You can’t look up goal setting without seeing something about SMART goals. This is an acronym and method you can use to make your goals specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. Most people think that SMART goals are the only way to set goals. But there are disadvantages of SMART goals that mean using them may be keeping you from reaching your dreams.
SMART goals can be disadvantageous because they miss vital steps in the goal-setting process, give a false sense of thoroughness, are overcomplicated and overwhelming, aren’t motivating, and are too rigid which keeps you from being consistent. Plus, there are ways to set them in half the time.
There’s more to it than this though, so let’s dive into the major reasons SMART goals don’t really work. And what you need to do instead.
1. SMART Goals Don’t Include The Other Steps in Goal Setting
The SMART Goals method includes setting goals that have the following attributes:
This approach to goal setting was created in 1981 by George Doran, Arthur Miller, and James Cunningham. They made it up as a way to simplify all of the advice on the subject which up until that point hadn’t been explained in a succinct, memorable way.
It stuck, and today we hear about SMART goals everywhere.
The main problem with SMART goals, though, is that it’s not a complete system. It doesn’t account for the phases of setting a goal, including finding goals, making a plan to act, doing the work, and refining as you go.
Tracking your goals, for instance, is a crucial step that is completely missing from the SMART framework. Which is terrible since this meta analysis of 138 studies found that monitoring progress makes you more likely to reach a goal.
So when you set SMART goals, you miss out on the advantage that tracking your goals brings.
When you hear “make your goals SMART” it’s overwhelming because you feel like you have to do it all at once. But if you had a step-by-step process, all of that would change.
What to Do Instead of SMART Goals: Set, Plan, Act, Track
Over the last two decades, I’ve tested dozens of ways to set and achieve goals. This is the best way that I’ve found, and I call it the 4-4-4 Goal Setting System:
- Set 4 high-impact goals
- Plan 4 levels for each goal, including actions, outcomes, vision, and identity
- Act on your plan
- Track your goals within each of the 4 quarters of the year
With this process, you have every step broken down for you. There are simple enough to-do items at each step that it’s not overwhelming. Plus, SMART goals are already built into it and you don’t even have to think about them.
In the first part, you establish your biggest goals. You only set four goals because any more than that and you’ll burn yourself out. Stick to one goal in each of the main categories of life:
Next, you make a plan for each of your goals with each of these levels:
- Daily action steps
- Weekly outcomes
- Quarterly vision
- Long-term identity
Setting action steps and outcomes is where the system has you set SMART goals without even having to think about it.
An action step is the daily work you’ll do to reach your outcomes.
You might say your goal is to get healthier. Your daily action steps would be exercise, eating healthy, and getting enough rest. Your outcome may be losing 1 lb per week. That’s specific, it’s measurable, it’s attainable, it’s relevant to you, and it’s time-bound by the days and weeks.
Even if you don’t use the whole system, set actions and outcomes to make your goals SMART. Check out this post to learn more.
The final two steps are acting on your plan and tracking your progress. This keeps you going even when it gets hard. You can also adjust your goals as you go to keep them attainable and relevant. We’ll talk more about these later.
2. SMART Goals Give a False Sense of Thoroughness
Have you ever heard a company say “we’ve always done it this way?” It makes you wonder if they’ll ever get anywhere, right?
I saw this kind of mentality a lot at a former employer. Their turnover rate was high, employees were frustrated, and problems were everywhere. The company struggled to grow.
Doing things the way they’ve always been done is a bad idea. Just look at what happened to Blockbuster when Netflix began. Blockbuster fell to Netflix because it wasn’t willing to change with the times.
But the push for SMART goals follows this same mentality of “we’ve always done it this way.” It gives a sense that you’re all done if your goals are SMART. But as we’ve already seen there is a lot that SMART goals miss.
That means that by setting SMART goals you’re leaving a lot left undone. Just because it feels thorough doesn’t mean that it’s the best way to set and achieve goals. It could be holding you back more than you think.
And if Blockbuster, which began around the same time SMART goals were introduced, has been annihilated by the digital age, isn’t it time that we let another pattern for goal-setting put the SMART framework to rest?
Shouldn’t we have a way to set goals that’s built for the information age?
Think about the 4-4-4 Goal-Setting System that I mentioned earlier. It’s got every part of the goal-setting process built into it. You write your goals down in step one, then set SMART goals without even thinking about in step two, focus on action, and finally, track your progress so you can grow.
These clear distinct actions—set, plan, act, track—are actionable, effective, and make SMART goals completely unnecessary. And they also make it much easier to avoid overwhelm when setting goals.
3. SMART Goals Are Overcomplicated and Overwhelming
I often ask people if they actually set SMART goals. Most say they don’t.
