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SMART goals; an acronym to set yourself goals and deemed the most popular and effective way of meeting them. No matter what industry you work in, or what educational path you went through, chances are, you have come across SMART goals before.
Now SMART goals make sense. They require you to follow a logical ‘checklist’ of parameters before they can be deemed SMART. And setting SMART goals are empowering. “I would like to lose a stone across the next 8 weeks by eating a deficit of 500 calories a day for my BME during that period of time, allowing myself to eat my regular BME amount on a Sunday as a treat”. Certainly, a goal like that could be considered SMART. It is very Specific, we can Measure if regularly, it is an Achievable amount of weight to lose whilst being Realistic and there is a clear Timeframe for this to happen in.
The aim of this discussion is not to disregard SMART goals entirely; certainly, they have a place and have been proven to be effective. However, what needs to be considered is the level of emphasis put on SMART goals, when other types of goal setting methods (often seen as ineffective), are being pushed out.
Consider the goal above which we have just mentioned; it clearly sets out the parameters of what we want to achieve and even begins to touch on how we are going to go about doing it. And let’s be honest, when we set a goal like that, it feels really good. We imagine ourselves a stone lighter and what it will feel like when we are that ‘better’ future self. The problem with SMART goal setting however, is that it is so busy planning for the future self, it lacks a real understanding of how we are going to manage the present self. Let us use some research to gain a bit more understanding of this.
Akrasia is the state of acting against your better judgement. Effectively, it prevents the present you from following out on what you set to do. SMART goals encourage us to set specific goals and yes, they also empower us to set out some real measurable steps to achieving them along the way. But let’s say part of your weight loss SMART goal was to go to the gym and complete X workout programme on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday. We have added another layer to the SMART goal but it is still within the realms of being achievable. Now when you set these two goals side-by-side, chances are you were in a pretty positive mood or at least you assumed (consciously or not), that your future self and the subsequent future selves were going to be at a certain level to be able to achieve this. Somewhere along the way on our 64 day journey to being one stone less, something is going to happen that we could never predict. Whether that be something physical which pulls us away, or whether it be something mental or emotional. Maybe we’re just having a bad day? What happens then? Our beautiful specific and time-based goals has all gone to pot and we punish ourselves for it by moping for a day or two and in a lot of cases, never fully getting back onto our perfectly laid out track.
Now let’s consider some other research. I read a book which discussed a number of massively influential people such as Richard Branson, Bill Gates and Elon Musk. The interesting conclusion of the research into how these people became so incredibly at the top of their game was not skill and talent alone; it was situational chance. Bill Gates happened upon a job in technology at just the right time and the role at the time involved a lot of programming ‘practise’. He was effectively forced into practising programming on a day to day basis through his situation and because this was such a unique role at the time, when the technology boom occurred in the late 80s, he was 5 steps ahead of anyone else in his field. There was talks of a famous athlete who had to run to school to pick his brother up every day because his village was so violent, he didn’t want to leave his mum at home for too long. The time and practise he put in due to the specific situation he was put in, lead him to win 5 gold medals in long distance running to date. And this doesn’t need to be just for the elite or the famous. Thinking about it on a more mainstream level, the family which can only afford one car so mum walks their child back and forth from school every day or the construction worker who works close enough to cycle to work everyday and would actually take longer to drive.
I think back to my childhood and how in school I got into table tennis purely through chance. My friend had been doing it a while and had asked me to come along. Mine and my friends parents set up an agreement where they would take us to table tennis every other week. They certainly didn’t want us to give it up and it gave them both an incentive because every other week they got a break in the afternoon. At the time, did I set goals about how I wanted to perform and exactly how long I wanted to practise for at the club? Certainly not. The only goal which was set in stone was what I like to call a ‘facilitator goal’. It was not a SMART goal; in fact, it wasn’t really SMART at all. Rock up each week at the club, have fun, do a bit of table tennis and go home – that was it. But the fact I was showing up every time and just being there was more important than any SMART goal could have done for me. The passion was there so whilst there was occasions where I goofed off; more times than not, I got my head down and practised hard. I didn’t kick myself if I had a bad session or I didn’t try as hard as I’d have hoped. The truth was, I didn’t really think much at all about the performance itself – I just showed up. Because there was no lack of guilt and no rigid specific goal and vision in my head, it meant I just continued to do my thing naturally and with little judgement. The result? 5 years on I competed in the under 18s National Championship and finished in the final 4.
This topic really resonated with me recently when I had sat down to make my SMART gym goals because I’d been slacking off quite a lot lately. However, when I looked back on every time I’d dropped off at the gym, it was usually the following reasons: I wasn’t feeling 100% so I didn’t stick to the exact, relatively tough plan. I didn’t go at 6am liked I’d vowed to do as it would give me so much more time in the day so then I just sacked the night off. I had an injury so just figured I needed to rest and then fell out of the habit. The problem here is SMART goals give very little allowance if (what I’d consider), very normal situations occur.
Taking the advice from my formal table tennis champion self all those years ago and from all the drop-outs and ‘give-ups’ since, I’ve decided to take a slightly different approach to goal setting. Yes, it is a good idea to have a vision in your head as to what the end product will look like (the destination). It gives you drive, it gives you inspiration and it makes you feel really good at the time. However, an equally, if not more important step to goal setting is to set out the facilitator goal. I.e. what do I need to do between now and then to make it happen on a regular basis. This is the boring bit and doesn’t feel as nice. Think of all the rags to riches stories out there – they usually tell you the rags and they usually tell you the success story but they often leave out the boring bit in the middle. Think of all those on the Dragon’s Den – you never hear them saying “I have to attend 8 hours worth of meetings a week and spend 10 hours doing paperwork and being on the phone. And then when that is all done, the other half of my week is taken up sat in airport lounges and travelling”. But it is an important step and it is what makes it all worth it. Naturally as humans we want quick, fast results and the endorphin release from imagining your future amazing self is the beginning.
Set some goals today. I for one had some big health and fitness goals which I wanted to achieve. Now, I say “turn up to the gym 3 times this week”. No expectation and no pressure. I still have an idea of the final product in the back of my mind so as soon as my feet hit that gym, I get a surge of motivation that you just couldn’t put onto paper. I make sure I’m well informed about different training methods and then depending how I’m feeling, I hit the ground running, burn some fat and feel really good. I rinse and repeat and just make a solemn swear that I’ll get my butt into that gym 3 times a week. Something comes up? I’m hungover on the Sunday and it’s my last chance to get the workout in? Fine, I’ll just go in the sauna – I’ll still get that fuzzy feeling that I’ve completed my goal. Still struggling? Reduce the specificity – “I’ll get my butt into the gym at least once but maybe twice a week”. The buzz you’ll get from achieving the goal will likely lead to doing more.
So go easy on yourself. Don’t believe your future self will be just like your present self and allow the facilitation of the goal to control the SMART goal; not the other way around.