When SMART Goals Don't Work, Here's What to Do Instead
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Starting a business doing what you love, losing a lot of weight, quitting smoking, completing a triathlon -- these are all lofty aspirations.
The standard wisdom for achieving any of them is to set a goal that’s specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time driven. This approach is often referred to by the acronym SMART, as outlined in the November 1981 issue of Management Review.
It’s easy to see why SMART goals became popular: They are clear, concise and seemingly simple. Indeed research has shown SMART goals can save time and simplify the process of setting measurable goals.
"The specificity of SMART goals is a great cure for the worst sins of goal setting -- ambiguity and irrelevance ("We are going to delight our customers every day in every way!"), Dan and Chip Heath stated in Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard.
"But SMART goals are better for steady-state situations than for change situations, because the assumptions underlying them are that the goals are worthwhile," they noted.
In a business context, SMART goals can be effective for those focusing on just boosting a number. But for grandiose goals -- for anyone aspiring to do what he or she loves for a living, say -- the SMART goal methodology has serious flaws. SMART goals aren’t always that smart -- especially for those shooting for a big, hairy audacious goal, or BHAG, a term introduced by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in their book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. Here's a look at some other approaches taken by goal-setting experts:
Why SMART goals fail to deliver on lofty aspirations. As simple as the SMART method appears, it doesn’t allow a person to forge an emotional connection to the goals. Without this, a person is less likely to be motivated.
Leadership IQ, a training and research company, studied 4,182 employees from 397 companies and found that just 15 percent of those surveyed strongly agreed that their goals would help them achieve great things. Only 13 percent of workers strongly agreed that their goals would help them maximize their full potential.
Part of the problem is that SMART goals are too focused on outcomes.
Say a person wants to lose 20 pounds by Dec. 31. In January he joins a gym and starts working out and eating better. He loses 5 pounds and feels great. Then in March, he takes a vacation. Relaxing on the beach, he is hardly thinking about going to the gym and eating healthy.
He returns home only to realize he regained 2 pounds and feels terrible, guilty and defeated. Eventually, he succumbs to the old habits and gives up.
What went wrong? Minor setbacks can put a big damper on outcome-focused goals (such as trying to lose 20 pounds by the year's end). Plus, SMART goals often fail to fuel someone's inner fire, and research shows intrinsic (internal) factors are much more likely to lead to long-term behavior change.
So if the SMART method doesn’t work for audacious goals, what does?
Crafting destination postcards. In Switch, Dan and Chip Heath say combining a “destination postcard” -- a clearly painted picture of where a person wants to be -- with the right habits is the key to achieving big goals.
Mark Murphy, CEO of Leadership IQ, takes this a step further, noting that a person needs a heartfelt emotional connection to set a goal with the power to propel him or her forward.
His research defined eight characteristics of goals that lead to great achievements:
1. It's possible to vividly picture how wonderful it feels when the goals are accomplished.
2. The goal setter must learn new skills to achieve the year's objectives.
3. The goals are a must for helping the company.
4. The individual actively participated in setting this year's goals.
5. The person is able to participate in the formal training needed to achieve the goals.
6. The individual must stretch out of his or her comfort zone in order to realize the goals.
7. Accomplishing the goals will better the lives of others (such as customers or the community).
8. The goals work well with the organization’s chief priorities for the year.
Murphy devised a new methodology such that the goals should be (a) heartfelt, (b) animated (evoking a picture repeatedly playing in the mind's eye), (c) required and (d) difficult, which he referred to by the acronymn HARD.
Focusing on improvement. Perhaps in keeping with Murphy's method, the associate director of Columbia University’s Motivation Science Center, Heidi Grant Halvorson, has advocated a "get better" mind-set for personal growth and development. She contends that when individuals embrace a “get better” approach, they tend to take healthy risks and are less afraid of failing -- essential ingredients for achieving goals.
With Halvorson’s method, a person would set a goal like “I want to learn how to become great at marketing” rather than “I want to be great at marketing." Or the goal might be “I want to learn how to develop healthier habits" instead of “I want to be skinnier.” She recommends writing down goals and then rewriting them using words like improve, progress, develop, become and grow.
Many people adhere to a “be good” goal-setting approach (setting benchmarks based on others' achievements). Yet research by John Bargh and his colleagues has shown that when people mimic others they tend to focus more on menial, unrelated tasks (to feel productive) rather than on difficult goals essential to growth and achievement.
Echoing these sentiments is Geoff Colvin, author of Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else: “The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but rather about the process of reaching the outcome.”