How SMART goals can hurt


Informed by Atomic Habits, by James Clear

Goals can be SMART  

Many of us have been drilled on goal-setting as a motivator to propel us from where we are now to where we want to be.  

Want to lose weight?  Set a goal, break it down and stick with it till you reach it.  How many pounds do you want to lose? Create a calorie deficit of 3500 lbs each week and you’ll lose one pound per week (how many people does that actually work for??)  

What GPA do you want to get this semester?  Identify what grade you need in each class to achieve that. What score do you need on each test?  How, when and where will you study?

Goals help us know where we want to go.  Using the SMART goal strategy or something like it can clarify what it will take to get there.  

Goals can be DEADLY  

But what if you never reach your goal?  What if you aimed to lose 20 lbs but only lost 12?  What if you aimed for straight A’s but got 2 B’s?

Goals can make success too black and white.

“Goals create an ‘either-or’ conflict: either you achieve your goal and are successful or you fail and you are a disappointment.”

James Clear, Atomic Habits

If you were aiming to lose 20 lbs, but only lost 12, you may feel like a failure.  But you lost 12 lbs! When do you get to celebrate that?!

SMART goals push you to assign numbers to your success – measurable is the “M” in the acronym..  That way you know if you’ve accomplished your goal.  But such an emphasis on reaching a number can nullify the other types of progress you’ve made.  

Consider the silver-medal winning Olympian. She set her sights on becoming a gold-medal winning Olympian.  Is she a failure because she only reached the silver level? She’s still a world-class athlete and has a tremendous degree of discipline and talent.

She can still aim to become a gold-medal Olympian. But that goal must not be linked with her sense of happiness.  Another quote from Clear:

“The implicit assumption behind any goal is this: ‘Once I reach my goal, then I’ll be happy.’”

Disconnect goals from happiness or feelings of success in order to keep them in their proper place.

Goals can lead to a dead end.  

Once you accomplish your goal, what now?

Best case scenario, you achieve your goal in the time you allotted.  Then what? Either you set a new goal and start working towards that, or you slide back into your old ways.  (Which has happened to me a whole bunch of times!)

Goals focus on the destination.  The journey to get there is utilitarian – it’s just a road to get you where you want to be.  So you can finally be happy when you get there. See how this is a dangerous mentality? It’s dangerous to your enjoyment along the way!

How to balance the dangers of goal-setting  

Use goals to set your course.  Use systems to propel yourself in the direction you want to go.  

The makeup of your everyday life is more influential than the shiny goal you see glimmering in the future.

Clear would have you ditch goals and focus only on systems. I think there’s a place for goals – to get inspired, to get a picture of where you want to be.  But define your ultimate success by your lifestyle, your integrity and your enjoyment of everyday life.

Imagine yourself on a road to a fabulous city.  You know you want to live in that city, you’ve always dreamed of it.  You’ve specified the penthouse overlooking the water and the sweet jazz club you’ll frequent.  Your goal is crystal clear.

Who will you be when you get there?  How will the person you’ve become affect your enjoyment of that illustrious goal?  

Think of your goals as that city.  The systems and habits of your everyday life shape the person you will be when you reach them.

Stay tuned for more on establishing long-lasting systems to become the person you want to be when you arrive.

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