What We Keep Messing Up About “SMART” Goals

A blue planner notebook that says “My Secret Plan to Rule the World” with a pink background. Photo by Ann H from Pexels.

Goals should be SMART, right? Specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.

But a lot of us fail to pay attention to the achievable and relevant parts of the planning process. We stick to specific and time bound, and if life goes sideways or we get smacked with a global pandemic or an illness or family issues or a job loss, we think we failed at our goal just because we didn’t finish it in the time allotted.

Goals need room to breathe and adjust.

When a goal is no longer relevant or achievable in the way you first planned, going back to that goal and changing your method or timeline is not only “not failing,” but it’s actually setting you up for success.

Goals change to honor you where you are

When I turned 25, I made a five year plan. I wanted to be debt free, married, and a parent by 30.

I am 32, twice divorced, child free by choice (plot twist!), and still looking at about $30,000 of debt between my student loan and car.

And I am cool with this.

Chasing marriage-and-baby as the measurement of my success would still have me in an abusive marriage instead of nearly three years out and in the healthiest relationship of my life.

Chasing debt-free would have me still in a toxic workplace just because it paid well, rather than seeking work that fuels my passion AND talents, with time to recover from burnout and start my own business.

Last year, I started off 2020 with a pile of goals. Get two more book deals, run my online course four times, and launch a coaching practice. As I realized these goals weren’t achievable in one year while balancing my own mental and physical health needs, I revised the goals.

And then I quit my job in the middle of the year and took several months off to recover from burnout.

At that point, my goal was survival and recovery.

Now that I’ve gotten through a period of rest, I’m job seeking, I’m launching a new brand, and I have two coaching clients. It’s a humble beginning, but it’s a beginning that honors my boundaries and needs.

It is okay if you have to press pause. It is okay if you hit a life milestone and haven’t achieved what you thought you would when you looked at this time and place from the past. And it’s also okay for you to have some feelings about it and grieve the life you thought you’d have right now.

But put yourself in your five-years-ago shoes. Are you better off now? Don’t think about your goals or where you could be now if you had done something different. Just — are you better off today than five years ago, with regard to your own happiness and life satisfaction?

Are your relationships better? Are you a better communicator? Do you love yourself more? Are you happier with your mental and emotional health? Do you have hobbies you enjoy? Are you in love? Did you read a really great book or find a new musical artist that brings you joy?

Yes to any of these? Rock on. That’s awesome and I love that for you.

No to any of these? Okay, let’s make a goal to work on that for this year.

The new SMART goals

Next time you set goals, don’t just go down the acronym and make a quick 5-point goal. Think it through. Try these prompts.

S – Specific

What is your goal, specifically? Don’t put a timeframe here, that comes later. An example of a specific goal is “run my online course four times this year” and an even more specific goal would be “sell out my online course four times this year with 10 people per run.”

How confident are you that you can achieve this goal? What if you only get eight people but still run your course each time? Will you still feel successful? What if 12 people want to take it? Will you change the number of seats you offer?

Be specific but be open to a bit of flexibility.

M – Measurable

What is the measure of your success for your goal? Continuing the above example, success would be measured by running the course four times with ten people per run. If your goal is to get a job, your measurement could be a job offer with your desired salary and benefits, or it could be as simple as accepting a job offer. It’s up to you how specific your goal is and how you measure it.

In my last job, I was making $71,000 per year but I was miserable. Recently in an interview for a nonprofit, I said I would need to make at least $55,000 per year in order to take a full time role that met my financial needs. I did the math, and that’s how much I would need to pay my bills and save up for a house or other long-term financial goal.

If your goal is to graduate college, the measure of your success could be hitting all your graduation requirements for a degree. Or you could shoot for a specific GPA to help you get into a graduate program. Your goals can have layers (getting into grad school being a separate goal).

When setting the measures for success, I like to take a stretch goal approach. For instance, I want to grow my social media presence to 500 followers, but it would be really cool if I hit 1000. This way, 500 is my measurable goal, and 1000 is the next measure I would want to hit but it’s going to be fine (and still successful) if I don’t get all the way there.

(By the way, follow me on Instagram at @CaitlinLizFisher)

A – Achievable

Take into account your abilities and means to achieve your goal the way you want to. If you want to go to college full-time but you also need a full-time job to keep a roof over your head, maybe part-time is the way to go because full-time isn’t achievable while also maintaining your mental health.

For me, running my course four times in a year wasn’t possible in 2020 because I didn’t have the mental bandwidth to develop, market, and run the course four times while also managing my stress. It wasn’t the right time for that goal. It didn’t mean the goal was bad, it just needed adjustment.

If your goal is to start a brand new business off the ground and make $100,000 in your first year, is that achievable? Maybe. Is it likely? Not really.

Adjust your goal to make sure it’s something you can feel good about working toward and you won’t be burning yourself out to achieve it at any cost. If you find yourself burning out, go back to your goal and rework it so that it is achievable.

R – Relevant

Does your goal make sense? Is it relevant to your long-term plans? I briefly considered buying a house this year but quickly realized that I’m open to relocating to another state in the next few years, so buying didn’t really make sense for me right now.

I also want a dog. Is that relevant to my long-term goals and my life right now? Finally, yes, I think it is. I am committed to remote work, so my “I’m not home enough for a dog” reason is no longer applicable, and I’ve wanted a dog for years now. (Is owning a dog a goal? It is now).

What could change the relevance of your goal? Would a change in your employment, relationship, or other aspect of your life change this goal? Make a list of what might impact it.

T – Time Bound

The trickiest aspect of goal setting is the timeline. Obviously a goal needs a target date for completion, or you won’t have any idea how to pace yourself and work toward it.

But this is where we get so hung up on our goals. We put all our eggs into the time-bound basket without checking back in on the rest, and then if something happens that derails a goal, we internalize it as a failure.

But the failure isn’t in you, it’s in approaching goals as a rigid and immovable force that can’t be shifted and adapted.

How to avoid the time-bound trap

I want you to look back on your life and think about all the amazing things you did, not get hung up on when you did them. Your life is full of achievements, strength, courage, and joy. These things don’t need to be timed or measured in order for them to have their full weight as positive experiences.

So here’s what I want you to do when you’re setting your goals:

  • Make a giant list of all the things you need to do to achieve your goal in your allotted time
  • Schedule regular check-ins to make sure your goals are still achievable and relevant for the time allotted
  • If not, adjust your measurement, your goal, or your timeline
  • Don’t beat yourself up about having to change your goal — your diligence and consistency will pay off, and your success is still a success even if it comes later than you planned

Free ebook!

Setting goals is easy. Staying on top of them, and working through your brain’s bullshit, is not. My free ebook will help you set REAL goals that drive you toward your deep-down dream without burnout! Get your copy now.

3 thoughts on “What We Keep Messing Up About “SMART” Goals

  1. nirajshah2003 says:

    Definitely agree with this, our circumstances can change unexpectedly sometimes, and our goals should chance to reflect this. Thanks for sharing!

    Feel free to read some of my blogs 🙂

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