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So-called ‘SMART goals’ are a case of style over substance

Photo by andresr/Getty

by Christian Swann + BIO





From fitness to finance, the SMART goal-setting method is ubiquitous, but often detrimental. There are better approaches

If you’ve ever sought out advice on how to set yourself effective goals in life – from diet and fitness contexts, to finance, to work and productivity – you’re bound to have encountered the claim that the most successful approach is to use so-called SMART goals. The SMART approach typically advises that, for the best chance of obtaining what you want, your goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timebound. Here are some examples of SMART goals:

  • Lose 6 kg in the next six months by cooking dinner at home five nights per week instead of getting takeaways.
  • Go for a 30-minute walk and then do 15 minutes of weight training before work three days a week for the next four months.
  • Save $100 per month for one year by cutting down on betting to pay for a holiday instead.

The SMART acronym was originally proposed in 1981 by a management consultant, George Doran, as a way for managers to set goals and objectives. Since then, the idea has taken on a life of its own. Many workplaces today require that SMART goals are used during employee performance reviews; healthcare practitioners set SMART goals with their clients during injury rehabilitation; schools and universities teach SMART goals to help students learn; global policies set targets using the SMART acronym; and major media outlets often encourage us to set SMART goals for our new years’ resolutions.

The popularity of SMART goals is understandable in many ways – they seem simple, memorable and easy to use. But there’s a major catch – the research literature suggests that, in many contexts, they simply don’t work very well: in fact, they can even be detrimental. Because of this, in 2021 my colleagues and I called on scientific, public health and physical activity organisations to end their uncritical, wholesale promotion of the SMART acronym.

One major problem with the SMART acronym is that it advises that all goals should be specific, for everyone and in all situations. However, research has established that in some cases goals don’t need to be specific to be effective. For example, reviews of previous research in sport and physical activity found that there were no additional benefits of setting specific goals (eg, to aim for 10,000 steps per day) compared with more vague or nonspecific goals (eg, to ‘do your best’ or to simply ‘be more active’).

When you already know how to perform a given task, your goals should be challenging, not ‘achievable’ or ‘realistic’

The kind of specific goals advocated by the SMART acronym are especially unhelpful if you are new to a particular challenge or task. For instance, for someone who can already swim and wants to improve, setting themselves a SMART goal to swim 100 metres non-stop within two minutes may be appropriate. But for someone who can’t swim, any specific or SMART goal like this is likely to be unhelpful (if you can’t swim, then it doesn’t matter what the time or distance is, you won’t be able to achieve the goal). In these cases, nonspecific goals (eg, see how far you can swim without stopping) or learning goals (eg, identify and try out three strategies to help improve your swimming technique) are likely to be more helpful.

The problem with the SMART one-size-fits-all approach also extends to its emphasis on goals always needing to be ‘achievable’ or ‘realistic’. In fact, when you already know how to perform a given task and a specific goal is appropriate, lots of evidence tells us that your goals should be challenging in order to produce the best outcomes.

At the same time, there’s actually insufficient detail in some of the SMART criteria. For example, take the ‘timebound’ part of the approach. Research has found that goals stated on a daily basis (eg, ‘aim for 7,000 steps today’) or a daily and weekly basis (eg, ‘aim for at least 7,000 steps each day and 50,000 steps for the week as a whole’) do tend to increase physical activity, but weekly goals alone (eg, ‘aim for 50,000 steps this week’) aren’t effective. So, there’s more to it than just setting ‘timebound’ goals – and the SMART acronym doesn’t give us enough detail to make sure our goals are likely to work.

Compounding these issues, the SMART acronym is often applied inconsistently – in the context of physical activity interventions, in our 2021 study my colleagues and I found 34 different terms being used to represent the five SMART criteria; meanwhile, researchers in the field of rehabilitation found 55 different terms being used! This inconsistency risks causing confusion for people trying to follow the SMART approach, and it also makes it hard to know which variations of SMART work and which ones don’t.

The roots of many of these problems lie in the fact that the SMART approach isn’t grounded in psychological theory. For example, Edwin Locke and Gary Latham’s goal-setting theory, which they began developing in the 1960s, is now underpinned by more than 1,000 studies. Contrary to the SMART approach, their theory advises that different types of goal should be set in different circumstances to be most effective for the person in that particular situation.

