Are SMART goals all they’re cracked up to be? It depends.
This acronym has been a part of the gospel of goal setting for as long as I can remember. To the point where we don’t even stop to question it.
Before we dive in to why I believe SMART goals might not be all they’re cracked up to be, let’s quickly review the components of the acronym:
Specific: Clear, detailed, non-ambiguous.
I want to get healthy, I want to lose weight, I want to feel better - these are examples of non-specific goals. In the context of running, “I want to qualify for Boston,” is a good example of a specific outcome goal because there are specific qualifying times based on gender identification and age.
Measurable: quantifiable in order to track progress or success.
Attainable: Is it genuinely within the realm of possibility.
Relevant: the goal aligns with your values.
Time-Bound: most often represented as working within the context of a deadline.
(Some sources will say the A stands for Actionable and the R stands for Realistic, but to a certain degree this is just semantics and doesn’t drastically change the overall concept.)
You might look at that and think, so what’s the problem?
For the most part, there isn’t one. But I think there is a particular point where people get stuck when adhering to the SMART criteria, and by adjusting the lens through which we develop our SMART goals, we can better fulfill our true potential.
The most significant change I would make to the SMART goal framework is to encourage people to eliminate the T, as in detaching completely from a timeline, particularly when considering outcome goals. (For more on the difference between outcome vs process goals, check out my blog post “Who Are You Becoming?”)
I get that the timeline adds a sense of urgency. But if your outcome goal is big enough, having a sense of urgency or ultimatum might be more of a problem than an advantage. I understand that SMAR goals don’t sound quite as exciting, but I think as a society, we are too hung up on instant gratification. So when it comes to setting big goals, fixating on an arbitrary timeline might interfere with what someone identifies as “attainable” for themselves and could ultimately alter their perception of their potential.
Why Timelines Don’t (Always) Work:
When it comes to setting outcome goals (what you are ultimately trying to achieve), arbitrary timelines can drive a wedge between you and your potential in several ways.
1. Setting The Bar Too Low:
You might set the bar too low because you are making assumptions based on a timeline that is too short. It can be difficult to think in terms of years or even decades, which makes it much, much easier to assume that something is impossible - this conveniently helps us avoid the prospect of failure. But if your goals are big enough, potential failures along the way should just be par for the course.
Timelines interfere with our willingness to set audacious goals, and yet audacious and impossible aren’t synonyms. Just because something is audacious doesn’t make it unattainable. My biggest personal revelation from finally deciding to try to BQ, regardless of outcome, has been this: If you only ever set goals you already know you can achieve, you’re selling yourself short.
You might be wondering how short-term outcome goals factor in, but even then, a timeline might be arbitrary. Progress isn’t linear, and to expect it to be so might result in …
2. Giving Up Too Soon:
You might give up on your goal too soon because the arbitrary timeline was unreasonable (even though the goal could have absolutely been attainable given more time). I see this a lot with nutrition clients in particular. They have a weight loss goal in mind, and they’ve usually attached it to a specific deadline (albeit an arbitrary one in the grand scheme of things).
What often ends up happening is that, even if they have achieved a reasonable amount of weight loss over a given duration, they will view their journey as a failure unless they have met their specific outcome goal by this arbitrary deadline they've set. They get frustrated and stop doing the things that brought them the successes they were seeing, and then either blame the diet or worse blame themselves. But was the goal or even the process the problem? Or was it the deadline? Same goes for any performance goal that is audacious enough.
3. Beginning With And End In Mind:
Finally, to me, deadlines just encourage an all or nothing mentality because they inherently imply that you are starting a journey with the intention of eventually stopping. It’s like the diet challenges that con you into believing you will lose weight (and keep it off!) in 30 days, but only if you adhere to such miserably strict guidelines that you can’t wait for that shit to end. But even if you comply, where does that mindset typically leave you after a few weeks? Back where you started.
A good outcome goal fundamentally changes who you are, how you show up for yourself, and how you engage in your life in the process of trying to achieve it. You can’t fake your way through it and expect it to have any sort of lasting, profound impact on your life. It also helps if the steps you take to get there aren’t completely effing miserable. Finding ways to enjoy the process and the journey rather than white knuckling your way through strict adherence and unrelenting internal pressure typically make for better long-term results anyway.
Do Timelines Have a Place?
Where I think Timelines can work a little better or make more sense is with the development of process goals. I heard the Tactic Nutrition Coaches say they like to use the phrase Time Frame better than Timeline. Again, this is somewhat just semantics at play, but here I think it makes sense. What they mean is that when you are setting process goals, you determine the frequency with which you will do something within a given period of time, whether it is daily or weekly, etc.
For example, “I will do 3 strength workouts per week.” This is a process goal, not an outcome, that is operating within a certain time frame. It is specific (granted you could make it even more so), measurable, attainable (given you were previously working out 2x/week or something similar), relevant (to pretty much any health or athletic performance oriented goal) and time sensitive. Time Frame as it relates to how you go about measuring your compliance with a process goal makes more sense to me than expecting to achieve a big audacious outcome goal by a specific deadline or else risk abandoning the project altogether.
To that end, if you repeatedly abandon projects based on faulty timelines, you might start to believe that you are a failure, when in reality it was simply the framework through which you were creating your goals.
What are your thoughts? Have you experienced this before? Do you differentiate between outcome and process goals? And have you let fear of failure and short-sighted timelines drive the trajectory of your goals and therefore your potential?
(By the way, I too am human, and I realize that much of this is easier said than done. I don’t think anyone ever completely cures themselves of the resistance they feel toward setting and acting on big scary goals. That, too, is a matter of showing up and making the choice to engage in our lives to the best of our abilities on a daily basis. And the bravery and resolve with which we do that will also ebb and flow. But I’m working on making the choice to be a little braver a little more often. So, just know that I write these posts as much for myself as for the wonderful folks I coach!)
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