What to do when S.M.A.R.T. goals don’t work.
With 80% of New Years’ resolutions failing, how do you make sure yours succeed?
Growing up, my mom was all about laying good goal-setting foundations for me and my sister. This would apply to school, hobbies, purchases, chores — you name it. My mom was always there with a pen and paper to help us record our goals. She was a master at tying goals together, too (like if your goal is to learn French and be more social, why not join a French-speaking club?).
As an adult, I have always felt extremely fortunate for the goal-setting techniques I learned at a young age, and they’ve helped me accomplish more than pre-teen me could have ever dreamt of. Goal-setting has helped me to double my salary in my industry in under three years, learn 2 foreign languages, and build my own online business and personal brand.
I’ve worked in the corporate world for some time now, and in almost every corporate, personal, or business goal setting session I’ve sat in on, S.M.A.R.T. goal setting is the go-to method being taught.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with S.M.A.R.T. goals, it is an acronym to remind you to set goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-based. If you are new to goal setting or haven’t heard of S.M.A.R.T. goals before, feel free to check this method out and make up your own mind.
As someone who was brought up setting goals, I am always surprised when this method is taught. I was even intrigued enough for a while to try the method. It didn’t work.
S.M.A.R.T. goals are great for defining what you want to accomplish and when, but they fail to lay a foundation for how you intend to accomplish that goal. My S.M.A.R.T. goal might be to run in a half-marathon in less than 2 hours by the end of the year, but if I don’t have a process in place to actually start running, then December will come and go without any progress.
Instead, I need to focus on organizing systems and habits to ensure I am making progress on my goal.
An estimated 80% of New Years’ resolutions fail; a discouraging figure. Goal-setting really can really make or break an entire lifestyle. It’s the difference between that pay raise, learning a new skill, or just feeling healthy and confident with yourself, so below I’ve arranged some tips and action items for you if S.M.A.R.T. goals just don’t cut it for you either.
Setting meaningful goals
The S.M.A.R.T. goal model is not completely without merit, and it has helped many newer goal-setters. Of course, it will always be important to be specific with your goals, but I’ve found that the other areas are less important. Not all my goals need to have a time-based element to them.
For example, the goal of ‘saving more money’ is very subjective and should be broken down. How much money would you like to save? How will you track your saving/spending? Are there specific categories in which you would like to reduce your spending (ie, shopping, eating out)? Where will you save your money? You must be able to answer these questions so you know when you’ve succeeded at the goal, or when you need to make changes because the system you’ve implemented isn’t working.
Categorize your goals.
The very first thing I do when I sit down for a goal setting strategy session is to pick main ‘themes’ that my goals fit into. For the past few years, I’ve identified 4 main areas around my personal values that each of my own goals fit into: Health, Finance, Learning & Development, Social & Fun.
Here are some examples that you might choose:
- Personal Development
- Mental Health
- Physical Health
- Special Projects
The above lists just a few examples and you should choose areas/groupings that make sense to you. For me, I group both mental and physical health into one umbrella of ‘Health’. If it works for you, then go for it. If none of these categories resonate with you, choose your own or research other category options. There are plenty of blogs that list different ideas for goal-setting, like this one.
It can be very tempting to choose a goal in each of the 11 categories I’ve mentioned above, but I would caution you against this. Too many goals will lead to burn out and overwhelm.
Instead, pick 2–4 areas that you would like to focus on. Remember, each goal is something that you are going to need to invest a certain amount of time doing and it takes discipline to get new habits up and running!
Make a mission statement.
Decide why that goal matters to you. Sometimes called your why statement, you shouldn’t have to dig too deep with this one (although if your mission statement is ‘because I have to,’ then you will need to dig deeper. Why do you have to?). You need to come up with one compelling enough reason that you want to accomplish this goal to serve as your intrinsic motivation to get it done.
For example, if your goal is to lose weight, you mission statement might be “I want to lose weight so that I can feel more confident in my body,” or “I want to lose weight so that I can keep up with my kids during play-time.”
Whatever you do, make your mission statement something that motivates you for the result it will achieve for you. When you start to lose motivation or feel unsure, you can come back to this statement to keep on track.
If you don’t have a particularly strong mission statement for something that you feel you have to do (and I would challenge you to think about why you have to do something — maybe this isn’t your goal but someone else’s goal), then it might be a good idea to add in a deadline. If you know you need to take a certain test by the end of the year, but don’t particularly want to take the test, go ahead and sign up for the test and pay the fee. Just having that deadline can act as an external motivator when you are lacking the intrinsic motivation.
Break your goals up into sub-tasks.
No matter what your goal is, there will be sub-task, and even if it doesn’t feel important to set them… do it anyways. You might already know the steps you need to take to achieve your goal, but setting and committing to sub-tasks will keep you focused on a nearer-hand goal, warding against procrastination. It will also give you a sense of accomplishment as you strike tasks off your list.