Locke and Latham suggest learning goals for newcomers (eg, identify and try out five different ways to improve your French vocab in the next two months) and performance goals for people who are more experienced (eg, double the speed at which I can translate a page of French text). It is commonly assumed that SMART goals are in line with Locke and Latham’s prominent goal-setting theory, but that is not the case and Doran’s original 1981 article on SMART goals did not mention theory.

Inappropriately set goals can also lead to feelings of stress, anxiety, worry and pressure to achieve the goal

All these shortcomings with the SMART approach matter – there can be detrimental consequences if you don’t set yourself appropriate goals, including harming the outcomes you achieve, affecting how you feel while you’re pursuing the goal, and ultimately influencing whether you want to stick with the goal or abandon it altogether.

A common side-effect of a poorly set goal is the feelings of failure it invites when the goal is not achieved, which is common – for example, a US survey conducted in 2023 found that 93 per cent of people had given up on their new year’s resolutions by the end of the year. Inappropriately set goals can also lead to feelings of stress, anxiety, worry and pressure to achieve the goal. In our field of physical activity, my colleagues and I have found that SMART goals (eg, ‘walk 400 metres in six minutes’) can make less-active people feel more pressure and less pleasure while they’re exercising. This is important because how we feel during exercise predicts how likely we are to stick with it long term (the better it feels while we’re exercising, the more likely we’ll stick with it). Therefore, there is a risk that SMART goals could make it harder for some of us to stick with exercise, and could put some of us off exercising altogether – even though they’re meant to be ‘achievable’ and ‘realistic’.

If SMART goals are essentially a ‘style over substance’ approach that doesn’t actually align with latest scientific evidence or theory, what should you do instead? It’s important to recognise that different goals are needed in different situations, and that not everyone will respond in the same way to a particular goal. The ideal goal in any situation will depend on things like your levels of knowledge in that domain, your preferences, and your experiences of goal-setting. To help you get started setting more effective goals, here are two important questions to ask yourself, plus a completely different approach to try:

Are you already good at the task?

If you already know how to do the task, you have the necessary ability and resources, and you don’t find it complex, then specific goals will probably work best for you (we all know someone who hits 10,000 steps per day no matter what).

However, it’s important to remember that challenging goals are likely to produce better outcomes than ‘achievable’ or ‘realistic’ goals so, if you like setting specific goals, aim high!

As an example, someone who already tracks their steps and averages 8,000 per day is likely to see bigger increases from a challenging goal to reach 15,000 per day than a more achievable goal of 10,000 per day.

Are you new to/still learning a complex task?

If you are new to, or still learning, a complex task (eg, you’ve been promoted to a managerial role for the first time), goal-setting theory suggests that a learning goal will work better for you instead.

Learning goals focus on identifying a number of strategies that you aim to try out in order to get better at the task (eg, ‘identify and try out four strategies to increase your team’s sales productivity this month’).

Try setting ‘open goals’

Our team is studying a new option that we call ‘open goals’. These goals are deliberately nonspecific and exploratory, such as to ‘see how well you can do’, ‘see how many steps you can reach each day’ or ‘see how much you can increase your team’s sales productivity by this month’.

Our initial findings suggest that open goals can lead to performance at least as good as (and in some cases better than) SMART goals. Open goals aren’t just for beginners – elite athletes use them too, including the tennis Grand Slam champion Ashleigh Barty, who said of her last tournament before retirement in 2022: ‘It really did make that Australian Open so much more enjoyable for all of us to be able to go “you know what, this is one last crack, let’s see what we can do”.’

Perhaps more importantly, open goals appear to be more psychologically beneficial than SMART goals. Our studies have found that open goals can reduce pressure, give people higher perceptions of how well they performed the task, increase confidence, lead to greater enjoyment, and provide higher motivation to engage in the task again afterwards.

We think that open goals might work by being more flexible – thus avoiding the expectation to achieve a certain standard – and by being difficult to fail. More work is underway to find out more about when and why open goals can be beneficial, but initial evidence suggests they’re a promising option and may be worth trying if you’re looking for a smarter approach than SMART goals.





20 May 2024