The Case Against SMART Goals

Businesspeople sitting in front of wall with the words SMART Goals

Chances are, you’ve never heard of C. Northcote Parkinson … but I bet you’ve heard of — or at least experienced — his “law.”

Parkinson’s Law is when “work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”

We’ve all been there, whether we’ve taken up until the last minute to finish packing for a vacation, finish cleaning for a party, or write some copy that had a looming deadline.

One reason Professor Parkinson must’ve been well aware of this phenomenon … he was a writer, too!

He realized that, when you have a set amount of time to complete a task, you’re going to use all of that time.

This is one of my issues with SMART goals.

(If you haven’t heard of them, a SMART goal is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-sensitive.)

Now, I recently wrote here in The Writer’s Life that I decided not to set any goals for this year.

I felt like goal-setting was holding me back.

I focused too much on setting “realistic” and “attainable” goals … and that kept me from setting my sights higher.

But that’s what SMART goals encourage you to do.

Take these two articles I wrote recently …

I finished them both the same afternoon. But one of them I was forced to turn around in about two hours. The other had been on my plate for 10 days.

The extra week and a half didn’t help me finish that article any faster. And the one I barely had any time for didn’t suffer from a drop in quality. It just forced me to focus more intensely.

That’s why I’m not setting any goals this year … I’ve been limiting myself by being “realistic” for far too long.

For example, I don’t want to set a goal of completing a long-form sales letter every two months. Who’s to say I can’t write one in six weeks … maybe even less?

But it’s not just being realistic about how much time you’ll need to reach a goal that might be holding you back. It’s also the scope of your goals.

Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal, whose net worth is estimated at $2.5 billion, suggests people ask themselves, “How can I achieve my 10-year plan in the next six months?”

That might sound lofty — and if you try, you might not reach those 10-year goals. But don’t you think you’d accomplish more than if you only aim for realistic six-month goals?

Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek, put his own spin on this idea …

He says, “99% of the world is convinced they are incapable of achieving great things, so they aim for the mediocre middle-ground. The level of competition is thus fiercest for ‘realistic’ goals.”

This is why I’ve shifted my mindset.

I used to think I’d be happy if I could just make more money than I did when I was teaching.

Now I’m aiming much higher.

How high?

Again, I don’t have a specific goal. But that’s only because I refuse to put a ceiling on how much I can earn or achieve as a writer.

Another benefit Ferriss points out of being unrealistic with your goals is that you’re more likely to see them through when the payoff is greater.

Realistic goals are boring, which won’t give you much enthusiasm to make them happen.

For example, he says, “I’ll run through walls to get a catamaran trip through the Greek islands, but I might not change my brand of cereal for a weekend trip through Columbus, Ohio.”

Which of those outcomes would you be quicker to give up on?

If your goal is just to make incremental improvements to your income, health, relationships, or any other area of your life, then quitting on them — or “postponing” them — won’t seem like such a big deal.

But when you commit to something wild, that doesn’t fit neatly under the heading of a SMART goal …

Like tripling your income … dropping 100 pounds … or finding the love of your life … when you know the payoff will change your life …

Well, that’s a lot harder to give up on.

Now, if you’ve had success with SMART goals in the past, or are finding them helpful in your life or career now, then by all means, stick with what works.

But it’s worth thinking about whether your goals are too realistic and are keeping you from doing more.

Where do you stand on SMART goals? Do you use them now? How do they work for you? Let me know in the comments below.

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Published: May 31, 2018

14 Responses to “The Case Against SMART Goals”

  1. Interesting contrarian perspective here, Tim. Thought provoking and enjoyable read!

    Guest (Steve Coombes)May 31, 2018 at 1:16 pm

  2. Really like your perspective, Tim. Achievable and Realistic are certainly a double-whammy of mediocrity.

    Personally I set SAINT goals. "I" for important and "N" for numeric, the others are the same.

    Set your SAINT goals to strive to be the saint you are meant to be. Develop your talents to serve others and behave virtuously. Nothing mediocre about that.

    Thanks for your interesting and thought provoking article!

    Scott FroyenMay 31, 2018 at 2:17 pm

  3. Great article Tim!!

    Guest (Rachael Kraft)May 31, 2018 at 3:01 pm

  4. I've used SMART goals for years. However, I always thought that "achievable" and "realistic" were almost the same thing; so I changed R from realistic to "Results Focused." Too many people set goals on activity or effort and not on the results they want to attain.

