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We've all heard of S.M.A.R.T. Goals, right? It's a system of goal setting designed to keep you motivated and focused by giving you a clear direction and action plan. In order to be effective, the goals you set must answer five questions:
If you hold even the slightest ambition to achieve a particular goal, you've heard all this. Maybe you've even passed this information on to try to help someone else. I know I have more times than I can count.
Well, I am about to go back on my own advice and let you know — there is a better way.
George T. Doran presented S.M.A.R.T. Goals back in November 1981 in an issue of Management Review Magazine. So they have a long and proven history of working. And that's a key word here, proven. Because if they never worked, they likely would have died out and been forgotten by the time 1982 came around. So just who am I to question their validity?
Okay, I'm nobody. And sitting down to write out your goals and using the S.M.A.R.T. system isn't necessarily bad advice.
But it is outdated.
There is something to be said about having a clearly defined sense of direction and action plan. In fact, my own love of lists and numbers is probably part of what drew me to the S.M.A.R.T. goal setting system in the first place. But here is where I struggle with S.M.A.R.T. Goals… I know they are attainable and realistic (two of the defining qualities of a S.M.A.R.T. Goal) — so if I fail to meet that goal, where does that leave me?
Does it mean I'm not working hard enough? Well, I don't see how that can be — I'm swamped 24/7. Does it mean I'm not prioritizing? Again, I don't see how that can be — my toddler is fed and happy, baby number 2 is on the way, and I am meeting my deadlines and getting my bills paid and still getting supper onto the table. Does it mean I didn't want it bad enough? Didn't have the willpower to go out and get it? Didn't understand the follow through necessary to get out there and get it?
Of course not. Failing at a S.M.A.R.T. Goal isn't a reflection on me, my ability, or my work ethic at all. It's just a sign that a S.M.A.R.T. goal didn't work for that situation.
Leaders seem to like the S.M.A.R.T. Goal Setting Technique more than those being led.
It may or may not be a coincidence that the only people I ever hear recommending S.M.A.R.T. Goals are leaders: marketing leaders, team leaders, executives, coaches. They can go on and on about how S.M.A.R.T. Goals help you focus and drive toward a target, keep you motivated, and that you're more likely to reach those goals than you are just by setting a vague goal.
But I rarely hear an employee, a team member, or anyone else talk about how well setting those S.M.A.R.T. Goals actually helped them.
Interesting phenomenon, right?
Apparently, I wasn't the only one who thought so. Leadership IQ published the results of a survey they conducted in which “only 15% of employees strongly agree that their goals will help them achieve great things. And only 13% of employees strongly agree that their goals this year will help them maximize their full potential.“
Less than 15% of employees believed having S.M.A.R.T. Goals were going to help them? What's the point, then?
And if they help so few people, then why are S.M.A.R.T. Goals so darn popular?
S.M.A.R.T. Goals work for Task-Oriented Ambitions and Boosts.
If your goals are primarily task oriented, or if you are numbers-focused, then S.M.A.R.T. Goals are for you. If you're trying to boost a number in your bottom line, S.M.A.R.T. Goals are the way to go. Set your number goal, answer the appropriate questions, and go for it.
This is because S.M.A.R.T. Goals work by keeping your focus on the end result – the outcome. That exact moment when you achieve your goal and receive the reward.
S.M.A.R.T. Goals lack spirit.
To put it mildly, S.M.A.R.T. Goals rely on those outcomes to gain motivation. If you're consistent and driven, you have a much better chance of meeting your goal. But the goal itself contains no motivating factors. If you're trying to affect real change in your life? If you're trying to reach for the stars? You need something better than S.M.A.R.T. Goals. It's too easy to stumble and give up, or even just decide to start over completely.
Think about this: how many times have you set a goal and started to work for it — all the while envisioning how great it's going to be once it's completed. Example? I'm going to get this book published this year through a traditional publisher.
