Why SMART Goals Are Stupid (and What to Use Instead)



SMART goals are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. Sounds pretty safe, doesn’t it? And that’s exactly why SMART goals aren’t so smart.

Why SMART Goals Are Stupid (and What to Use Instead)

Why SMART Goals Are Stupid (and What to Use Instead)

We’ve all heard of SMART goals. SMART goals are:

  • Specific.
  • Measurable.
  • Attainable.
  • Relevant.
  • Time-bound.

Or, if you prefer:

  • Specific.
  • Measurable.
  • Achievable.
  • Realistic.
  • Time-based.

Sounds pretty safe, doesn’t it? And that’s exactly why SMART goals aren’t so smart.

The Problem with SMART Goals

The biggest problem with SMART goals is that they encourage us to stay within our comfort zone. They keep us safely within the realm of whatever we feel is attainable and relevant right at the moment. The result? We never grow. Nor do we achieve big results.

There is an interesting side-effect of choosing goals that fail to grow us, and that is that many people lose interest in them. Goal-setting becomes yet another must-do, instead of a heart-driven pursuit of what we care about most.

In a similar vein, SMART goals focus our attention on pushing the performance metrics higher and higher at the risk of losing sight of the why behind our goals. If our primary objective is maximal health, setting a goal to lift twice as much weight, while certainly specific and measurable, may or may not achieve the intended result. Likewise, if the objective is running a profitable beef cattle operation, doubling the weaning weight of our calves, while also specific and measurable, will only help us if it increases our income without increasing our costs.

There is a reason for the shortcomings of SMART goals, and that is that SMART goal-setting has been removed from its original context. The concept of SMART goals was developed as a way for managers to increase performance in the workplace (the A originally stood for assignable).

While SMART goals may have a place in such a highly industrialized setting, they are more or less a fail when it comes to pursuing your deepest passions.

Things We Can Learn from SMART Goals

Now that we understand the limitations of SMART goals, perhaps there is something we can learn from them.

One takeaway is that there is certainly a benefit to being specific in our goal-setting. “I want a better garden” is nebulous enough that we will never really be sure if we succeeded or not. “I will manage my garden to harvest something every day,” on the other hand, provides a clear target at whch to aim.

The deadline associated with SMART goals is another plus. For those who are in the habit of procrastinating, setting a deadline can be a useful tool for breaking that habit. But even for those who don’t tend to procrastinate, the deadline can still be useful in inspiring creative solutions and greater efficiency.

In the end, however, the lasting popularity of SMART goals is probably at least partly due to its memorable acronym.

The Top Ten List: An Alternative to SMART Goals

Instead of setting SMART goals, then, it behooves us to choose at least some goals that are audaciously heartfelt. These are the goals that we will be most incentivized to pursue, because they are the ones we are most passionate about.

Furthermore, the really big goals are the ones that will stretch and grow us the most. It usually takes a great deal of faith to pursue our innermost passions.

One method of pursuing heartfelt goals while still being aware of the specific and timely is to create a Top Ten List. Give it a try:

  1. Get out a blank piece of paper.
  2. Write down in the middle of the paper that one thing nearest and dearest to your heart, summarized in one word.
  3. At the top of the paper, write down the first step or milestone on your path to that big goal, also summarized in one word. Make it something you can attain in 90 days.
  4. Fill in the space between the first step and the primary goal with a few more keywords representing major milestones, keeping the list as brief and efficient as possible.
  5. Toward the bottom of your paper, add on a few more things you’d like to do in life until you have a total of 10 keywords, each representing a goal.
  6. Underline your primary goal (so that it stands out) and circle your first-step goal.
  7. Restate the first-step goal into a measurable objective for the next three months, using the following format: “Imperative Verb + Direct Object + Any Additional Details.” For example, “Write a book about goal-setting.”
  8. Divide your goal for the quarter into three sequential steps, each step achievable in about a month.
  9. Implement your monthly and quarterly goals.
  10. Every quarter, restate and implement a new goal from your Top Ten List. Be aware that you will want to revise this list quarterly, adjusting and reordering steps if necessary, as well as adding new goals to replace the ones you have already completed. Keep as few steps between you and your primary goal as possible.

This method of goal-setting allows us to dream big and to revise and adjust as our vision evolves. Yet it also keeps us steadily moving toward a very specific objective.

Over time, you may decide that you want to list either more or fewer goals to work toward. But the idea behind this exericse stays the same. By blending our heartfelt passions with the strengths of the SMART goal-setting system, we can create an effective system for accomplishing what matters to us most.