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Making the SMART Method Less Dumb

The Remedy for Fixing the World’s Most Popular “Goal-setting” Method

I attribute the success of the “SMART Method” of Goal Definition to its catchy name, not to its effectiveness. In fact, as it’s currently practiced, I think it’s fatally flawed.

Let me explain the method, its flaws, and how it can be remedied.

According to the SMART Method, goals ought to have five characteristics. Goals should be:

  • Specific;
  • Measurable;
  • Achievable (or Ambitious);
  • Reasonable; and
  • Time-bound

(S)pecific

The Good

If you don’t make some decisions up-front about what your goal is, and what it is not, you won’t know where you’re heading.

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.”

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.

The Bad

Too much specificity ignores the role of other people and circumstances that we have little, if any, control over. Our lives are governed by uncertainty — it does us no good to define goals that can only be accomplished if other people and events happen to go our way. The ignoring of uncertainty can also make us commit errors of logic by presuming that getting X means Y was effective, and conversely, that not getting X means Y was ineffective.

The Remedy

Define your goals based on what you (and only you) have control over. For example, the goal of “Get a promotion” depends upon your supervisors, company profits, office politics, bias, etc. “Make 1,000 sales calls”, on the other hand, is in your control. It puts you in position to receive a promotion, but the goal is achieved whether you receive the promotion or not.

(M)easurable

The Good

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. You either still don’t have the job or you do. How do you divide that into units? 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.

When something isn’t amenable to numerical measurement, you can subdivide in other ways. For example, if you’re learning a particular subject from a textbook, you can break it down into units, chapters, and pages.

The Bad

Most goals don’t break down into easily-measurable units. 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 Remedy

Have measurements for different phases. Don’t try to force a round peg into a square hole for the sake of a formula; find a square peg.

(A)chievable/(A)mbitious

The Good

The ‘A’ in SMART usually stands for Achievable or Ambitious. ‘Achievable’ ensures that you meet the minimum requirements. It should be possible — given your abilities, habits, etc. — for you to achieve the goal. To continue with the book example: If you lack the discipline to sit down and write X amount of words per day, then your goal is not Achievable. ‘Ambitious’ ensures that you aren’t choosing only low-hanging fruit. If writing X amount of words per day is easy for you, raise the bar a bit.

The Bad

This is easier said than done. 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.

The Remedy

Experiment. Don’t rely on your gut instincts. Instead, review your results, learn about yourself, and adjust accordingly. (Here’s one way to do that.)

(R)easonable

The Good

Whereas Achievable/Ambitious is about the particular goal you’re trying to achieve, Reasonable (often called Realistic or Relevant) places the goal in the larger context of your life. Goals cannot be achieved, and life’s commitments cannot be balanced, in isolation from other goals and commitments.

The Bad

When people review their progress towards a goal, they usually do this in isolation from everything else.

The Remedy

Create a system for managing goals rather than just for setting and accomplishing them.

(T)ime — bound

The Good

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 due dates 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.

The Bad

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 uncertainty reigns supreme.

The Remedy

Don’t use due dates. Instead, use “guideposts” and adjust as necessary.

These critiques are why I came up with my own way to create goals, which I describe in my book, Long Term Person, Short Term World.

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Michael J. Motta

Michael J. Motta

2.1K Followers

Asst. Professor of Politics. Writes here about productivity, learning, journaling, life. Author of Long Term Person, Short Term World.