So you work for it all through January. You write your tail off all month to get that book finished. February? The same thing. In March, you head over to Amazon and buy a few books on how to submit query letters to agents and publishers. Then you send your masterpiece off to an editor and two weeks later (give or take) you get back that all-important feedback.
So. Much. Red.
But now you've had a couple week's break from this manuscript, so it takes you a little while to get back into it. And all those red marks are overwhelming, so you need a break. By the time July rolls around, you feel defeated, pressured, and guilty for not having more motivation. And before you know it, December is rolling around and a new year is about to begin. And are you any closer to your goal for getting that book over to a publisher?
Maybe it didn't happen exactly this way. Maybe you made it through the editing process and stalled out while writing the query letters. Or maybe you stalled out when publishers started rejecting your book. Either way, once you start feeling as though your goals have defeated you, there are two options left.
- Back to the drawing board to try again and set a new goal — hopefully it will work better this time.
- Give up, try something else entirely.
S.M.A.R.T. Goals keep you locked into your comfort zone.
No, I am not one of those people who believes you have to practically live outside your comfort zone in order to get anything done. Comfort zones are important, and spending an appropriate amount of time within those zones is also important. That's where we recharge. Where we evaluate everything we've done, examine our accomplishments, and recognize our growth.
Comfort zones are the perfect zones for introspective reflection — which is just as important for development and growth as stepping outside of those comfort zones is.
But, S.M.A.R.T. Goals keep you staunchly inside your comfort zone by design. Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. It wants you to choose goals you know without a doubt you could achieve. The idea behind this is pretty simple — the more you achieve, then the higher you can strive. But if you're never reaching beyond that which you know you can achieve, where's the growth?
Don't get me wrong here; I'm not suggesting that you reach for something ludicrous. If you've just developed an interest in acting, don't quit your job and head off to Hollywood based on a goal of being the next Jack Nicholson or Geena Davis. Maybe start by taking a few acting classes, audition for a few plays in your local community theater and start networking with some other actors before you try jumping over the Hollywood. But shooting for something realistic entails knowledge that you will definitely be able to attain it. There's no risk of failure in that, no thrill of chasing down that ambition. There's nothing in the journey to help get you there, or to learn from.
If you have lofty ambitions, you need QUALITY Goals.
QUALITY Goals take the best parts of S.M.A.R.T. Goals — the specificity and ability to measure — and add in the parts that are missing. For a goal to truly be effective, it must be:
Quantifiable — will you be able to measure and evaluate your progress toward that goal.
Uplifting — will the journey toward the goal benefit or enrich your life in some way as much as attaining the goal would?
Ambitious — will the goal push you far enough outside of your comfort zone to spark real growth? Will it challenge you?
Lasting Consistency — will the goal require you to work consistently toward it, or will taking a break derail the entire track?
Impact — will attaining the goal have an impact on some part of your life or the lives of people around you? How significant will that impact be?
Thrilling — does the prospect of achieving that goal hold enough excitement to keep you motivated and driven toward it? Will you be compelled to continue striving?
Your True Value — will attaining that goal bring you closer to your sense of self?
And before you ask why I haven't included “timely” into my equation here, I don't believe in self-imposed deadlines. I know they work for some people by adding in some pressure — and if you happen to be one of those people, then I applaud you and say “go for it.” However, self-imposed deadlines have never worked for me. They're too easy for me to gloss over and decide that some other client-imposed deadline is more important.
It's Q.U.A.L.I.T.Y. over S.M.A.R.T.s
S.M.A.R.T. Goals have been around for, well, just about forever. Almost as long as I have been alive and setting goals for myself. And back in the 80s, they certainly served a purpose. Back in the 80s, everything was about numbers: close the sale, make the money, write the code, be the first to invent the next computer. The 80s defined the numbers game, and S.M.A.R.T. Goals helped.
But it's no longer a numbers game — the journey has to hold just as much meaning as the outcome.
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