I Hate Goals

You read that right–I hate goals. More specifically, I hate SMART Goals. For those who have never encountered this, SMART is a template for goal making that has spread through schools and workplaces like wildfire, becoming the only way to set goals.” SMART stands for, in it’s original incarnation:

  • Specific: goals should be narrow and defined for easy planning.
  • Measurable: you should be able to track your progress.
  • Attainable: your goal should be doable within a reasonable time-frame.
  • Relevant: your goal should be linked to your values and vision of the future.
  • Time-based: set an end-date for your goal as motivation.

Now, on the surface, this seems great! You want to know your goal, that it’s achievable, that you’re making progress, and when you’ll be done. But there’s an underlying problem. SMART goals just give you fail-states.

I’m a big believer in setting yourself up for success. I don’t mean dressing for the job you want, or making sure you’ve sharpened all your pencils. I mean, you should feel good about your progress and how you’re doing. Most people don’t do well when they feel bad about themselves. So, why set up an entire framework that gives you more ways to fail?

Let me give an example. Say you want to write a book. Under the SMART system, you’d fill out the rubric like so:

Goal: I Want to Write a Book.

  • Specific: I want to write a book about three dragons that go on an adventure and find a fallen star.
  • Measurable: I will track my progress by word count.
  • Attainable: A book can be written in a year. (According to NaNoWriMo, it can be written in a month, but we’re being generous here).
  • Relevant: My values are creativity and my vision is of myself as an author.
  • Time-based: I want to write the book before December 31 of this year.

Seems good on the surface. But let me throw some scenarios at you: what if halfway through writing your dragon book, you lose interest in the subject and have a better ideas? Based on your SMART goal–you’ve failed. What if you realize you write better when you take your time, and at your current pace, it’ll take you two years, not one? I mean, George R. R. Martin takes 5-10 years to write a book, right? What if, after a long bout of introspection, you realize your vision of being an author doesn’t fit you anymore? Failed. And these are just the simplest of examples.

I expressed my frustration with this framework to some friends, and one suggested I come up with an alternative. REAL Goals, he said. I chuckled to myself, but my brain started spinning. It took me less than an hour to come up with some ideas that represented, to me, reasonable goals, goals that were not fail-states. REAL stands for, as of right now:

  • Right for you: is it actually your goal? Or is someone else/society speaking for you?
  • Exciting: does it make you excited? Can you not wait to get started?
  • Adjustable: things change, people change! Don’t limit yourself!
  • Lined-up: you have a trail to follow, at least to get started. If you only know steps 1-3, you may learn steps 4+ on the way!

Now, in our example, a goal looks like this:

Goal: I Want to Write a Book.

  • Right for you: I want to write a book because it’s something on my bucket list. No one has told me to do it, it just strikes me as something fun.
  • Exciting: So exciting! I’m doing something I’ve always wanted to do.
  • Adjustable: If I don’t like my idea, I can change it. If my pace is slower than I thought, no problem, I’m still taking steps, and every writing session is practice.
  • Lined-up: I know I need an idea, and maybe an outline of a plot, and then a manuscript, but past that I’m not sure! Do I need an agent? Am I just doing this for fun? Who knows! No problem. I’ve got enough to get started.

These are the types of goals I can get behind.

July 18, 2021 Productivity Planning


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