When people think about setting goals, they most probably think of the SMART goal setting system. In case you have been living under a rock somewhere, SMART is an acronym that stands for the characteristics that an effective goal should exhibit. It is the “go-to” goal-setting framework for many people and because it is robust and adaptable, it has earned the position of most popular goal achievement system.

So, let’s take a closer look at SMART goals.

What follows is an excerpt from my book “Plan, Achieve, Thrive: Successfully Achieve Your Goals With The GREATER2 Goal Achievement System” where I introduce the SMART goal setting system.

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This is the system that kicked off the wave of goal setting systems developed over the last three or four decades. All of those that followed have simply been trying to “build a better mousetrap,” so to speak.

SMART is an acronym representing the characteristics of an effective goal, which are that it should be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. The acronym itself first appeared in an article written by George Doran, Arthur Miller, and James Cunningham in the November 1981 issue of “Management Review.”

Let’s look briefly at each of the components of the SMART system.

smart goals
SMART Goals – no longer the only game in town?

Specific

A “specific” goal is one that is defined in detail and not left vague and nebulous. For example:

Specific – I want to lose 20 kg by November 1.

Unspecific – I want to lose weight.

Measurable

Most goals have some way of measuring progress and success. If your goal does not, then it needs to be reframed so that it is obvious whether or not progress is being made and it is clear when you have reached the goal you set for yourself.

Achievable (Also Assignable)

You must be able to achieve the goal you set. In other words, you must have the mental and physical capacity, as well as the resources, to potentially reach your goal. This does not mean that the goal needs to be easily attainable. On the contrary, it should be challenging and require that you stretch yourself to reach it.

If the goal you want to set is unachievable, consider breaking it into constituent sections and make one of the smaller, composite parts thereof – one that is indeed achievable – your goal.

Unachievable – I want to travel to Nepal and climb Mount Everest next year. However, I have no mountaineering experience, nor do I have the money to fund an expedition. Objectively, taking this goal on would be impossible. Even if I had the money, however, it would still be dangerous.

Breaking this up could result in an initial, achievable goal that looks something like:

Achievable – Travel to Kenya and climb Mount Kilimanjaro, a goal that can be achieved by non-mountaineers and a good first step towards eventually climbing Everest.

This part of the acronym was modified for project-management purposes in some later variations, with the “A” standing for “Assignable” so that a specific person would be made responsible for the achievement of the goal. Obviously, this is not relevant if you are not in a corporate or co-operative environment.

Realistic (Originally Relevant)

Obviously, it should be possible to achieve your goal given your situation. Do you have the time, resources and drive to see it through?

To be honest, the realistic and achievable requirements seem very similar and confuse many people. The difference, I think, is that achievability is a determination as to whether the goal is objectively possible. Whether or not the goal is realistic is determined by your nature and situation, and so it’s far more subjective in nature. However, the distinction is largely academic, and they mean the same thing for all intents and purposes.

Time-Bound

Goals need to have limited scope and so they need to be given a finite deadline. This ties in with their measurability. Setting a date and thereby limiting the time you have available to achieve your goal will help motivate you and provides a sense of urgency.

Many variations of what each of the letters stands for have emerged as the acronym was adapted to enable goal setting in different contexts and with different points of focus.

SMART becomes SMARTER

One modification to the SMART acronym was that it was extended with two letters: “E” and “R.” These stood for “Evaluated” and “Reviewed.” As with the original acronym, however, the letters came to represent other terms as well.

We’ll now turn to how the SMART system has been received and what its pros and cons are.

The Good:

This is the acronym that started them all, and so that alone is worth something. It is also practical and effective for the most part, and it remains a valid route map for goal achievement even today.

The Bad:

The SMART system does have a shortcoming or two, most notably the fact that the “Achievable” requirement overlaps with the “Realistic” one, making one largely redundant.

It also lacks any reference to requiring that the goal setter has a personal stake in or emotional connection to the goal they set. This could be passion, fear or desire. The drive to achieve is far more visceral when the goal has an emotional component.

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Extract ends.

The Characteristics of an Ideal Goal

I have identified a set of seven characteristics that an ideal goal should exhibit. Let’s compare the SMART goal to a goal formulated using the GREATER² Goal Achievement System to see which offers a more complete set of characteristics.

CharacteristicSMART GoalGREATER ² Goal
Must Be Important to YouNoYes, Emotion
Must Be Detailed/SpecificYes, SpecificYes, Gaugable
Must Be MeasurableYes, MeasurableYes, Gaugable
Must Be ChallengingNoYes, Exigent
Must Know What You Have
and What You Need
NoYes, Resources
Must Be Able to Break Goal UpNoYes, Take Apart
There Must Be AccountabilityNoYes, Accountability

Yes, the Achievable and Realistic characteristics of a SMART goal are not included above, but in my humble opinion, they are redundant. Pursuing an unachievable or unrealistic goal would break the goal at the outset and anyone who does not realise that will find out the hard way when they waste their time and effort and get nowhere near achieving their goal.

The Time-bound characteristic is also excluded from the list as the Gaugable element of the GREATER² Goal Achievement System assumes that the goal is measurable both in achievement as well as in time. I maintain that a properly formulated GREATER² Goal Achievement System would not need a Time-bound characteristic to be expressly included.

Verdict

It’s not difficult to see that the GREATER² goal would be more effective for the formulation of a well-rounded, effective goal. Although the ultimate test of a goal-setting system is how effective it is at guiding the goal-setter to achieving their goal, the importance of the system to facilitate goal formulation must not be underestimated either. The SMART goal clearly has some “gaps” that may lead to the setting of an ineffective goal.

Most importantly, the SMART acronym can help with the planning of a goal only, It has nothing to structure or reinforce the execution of the goal attainment plan. The GREATER² Goal Achievement System, on the other hand, does.

SMART Goal Alternative

Before we finish off, I thought I’d drop this in to lighten the mood. If you’re looking for an alternative meaning of the SMART acronym, how about this one;

S – Started with a specific goal

M – Moaned about the measurement

A – Asked if this will ever be over

R – Realised I ought never to have started

T – Think about a new goal

Conclusion

The criticism leveled at the SMART goal system in the above content is not meant to invalidate it, nor to tarnish its reputation as the first and most influential goal achievement construct. As with everything mankind does, ideas evolve and new ones take the place of lesser old ones.

I acknowledge the importance of the SMART system, but perhaps its time has come. Perhaps it is time to look beyond it to a new goal achievement structure, something like GREATER² Goal Achievement System.

Click here to learn more about the GREATER² Goal Achievement System.

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