May 17, 2023

Why S.M.A.R.T goals are S.T.U.P.I.D


Management consultants have been preaching for decades that our goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time bound.

Aka, smart.

Here is my argument for why they are stupid, against all five of those qualities, and what you might try instead.

Starting with “specific.

This sounds like the ideal first step for setting goals. But what happens when events beyond your game plan throw a wrench into the mix? Your precious little goals betray you. And specificity actually prevents you from spotting exciting new opportunities that live outside of your narrow purview.

Whereas starting with a broad vision without being attached to any one outcome allows you to pivot, adapt quickly and find happiness regardless.

I used to set a hundred specific goals each year, and all that did was stress me out. Today I only have one. Fulfillment. That’s it. Everything else is just a strategy.

This unspecific approach allows me to maneuver calmly through my life as an opportunist. Keeping my eyes open for unexpected experiences that might improve my life.

The second word in the model is “measurable.”

Corporate executives love this one. You can’t manage what you can’t measure, as the saying goes.

Of course, what if you’re doing something you’ve never done before? Something that can’t be proven by objective standards? Measuring becomes a moot point. It takes you away from doing the work for its own sake.

Data doesn’t always speak to the totality of an experience. Not everything that matters can be measured, and not everything that is measured matters.

Einstein never officially measured the aspects of the physical universe like mass increasing or time slowing down. How could he? The tech wasn’t there yet. These forces were far too big or far too small to be quantified.

He simply proposed theoretical methods for understanding what could happen at such distances and sizes. And people dubbed him the greatest genius who ever lived. So much for measurable.

Just because a goal can’t be comfortably quantified is no reason to throw it out.

The third word in this outdated goal setting framework is “achievable.

Very troubling. If people only attempted the impossible, then they would never innovate. Our goal should be taking the risks that accompany making impossible things happen.

Because even if we’re guaranteed to fail, our effort stretches us in a way that makes the journey worthwhile. We make attempts at the unachievable anyway, embrace our failure, then go back and try it again, while the rest of the world criticizes instead of creates.

True innovators separate what they want from questions of possibility. They’re willing to throw out things like logic, practicality, profitability and responsibility, in order to change the world.

Jobs manipulated reality, made the impossible possible, and revolutionized personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing and digital publishing.

Achievable wasn’t remotely interesting to him, and now the entire world gets to reap the benefits of his genius on an hourly basis.

Next up is the word “relevant,” which is completely relative.

It fails to take into account how much, how often and how quickly human beings change.

Our goal to earn a million dollars this year might be relevant when we first set it, but what happens when we become different people with different needs? Where’s the forgiveness in that equation?

It’s like the word of the year exercise. December comes to an end, people get into goal setting mode and choose a word that acts as their mantra or guiding principle in the new year. This term sets them in the right direction, bringing more awareness to their intentions.

Until real life happens. And what was relevant six months ago no longer matters anymore.

It’s like paying for a year’s subscription to a hunting magazine and then realizing over the summer that you’re a vegetarian.

Relevancy suggests consistency for consistency’s sake, rather than honoring the truth of our experience moment by moment. Hell, think about how relevant your new year’s resolutions became once the pandemic hit.

People change. Life is dynamic. Relevance is an illusion.

Now that we’ve debunked the idea of setting goals that are specific, measurable, achievable and relevant, the last term in the framework is, “time bound.”

It means to make sure your goal has a target date. Give yourself a deadline to focus on. Something to race towards.

It’s a wonderful idea in theory, but in practice, virtually everything in life takes longer than we think it will. Everything. Choosing arbitrary calendar dates for completion is unrealistic, impractical and fails to take into account the biggest variable in the pursuit of any goal, human nature.

It’s true that constraints are a powerful forcing function for execution, but let’s not put more unnecessary pressure on ourselves. We all have enough anxiety as it is.

Time bound goals often do little more than create expectation, which triggers stress, which produces resentment.

In my experience, it’s healthier and more productive to trust the process. To have faith that whatever we’re doing, it will get done when it gets done. And if it doesn’t, then maybe we didn’t need to do it in the first place.

Ultimately, whatever goals you have, my recommendation is not to kill yourself making them specific, measurable, achievable and relevant and time bound.

Leave room for all the dynamic variables of human nature and go enjoy yourself.

How many of your old goals embarrass you today?