If your goal is particularly far off or large, there will likely be more sub-tasks and if your goal is smaller, there will be fewer. Even the simplest of goals will have at least one sub-task, because every goal requires that you put effort into organizing for that goal.
(Pro-tip: If you have an iPhone and have updated to iOS 14.3, the Reminders App will let you create a main task and then sub-tasks in the system naturally and has been a game-changer for getting s*** done.)
Making your goals stick
Accomplishing any goal comes with a time investment. You have to put aside or schedule at least some sort of time to work on your goal. The most friction-less way to do this is by building a habit so that your brain will trigger that time needs to be spent on that goal at a certain place/date.
Habits allow our brains to go on a type of auto-pilot for a time to complete a task, which means we don’t have to consciously remember to do the task. So, that means that the trick is in building the habit in the first place. In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear dedicates a chapter to the concept of habit stacking.
The idea is simple: it will be easier for you to remember to start a new habit when you add it on to a habit or task you are already doing every day without fail.
For example, if one of your goals is to improve your health and a sub-task of that is to take a daily set of vitamins, then you should identify the time of day you would like to take the vitamins and ensure the vitamin bottle is near where you would be doing another habit around that time.
For example, if you would like to take the vitamins in the morning and you have a cup of coffee every morning, then put your vitamins near your coffee machine and tell yourself “Before I sip on my morning coffee, I will take my vitamins.”
There are two tricks to this. Firstly, set up to ensure that anything you need for your new habit is in the right place (James Clear calls this making your new habit visible) — ie, put the vitamins by the coffee machine. Secondly, tell yourself (out loud if possible) that “Before/After …., I will …..” This will cement the new habit in your brain.
I love to be active while engaged in sport or other social activity, but when stripped of the social element, finding the intrinsic motivation to exercise regularly has always been difficult for me.
When I look back on the periods of time that I was able to maintain an effective physical exercise routine, each time shares a common theme: I involved other people.
Now, I’m not someone who normally screams to the world about my goals. I’ll tell a few close family and friends my targets for the year. Some people find that posting their goals and progress on social media helps to hold them accountable. You can decide what works best for you.
I have found that when I share my goals with a few of my close friends and family, at least one of them will normally tell me that they have the same (or similar) goal and that we could work on it together. More than anything, this has helped me stick to an independent work out routine. On the days I’m not inspired to spend time on that goal, having a set time when I have to meet my buddy makes me less likely to lazily decide not to work out, and sometimes a call/prompt/action from my buddy urges me to just do it.
What do you do if no one has the same goal as you? Well — that’s fine too. Your goals are unique and may not be for everyone. Try asking someone (ideally someone you live with or see every day) what their goals are. Maybe your partner wants to go for a 1 hour run every day, but your goal is to spend more time reading. You can set a goal that every day while your partner runs, you will read until they get back home. This can also help you to hold your partner accountable because you can remind them to run when you want to sit down to read!
If you don’t feel comfortable discussing your goals with someone, you can still use your current household schedule to your advantage as a trigger and motivation. For example, once per week, my partner sits down to watch a soccer game and I use this 2-hour window to work on my writing. When I hear my partner turn on the soccer game, no matter what time or day it is, my brain will prompt me to do some writing.
This is the most important one, and also the hardest. It requires a strong mental shift.
Many people give up when they don’t see quick results or if they have failed to work on their goal. Their thinking goes like this: “I’ve already eaten a dozen cookies, so my diet is out the window and I might as well have ice cream too.” The thing about goals, though, is that they are not measured by the amount of cookies you had on one day. Goals are achieved when you spend more time doing Good Habit A over Bad Habit B. That doesn’t mean you can never do Bad Habit B. It just means that you need to do more of Good Habit A.
Shift your mentality. Redefine failure.
If you find yourself slipping for one day, one week, or even one month, you have not failed. Failure does not come from taking a break because your body and mind are tired. There is no expiration date on getting your goal done (and even if there is a deadline set, I’ll bet that you can adjust this — after all, life isn’t set in stone).
S.M.A.R.T. goal setting doesn’t to provide an organization, system, or habit-setting that actually guide us towards achieving our goals.
Putting a system in place might look different for every individual, but if you use the below steps as a baseline, you’ll be off to a great start on your goals:
- Categorize your goals. Don’t pick too many — be realistic.
- Make a mission statement for each goal. Define your why.
- Break each goal up into sub-tasks. Even the smallest goal will need an organization sub-task.
- Stack your habits — use the habits you already do every day to trigger new habits that will help you achieve your goal.
- Buddy up with someone or use your current household schedule to your advantage.
- Don’t stop when you hit a road block.
Need some help goal-setting? I have a free worksheet to help you implement the above steps. Click here to grab the worksheet to set and achieve your goals. You’ll also be signed up to my newsletter and receive inspiration for goal-setting, productivity and sustainable living directly to your inbox.