If you want to set a goal, it should be a “S.M.A.R.T.,” the standard advice goes (even ours!). Specific, Measurable, something, something, Time-bound. There’s disagreement on what some of the letters stand for, which is our first hint that maybe they’re not that important. It turns out the SMART goal framework doesn’t encompass all the ways that goal-setting can help us. We actually shouldn’t turn every goal into a SMART goal.
Where did SMART goals come from?
Let’s take a minute to look at the history here. For as much as we hear SMART goals discussed in the context of fitness goals or new year’s resolutions, you’d think they come from the realm of self-improvement. But they don’t: They’re from the management world, where in 1981 George Doran wrote an article titled “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives.”
He argued that goals are often nebulous, and that something specific and clearly stated will be more effective to work from. The SMART acronym was intended to provide structure, although he noted that all five points don’t have to be defined for every goal.
Further proof that this framework doesn’t make sense for individuals: The letter A originally stood for “assignable,” that is, you could assign it to a specific worker or group.
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The downsides of SMART goals
SMART goals are often thought of as an improvement on vague statements like “I want to get in shape,” but I would call it more of a bait-and-switch. By the time you’re done defining your goal, you end up with a pass-fail test with a deadline and a metric. Is this really what’s going to motivate you?
When we make a goal Specific and Measurable, we learn to focus on certain actions—arguably a good thing—but we also lose sight of things that don’t fall into those categories. If you only want to lose weight, and you’re counting the pounds, what happens to your ability to retain muscle mass and strength? What happens to your ability to enjoy food without obsessing over calories? What happens to the types of exercise you would normally find fun, but that don’t provide the maximal calories-burned-per-minute? We get tunnel vision, and that’s not necessarily a good way to approach a goal.
When we make a goal Attainable and Realistic, we’re sandbagging ourselves. If you’re aiming to improve, wouldn’t you want to try something that’s a challenge specifically because you might fail? How much do you think you’ll ever succeed if you only stick to “goals” that you are 100% sure you can attain?
Finally, making a goal Time-bound is setting an artificial barrier on ourselves. What happens if you get to the deadline and haven’t done the thing? Was it all for naught? If you’re talking about a corporate quarterly deadline, maybe. But if you’re working on your own goals for your own reasons, time doesn’t really matter, does it? Self-improvement doesn’t have a finish line. If you couldn’t get to 100 pushups by X date, aren’t you still stronger than when you started? Couldn’t you keep working and see if you can get to 100 pushups in another month? You absolutely can.
Consider SMART goals to be benchmarks or minimums
When you ditch SMART goals, you may be a bit lost at first. They do provide a good structure for clearly stating something you want to work toward. This thing isn’t your overall goal, but perhaps it can be helpful as part of the process.
So think about setting some time-bound, measurable tests as minimums to be sure you’re on track. Focus on the process, not the outcome: For example, you might commit to running four times a week over the next month. That’s not the same thing as “running a marathon” or “getting faster,” which might be your actual goals, but hitting the specific, measurable, time-bound benchmark is a tool you can use to focus your efforts along the way.
Think bigger when you set your real goals
What kind of goal would you set if it didn’t have to be realistic or rigorously specified? As I’ve written before, I think it makes the most sense to think of fitness goals (or any goals, really) in terms of a question. Deliberately remove one or more of those SMART parameters and push yourself to see what you can achieve when it’s no longer a pass/fail test.
Take away the deadline and ask: How soon can I get to a [goal weight] deadlift? Or take away the specificity requirement and ask: How fast can I run by the time this race comes up? Or take away the measurement aspect, and see what happens if you just do stuff. Have fun. Push yourself. What will happen? How will your life change? You don’t need numbers you can track on a spreadsheet to try things and see how they turn out.