For me, the method only comes up at work. But it’s not often and every time it’s only a brief mention. Even then, nobody actually takes the time to make sure their goals are SMART.
So if SMART goals are so “great,” why do so few people use them?
The reason is that this approach is so complex that most people get overwhelmed by it. This is especially true in this age when every time we’re bored we can reach into our pocket for instant entertainment.
If I say to you right now “make sure your goals are SMART” you’ll feel like you have to sit down and go through the entire framework all at once for each of your goals. It takes a lot of effort to consider if a goal is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. You don’t have the time to sit down and do this with each of your goals.
Instead, take goal-setting one step at a time.
Start by finding out what you want to accomplish. Take 10 minutes to write down some ideas, then spend a few days thinking about those potential goals.
After you know what you’re going to work on, make a plan to act. Include weekly outcomes and daily action steps that will get you there. Remember, these two—outcomes & actions—are the trick to setting SMART goals in half the time.
When you have your plan, it’s time to act. Take on a 12-week personal growth challenge to commit yourself to your goals. This article will teach you everything you need to know to set up your own challenge.
The final step, once you’ve started acting, is to track your progress and make adjustments. Take half an hour each Sunday to check in with yourself. Review how it’s going and what you want to do better.
If you aren’t seeing progress or it’s too difficult, change your action steps. Refine your goals with the data you get to make sure your outcomes are achievable.
4. SMART Goals Can Prevent You From Setting a Larger Vision
“If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.”Yogi Berra
SMART goals focus on the micro level of personal growth. You use them to get specific, set a timeline, and more. But this system doesn’t have a way to take advantage of the macro level of goal setting.
SMART goals aren’t great at inspiring you with a larger vision. The false sense of thoroughness makes you avoid planning for and being motivated by your long-term progress.
There’s nothing in the SMART framework that has you think ahead to the next quarter or years down the road to see where you want to go. This is dangerous because it takes the excitement out of goal-setting.
The micro-level is where progress happens. But the macro-level, which includes a vision for the future, is where inspiration happens. Without it, you’ll struggle to stay excited about your goals.
So what should you do instead? Start with setting action steps and outcomes as I mentioned above. Then, think ahead.
Where do you hope to be in 12 weeks? How much better can your life be by then?
What about in 12 months? How much could you change if you were consistent? What could you accomplish in that time?
And finally, ask yourself what kind of person you’ve always wanted to be. Think of those who you look up to the most. What is it about them that you admire? List those traits and record your progress on them regularly.
5. SMART Goals Are Too Rigid Which Can Destroy Consistency
“Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.”Robert Collier
The #1 thing that separates the exceptional from the average is consistency, the ability to maintain effort over time. It requires the discipline to avoid shiny objects and not push yourself too hard.
All successful people got there by consistency. Warren Buffett invested consistently, a little at a time, over decades to gain his massive wealth. Michael Jordan wasn’t a basketball star overnight. It took hours of practice and hard work for him to become great.
The final disadvantage of SMART goals is that their complexity is a roadblock to this consistency. That means they’re a stumbling block to success rather than the catalyst they should be.
When you have a 5-step framework to look at each time you set a goal, it’s easy to give up. Especially when most people don’t know how to do each step. Not to mention all of the previous problems we’ve mentioned, like the lack of motivation when you set SMART goals.
Rather than trying to do something messy that won’t actually help you, keep it simple. Follow the set, plan, act, track pattern I’ve already mentioned. As part of tracking your goals, make sure to adjust as you go.
I see a lot of people struggle with the concept that you can change your goals at any time. They’d get a lot further if they’d just let go. But they get committed to a fitness program or business plan and think they’re done for if they miss a day or a milestone.
Those who stick with it and reap the rewards of consistency are the ones who know that a bad day here and there isn’t a big deal. They see this as information that they can use to get better.
When bad times happen, exceptional people don’t let it bring them down. They learn from difficulties, accept them as part of life, and adjust their goals accordingly.
Then they get right back on track by trying again the next day. Or doing something they haven’t tried before.
Let’s recap these 5 disadvantages of SMART goals:
- They don’t include other vital steps in the goal-setting process.
- When you set SMART goals you make the mistake of thinking you’ve set thorough goals and don’t need to do anything else.
- Setting SMART goals is overcomplicated and makes you overwhelmed.
- SMART goals keep you from gaining the motivation that comes from a long-term vision for your life.
- It’s easy to get rigid with yourself when you set SMART goals, which prevents consistency—the keystone of success.
I don’t use or like SMART goals. I’ve seen far more success with the 4-4-4 Goal Setting System, and I’m confident that you will too. Instead of SMART goals, simply follow this pattern:
- Set 4 goals
- Plan 4 levels for each goal (actions, outcomes, vision, identity)
- Act on your Goals
- Track your progress throughout 4 quarters of the year