Consider the barriers, both physical and otherwise. Who might hinder you from achieving the goal? Are there individuals that will react negatively and actively encourage you to fail. How might you approach that blocker when you encounter it? If you are reaching out to others for help consider what you will do when you receive rejections, what steps will you take to overcome your fears or ego? What and when will you ask for help?

Step 7. Affirm and Reflect

Keep your goal alive and fresh. Regularly reflect on what you've written down and think of things you can do to keep the goal front-of-mind. Be inventive in the reminders. It might be that you put an alarm on your phone each morning that reminds you of your current goal at the start of the day. It might be that you put a giant poster of the goal somewhere you will see it regularly. Maybe you change your PC password so that it reflects your intent. Be creative and help your brain build positive affirmations of the goal so that the desire is always active. This will also help you overcome obstacles that come along, especially ones you may not have planned for (which will happen). Make yourself accountable for the goal.

Back in the 1980's, all Apple Macintosh launch employees would receive a memo from Steve Jobs stating

"how is the decision you are making right now helping us to ship the greatest personal computer the world has ever known".

By providing yourself with the same accountability, you will help focus your decisions, keep your plan at the forefront of your mind and strengthen the neurological affirmations that will ultimately enable you to succeed.

Finally, decide whether you want to share your goal or not. Again, there is lots of research and contradicting opinions on whether you should share goals or keep them to yourself. It's a blog post in its own right and one we'll explore at a later date. In the meantime research it yourself, give this proper consideration and decide what is right for you after you've weighed up the pros and cons. If you do choose to share your goal, you might want to consider using those individuals as "accountability partners". These people might act as mentors, supporting and critiquing your path and helping you keep on track.

Although the fundamentals of goal setting are pretty straightforward, the real revelation comes when you put thought into your goals. By following the 7 step process, you are adding some neuroscience and psychology into the mix; using brain and thought techniques to build powerful affirmations that cement your desire to succeed, and increase your likelihood of doing so

If your goals are important to you, give them the upfront attention they deserve. Your efforts will pay off in the long run.

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