The Problem with Smart Goals

by | May 16, 2014 | Coaching, Personal Development

The Problem with Smart Goals

by | May 16, 2014 | Coaching, Personal Development

I sat there at my yearly appraisal, pen in hand the appraiser asked if I knew about SMART goals…

What followed was not a conversation about goal setting, nor a discussion on how well formed my goals were, neither was there any element of coaching in how those goals would be achieved, unfortunately what followed was a tick-box exercise as my appraiser ticked thought the SMART Goal acronym.

I firmly believe that goals need to be more than just a tick against a to-do list, so on reflection I thought it would be good to write an article about why we need to move our goal setting beyond the ‘SMART’ ideology.

Lets start with SMART which is an acronym for an easy way for you to remember how to make effective short term goals, smart goals need to be;

S – Specific.
M – Measurable.
A – Achievable.
R – Realistic.
T – Timely.

Sometimes the acronym SMARTER is used, the E and R commonly being;

E – Evaluate. (Sometimes E- Ethical).
R – Reviewed. (Sometimes R – Recorded).

SMART Goals for all of their drawbacks are still far better than having no goals at all, and as for goal setting they are a good place to start, credit must be given to Peter Drucker who introduced in his book ‘The Practice of Management’ the concept of MBO (Management by Objective) and that goals needed to be Specific and Measurable, although I believe the full SMART acronym has to be credited to George Doran for a paper he presented in 1981. (see Bibliography).

I see the problem with SMART goals are that sometimes they can be a tick-box exercise that amounts to little more than a glorified to-do list, maybe ideal for some, but definitely not good for really big goals and for those that like to think outside of the box.

Your goals should be more than a to-do list, I agree goals need to be well planned and well thought through, but they also need to stretch us, and there lies the first problem with SMART goals, they give us the ‘what’, they don’t give us the ‘why’, they don’t give us the ‘How’ and they almost never ever give us the ‘Wow’.

Let’s take a look at ‘S’ the ‘Specific’ part of SMART, being specific can make your goal become detached from your ‘purpose’, because purpose can be vague, therefore when we become too specific with a goal we can actually lose its sense of purpose,there’s a famous quote by Helen Keller;

The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.

I would say that if our goal is too specific it may also lead to us to losing that sense of feeling good about wanting to achieve it, this along with the loss of purpose a too specific goal can give us can cause us to lose our drive and motivation to complete the goal itself.

So the answer is to make sure you goal ‘specifically’ fits within your life’s purpose, and that we also need to spend some time imagining how we would feel when we complete our ‘goals’ in order to help us build the motivation to achieve them.

The ‘Measurable’ part of SMART can also be problematic because some things in life are are just difficult to measure, or that sometimes we also need to break up what’s measurable into smaller steps that themselves can’t be measured. Something ‘Measurable’ by definition is something tangible and not intangible, and here is where the paradox lies as sometimes the very things that make the difference in our lives are the very things that are difficult to measure, the qualitative things that are not be easily quantified.

Moving away from the intangibles in life, I’ve also seen people just ‘tick’ next to measurable and move on to the next letter in the smart acronym, measurable is not just a ‘Yes answer’ because you also really need to spend some time figuring out how you would know when you achieved your goal.

Another problem with SMART goals are that when they are Achievable and Realistic they aren’t really pushing you, let me ask you this; is it not better to stretch yourself, to raise the bar higher and to leave your comfort zone. By setting crazy goals you push the limits of what is thought possible, the problem with SMART goals are that you can limit the level you set your goals at to what you can do now, and not what you could do if you grew with the challenge of a much bigger goal.

‘It is far better to aim too high and fall short rather than to aim to low and actually achieve your goals’.

Average people have average goals, they set average goals because they can achieve them with little or just average effort, in doing so they don’t grow, the quote ‘comfort doesn’t lead to success’ comes to mind.

The answer is to make your goals bigger, make them a little beyond your capacity of what you can do now, you should also make your goals that big so that you always need to grow to achieve them. Your goals should get you out of your comfort zone, your goals need to stretch you and if they don’t scare you enough you should make them even bigger!

The timed element of SMART goals can make the goal seem threatening, if tends to make you feel that you have to do it, if you fall short you label yourself a failure, a SMART goal can also make you blinkered to achieve your goal at all costs without the consideration of others around you or even at your own expense.

There’s nothing wrong with scheduling something, your mindset though needs to change, you need to be able to value failure with a growth mindset, there are also bigger priorities in your life, and that others around you have feelings, and in this way you won’t get blinkered, you will know when to stop, and you know when to let go when enough is enough.

So getting back to my appraisal, my appraiser was happy to find out that I did have some goals, and that I had heard of SMART, and she happily ticked off each letter in the smart acronym, I sat there and  thought to myself that there’s more to goal setting than just SMART goals, and I made a mental note to myself to write an article to help others improve their goal setting skills.

SMART goals are a great starting point yet they can be shallow, without care they can be uninspiring, they can be blinkered, and they only focus you on doing things that can be measured. Perhaps the worst thing is that SMART goals don’t always force you to do is grow, or that they keep you in your comfort zone and due to their Specificity you can lose purpose.

When I come up with a decent acronym I may well give you an alternative to SMART, though for now perhaps there are times when we can be too SMART instead of not smart enough.

‘The problem with SMART Goals’ was written on reflection, because sometimes we need to move beyond the confines of the boxes that need to be ticked, think big and aim for the stars.

Bibliography and References


Doran, G.T. (1981) ‘There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives’, Management Review. AMA FORUM, 70(11), pp. 35–56.
Drucker, P.F. (2006) The practice of management. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.
SMART criteria (2017) in Wikipedia. Available at: (Accessed: 23 February 2017).


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