    Guest (GuestGordon)May 31, 2018 at 3:16 pm

  5. OMG! This is exactly what I have always felt about setting goals. I've tried the SMART model, the 5 year plan, the daily plan ... and none of this worked for me. I thought it was because I am too un-focued, disorganized, not dedicated enough etc. As a person who hates boundaries I feel stifled and overwhelmed by a calendar full of 'have to's'.
    I'm happy to see I'm not the only one who feels this way. Setting too many goals creates boundaries and therefore... limitations. The only goal I am keeping is... Keep moving Onward and Upward and don't analyze the crap out of it!
    Thank you for this Tim.

    Joanne LeffersonMay 31, 2018 at 3:18 pm

  6. I think Tim might be on to something. However, SMART goals work for me. Without the time component of SMART goals, it's very difficult for me to create specific enough steps to get where I want to be. Although I have short and long term goals, my long term goals are always changing (to reach higher) as I reach my short term goals.

    BeckyHDMay 31, 2018 at 3:50 pm

  7. Tim,

    You're absolutely right about goal-setting. I'm 45 pounds lighter since early February and am on my way to losing a total of 180 pounds. I'm also working on doubling my income via copywriting so that I can escape Government employment. Neither of these could come to pass if I set SMART or any other kind of specific goals. Oh, and I live in the Columbus, OH area, so I'm with you on that one, too.

    Gary BucherMay 31, 2018 at 4:06 pm

  8. I know I think differently than a lot of people. Not smarter, just another possibility from a place of perspective. I always like the idea of seeing beliefs that limit me, and then moving into what's possible. I think vision, and priority are important.

    Guest (Timothy )May 31, 2018 at 4:10 pm

  9. I DO like SMART goals and I train my direct selling team on them BUT I also train them on what I personally dubbed EGGS--Easy to Grasp Goals AND what I believe you're talking about BIG Hairy Audacious Goals--BHAGS.
    I think we have to have a little of all of them because in my experience in my personal careers as a freelancer and a direct selling leader if you don't have any goals, nothing happens.
    So set those BHAGS!

    Guest (Denise)May 31, 2018 at 6:33 pm

  10. @Steve -- Thanks, I'm glad you liked it!

    @Scott -- Thanks! I love your thought about it being a double-whammy of mediocrity. You're right--if all your goals are achievable and realistic, you're basically only setting out to do things you already know you can do.

    @Rachael -- Thank you!

    @Gordon -- I agree about "achievable" and realistic." I think "results focused" is a good way to avoid procrastinating with busy work. But remember,if you do the "right" activities--even if you can't quantify the results--you'll still make progress. Thanks for your comment!

    Tim MJune 3, 2018 at 7:16 pm

  11. @Joanne -- I'm so glad you found this helpful! Just remember, the most important thing is to do what works for you. All the productivity gurus in the world can swear by a model or technique, but if you tried it and found that it just held you back, definitely scrap it--or adapt it to something that will move you forward!

    @Becky -- That's awesome if they're working for you--stay with them then! And I love the idea of adjusting your long-term goals as you hit your short-term ones. Thanks for sharing!

    Tim MJune 3, 2018 at 7:16 pm

  12. @Gary -- Congratulations on your weight loss! It sounds like you've found something that works for you. And that you're aiming really high, with that and your income goals. Good luck and keep us updated!

    @Timothy -- Prioritization has been huge for me this year. Even though I chose not to set any specific goals, I still had to know what areas to work on, both professionally and personally. That's what will guide your efforts. I think that's key to remember, no matter what methods your using.

    @Denise -- I love these! And you're right, maybe using the combination of huge goals and small, realistic goals you know you can achieve is the smartest way to do this, instead of using a one-size-fits-all approach to all your goals.

    Tim MJune 3, 2018 at 7:17 pm

  13. Hi Tim, I'm so glad I re-read this article. Super true, and well-written. I need to challenge myself to achieve more, because I have to! I don't want to keep doing my current work, plus I don't make enough money at it! I'm psyched about the Simulated training! A springboard to a bright future in copywriting!

    Courtney SorrentoDecember 6, 2018 at 5:08 pm

  14. Thanks, Courtney. I think Simulated Training is going to be an amazing program! And not wanting to keep doing your current work is a great motivator.

    Tim MDecember 10, 2018 at 4:41 pm


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