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SMART Goals Sound Good but Miss the Benefit

Goal setting can be an outstanding way of improving performance if it’s done well. If I were to boil down the years of studies about good goal setting to just two critical things to get absolutely right, those things would be difficulty and feedback:

  • Goals should be just at the edge of your ability: just difficult enough that if you concentrate hard you’ll hit them, but on an off day you won’t
  • You get continual, very specific feedback about how you’re doing, which tells you what you need to adjust to get in the performance sweet spot

Let’s consider what happens when we don’t bother about difficulty and feedback. Imagine a tennis lesson to improve your return of serve. How much will you improve if your coach serves 130mph bombs past your ears? Or if he dollies it over the net to you? How will you know how to adjust your return if you can’t tell whether it’s difficult for your opponent to hit back again, or if your coach says nothing?

These two things: task difficulty and feedback, are the heart of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s superbly well researched conditions for getting into a state of peak experience, or “Flow”. Other research, on goal feedback, shows that if you don’t get feedback then you get no benefit at all from goal setting.

Now let’s look at the SMART goals acronym, the popular wisdom on good goal setting. There are different words that each different letter of SMART can stand for, which is a bit of a worry in itself, but let’s take a common definition: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-based. To be fair, these can all be useful characteristics of goals in the right circumstances, and have decent evidence to back them up. So they’re not wrong, but they miss our two critical characteristics of difficulty and feedback. SMART only skirts around goal difficulty. SMART doesn’t even mention feedback, and without feedback you might as well not bother.

SMART goals also miss plenty of other very important characteristics of goals: using learning and process goals in the short term; having performance goals that are entirely within your control; commitment to goals; repositioning goals upwards or downwards when they become too easy or difficult; and taking breaks from goals entirely.

So my advice is to beware snappy acronyms and use what works: set goal difficulty just at the edge of your ability, and get continual feedback to help you adjust and learn. Everything else is important but secondary.

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