The SMART Method isn’t that smart.
It really isn’t.
Here I elaborate on why I prefer the term goal management versus goal “planning” or “creating” or “setting”:
The typical goal planning/creating/setting plan-of-action is the SMART Method. This is a great method — don’t get me wrong — but it’s inadequate. Let me explain.
Below are the SMART characteristics that each goal should have, interjected with why each is lacking. (This is why I prefer the SMARTEST Approach.)
According to the SMART Method, goals ought to be:
If you don’t make some decisions up-front about what your goal is, and what it is not, you’ll never quite know where you’re heading. This is why it is important that goals are specific.
Here are some examples:
- The goal “self-publish a book” is within my control and seems tractable, but more work remains. There are infinite types of books one can write. Fiction, nonfiction, something in the middle. Hundreds of genres. Any imaginable topic. “Self — publish a fantasy novel” is specific.
- “Learn the ten most important Calculus theorems” is far better than “Get better at the GRE Math section.”
- “Lift weights three mornings a week, alternating muscle groups” is more specific than “I will gain muscle this winter.”
It is not always easy to make a goal specific. But this is a good thing. The process of taking a goal and making it specific forces you to think hard about what it is you actually want. This clarity allows you to make informed decisions about what to focus on and which steps you should take.
Critique: Too much specificity ignores those “near-misses” that are really successes or situations when you purposely tweak what you’re trying to accomplish.
A good test of whether your goal is specific enough is if it is relatively easy to measure progress. Progress needs to be measurable — otherwise you won’t know if you are actually heading in the right direction.
This requires a bit of thought. For example, suppose you are trying to get a job in a particular industry. If that was your stated goal, you would not be able to “measure” the goal because it could take a week, a month, or a year to get a job. You either still don’t have the job or you do. How do you divide that?
The easiest way to measure is numbers, so in the example above, job applications sent or network connections sought might be better. Easy to track. Easy to know whether or not you are making progress.
Although not all goals are number based, subdividing can still be easy. For example, if you’re learning a particular subject from a textbook, you can break it down into units, chapters, and pages.
Critique: Goals often have different “phases” that complicate measurement. The drafting of a book, for example, can obviously be number-based (word count), but you still have to revise, edit, proofread, etc.
The ‘A’ in SMART usually stands for Achievable or Ambitious. I think both are necessary.
Here’s how I think of it: ‘Achievable’ ensures that you meet the minimum requirements; ‘Ambitious’ ensures that you aren’t choosing only low-hanging fruit.
It should be possible — given your abilities, habits, etc. — for you to achieve the goal. To continue with the self-published book example: If you lack the discipline to sit down and write x amount of words per day, then your goal is not Achievable.
Don’t aim too low, though. Be ambitious.
Critique: Humans overestimate what they can accomplish in the short term and underestimate what they can accomplish in the long term. This makes it very difficult to know beforehand where the “sweet spot” between achievable and ambitious is.
Whereas Achievable/Ambitious is about the particular goal you’re trying to achieve, Reasonable (often called Realistic or Relevant in other descriptions of the SMART method) is the goal in the larger context of your life.
It’s almost too obvious to say: Goals cannot be achieved, and life’s commitments cannot be balanced, in isolation from other goals and commitments.
Critique: How the heck to do this? It sounds easy in the abstract, but once you start thinking it through, you realize how hard it is to 1.) know your other aspirations and commitments and 2.) figure out how to balance them in any meaningful way.
(T)ime — bound
Aspirations often begin with: “Someday, I will…” or “One of these days, I’m going to…” SMART goals, on the other hand, define a when.
A time-bound goal allows you to work backwards from a particular date and determine guideposts along the way. In other words, it makes measurement much easier.
For example, if it is June 1, and you hope to achieve a goal by September 1, you can divide the measuring units by for monthly measuring sticks, and then again by 4 for weekly.
A time-bound goal also helps estimate if and when you will pursue other goals. Suppose your goal in the previous example was to self-publish a book. If you know you will be writing a book from June 1 through August, you might choose to forestall writing something else.
Critique: How often is the purpose really to ensure that we achieve the goal by a particular date? In so many cases, it doesn’t really matter if we’re a week late. Besides, life is complicated and much is not predictable.
The above is why I added the ‘-est’ to the SMART Method. I added my favorite Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, to the mix alongside Synergy and Tractability. (You can check out those additions here if you are interested.)
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