The One Super Important Thing SMART Goal Setting Leaves Out

Go to any corporate strategy session or productivity seminar and you are pretty much guaranteed to hear about SMART goal setting. First referenced in the early 1980s by George T. Doran, consultant and former director of corporate planning for Washington Water Power Company, SMART goals are a universally accepted way to focus and organize efforts to maximize the chances of success. 

SMART goals provide a simple framework for setting focused, actionable goals. The SMART framework is highly popular, and used across a multitude of settings. While arguably SMART goal setting is extremely effective, when it comes to personal goal setting, it lacks one of the most important pieces of the puzzle. 

SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable (or Agreed upon, depending who you ask), Realistic, and Time-bound. In some cases, you may come across a SMARTER goal – one that is also Evaluated and Reviewed. 

SMART tackles some of the major errors people make when setting their goals, such as setting goals that are too vague, too big, too broad, or unachievable. It also sets the goal within a timeframe, thus ensuring you have a real deadline and can’t go on procrastinating forever. 

Proponents of the SMART framework also argue that it boosts motivation by giving you a target to aim for.  

To some extent, this is true. Having a neatly focused goal you can see is achievable does boost motivation. But, it’s not enough by itself to have you jumping out of bed ready and excited to get to work. 

In fact, the SMART framework leaves out motivation as a consideration when setting a goal. 

Let me explain. 

Motivation to achieve a goal stems from your WHY – why do you want it? Why are you pursuing it? What outcome are you hoping to achieve from it? What is it you want? 

SMART goal setting doesn’t ask this question. It only asks WHAT do you want, then focuses purely on crafting a neat, targeted, focused goal so you can start working towards it. 

Now, in some settings it is perfectly fine to only focus on ‘what’. Just focusing on the ‘what’ make sense if the ‘why’ has been given to you. This occurs more often than not in the workplace. Your goals are linked to the business goals. Perhaps your goal is to increase sales, or implement a new strategy or process. Perhaps it’s to develop a new training for new hires, or increase your customer awareness. 

In these cases, you’ve been told ‘what’ you need to achieve. Why you may or may not want it is irrelevant.  You could argue that your ‘why’ for achieving it is to keep your job, or to go for a promotion, but these are indirect outcomes of the goals. The specific goal – increase sales, or recruit new customers – is set by the business objectives, not you. 

In terms of motivation, it doesn’t matter ‘why’, or even ‘if’ you want it. You have to achieve it, because it is your job to. You need your paycheck. Whether you enjoy the task or not, unless you want to be fired, you have to work towards the goal. 

There are, however, other times at which SMART goal setting without considering your ‘why’ will set you up for failure. This occurs is situations where you are choosing your goal targets for yourself, not based on what someone else wants of you. 

In these situations, simply setting a SMART goal is not enough.  

I have worked with so many clients that totally get SMART goal setting theory. They’ve set SMART goals in the past at work, so have tried it for themselves on their own personal goals. Then, they are confused when they just can’t seem to follow through on them.  

During a coaching session we’ll start talking about goals, and they immediately throw out a SMART goal that they’ve been working on and want to tackle. “I’ve already set my SMART goal – here it is. Now, how do I achieve it?”  

Well, SMART is great, but you’re missing the most important piece. 

Your WHY 

Ok, so here is where I usually get the next objection from them. 

“Well, this is what I want to achieve, so I set my SMART goal for it. What do you mean my ‘why’ is missing?” 

The clue is in the language. 

They know ‘what’ they want, and have set a nice, ‘Specific’ goal for it. But have they taken time to really and deeply consider WHY they want it? 

Without a strong WHY connected to it, your goal alone will not motivate you to go after it. Your very nice, super targeted SMART goal will sit on the shelf gathering dust if you do not attach strong, aligned, intrinsic motivation to it. 

Intrinsic means coming from within. From you. Not from outside, or extrinsically, like a boss or supervisor telling you what you need to do and why you need to do it. 

You need a reason why from within

Often, simply taking a moment to ask ‘why’ is enough to shift my client into action. Suddenly, they understand the true desire behind it, and find the drive and motivation they need to tackle it.  

Other times, we find out that there is a disconnect between the ‘what’ and the ‘why’. By realigning it, the client can access that deeper intrinsic motivation. Take for example, someone who sets themselves a SMART goal to lose 40 pounds because they want to be fitter. The ‘what’ is to lose weight and get fitter, but that’s not the deeper reason ‘why’. The real ‘why’ might be fear of missing out on time running and playing with the kids while they are young – something that extra 40 pounds is stopping them from doing. Getting to the root of the ‘why’ and realigning the goal to it (the real goal here is to run and play with the kids, losing weight is a means to that end) THEN setting SMART goals to achieve it will give you a much greater chance of success. 

Sometimes, it turns out that the client doesn’t really want it at all! They actually want something else entirely, which is why they keep finding themselves subconsciously self-sabotaging or procrastinating. Value conflicts, the expectations of others, or simple fear of admitting what we truly want can push us into setting goals that we do not actually want.  

So, setting SMART goals are great. But they work best in situations where the ‘why’ is prescribed by someone else. If you’re setting a goal for you, start with WHY, then focus it with SMART. 

If you want to learn more about setting goals and creating action plans that build in mechanisms for your ‘why’, your motivation, confidence, dealing with anxieties and limiting beliefs, and creating a plan that truly aligns with you, check out my online Goal Setting Confidence course (it’s just $44 for lifetime access!)

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