The Dumb Side of SMART Goals

smart goals must be in the circle of control. picture of 3 concentric circles: circle of control at center

This post is a rant.

I’ll clearly own and admit that it is.  I love SMART goals as they pertain to business, professional, and personal goals related to project management, task completion, and the like.  Here’s where I rebel.  I coach a number of clients – both in group setting and as a private coach.  Much of our work is both mental and physical.  Anyone with a core competency in training can make you stronger – I want to make you more resilient and improve your mental fortitude at the same time.  And therein lies my issue.  At least 5 times per month (I’m not pulling that number out of the air, I went and checked) I get a group or individual client to email or IM or videoconference and say, “I’m doing ALL the right things – my diet is on-point, my sleep is right, my workouts are going well…but I have this goal to be 20 lbs lighter in 6 months, and I’m just not going to make it!”  And therein lies some of my problem with SMART goals in general.

What is a SMART Goals?

Let’s define a SMART goal for those who may not be familiar.  SMART is actually an acronym and a mnemonic device for remembering the formula for a goal which has a snowballs chance in a very hot place of succeeding.  The acronym has morphed a bit as more research has been done, but the best definition I can find which is applicable to life change, coaching, training, and other factors is:

  • (S)pecific – The goal should be very intentional and focused on a unique aspect of change.
  • (M)easurable – The goal should have specific metrics applied to them.  How are we to define “success?”
  • (A)ssignable – Who is responsible for the goal’s achievement?  (pro tip:  you are!)
  • (R)ealistic – Is the goal attainable in the timeframe given?
  • (T)ime-Bound – What is the length of time that is being given to achieve this goal?

In no way am I wanting to come across as bagging on SMART goals.  Heck, I grew up with them – both personally and professionally.  They’re fantastic when their applied to:

  • The right goal;
  • The right client (or project);
  • In the right context;
  • Tied to the right outcome.

The challenge then, lies in the context of the individual and the goal:  So often we have clients (you have them too – they come into your gym, to your website, or through a referral; or you may be this person also).  The glaringly obvious ones aren’t an issue.  The “I want to lose 150 lbs in 3 months for a wedding” people are pretty easy to recognize as having an unrealistic goal.  But the challenge comes in finding the nuance.  What if you’re the person who wants to drop 30 lbs by Summer and it’s December.  That’s doable.  It’s Specific, It’s Measurable, it’s Assignable, it’s Realistic, and it’s Time-bound.  It’s a SMART goal by it’s very definition.  It’s also going to crash and burn for the three below examples (all real-world from my own experiences as a coach)

old women slowly exercising as a way to show out of context smart goals

This may be my client’s idea of a day’s hard training. If so, a SMART goal of weightloss won’t help her with no desire to diet and this level of effort! #context!

  1.  What if you (or your client) are someone with a history of binge eating behavior when faced with a caloric deficit or who has problems with inconsistent gym habits?
  2. Alternatively, what if the goal is for a moderately-obese post-menopausal woman who wants to exercise away the pounds without dieting?  Knowing that recipe doesn’t work for those who don’t regulate calorie consumption…is that realistic for her context?  No.
  3. What about timing.  What if she says says to you, “My friend Sally signed up with you and she lost 10 pounds more in 1 month less time than me…so I know that I can do this in 3 months.”

In example 1, the goal the client desired was not assignably hers.  She wanted someone else to do the work for her, and due to her own specific personal challenges.  In example 2, the client has specific requirements for her daily living and of her health which make the goal unlikely to succeed.  And in example 3, the client was commiting the biggest sin a see.  She was comparing her results to another person and applying the same time logic.

As I said above, the important aspects of a SMART goal distill into the context.  There are three aspects to context that I feel need to be called out:

Context of Individuality

  • How much work are you/your client willing to do to achieve their goal?
  • Are there any social or cultural issues which prevent the goal from being achievable?
  • Is there a nuance to your/your client’s history which makes attaining that goal unlikely if you apply a standard run-of-the-mill approach?

Context of Measurement

  • Is weight really a good measurement?  What happens when the scale is the liar we know it is?
  • Is comparative thinking useful for you or your client?  What if she doesn’t lose as much as Sally?
  • Might it make more sense to tie a SMART goal to something over which you/your client have complete control? (Diet adherence for example)

Context of Timing

  • What if everything is right but the weight doesn’t come off?  Is weight somethign that we can actively and unilaterally control for ourselves or our clients?
  • What if the timing changes?

As I wrap up let me tell you a story.  As of this morning I’ve now lost 255 lbs from my starting weight.  For a period of 18 months, I didn’t lose a pound.  Did I somehow, in the middle of my journey, forget how to count?  Did I stop my efforts at the gym?  Did I do something wrong?  No.  Would a SMART goal tied to my weight have been a very effective measure?  No.  Not because I wasn’t S.M.A.R. or T.  – but because my body was doing body things.  Ultimately there are three circles which exist for us in terms of concerns relevant to our lives:

The Three CIrcles - SMART Goals

The Three CIrcles – SMART Goals

  • The Circle of Concern – things I’m interested in or concerned about but have no control over.  If I have a picnic planned, there is concern about the weather, but little I can do to affect it.
  • The Circle of Influence – things I can materially affect, but not unilaterally control.  My weight is one of them.  I can eat and do the right things, but the body’s just going to do what it does…if that is lose weight, great; if that is stay stagnant or gain, that stinks, but we only have a partial area of control over those things.
  • The Circle of Control – these are things which I can unilaterally manifest my control over.  Going to the gym.  Eating my macros.  Doing a top-notch job in my profession.  Being thoughtful and empathetic to others along my path.

The dumb side of SMART goals resides in trying to set goals in the Circles of Concern and Influence and not in the CIrcle of Control.  If you cannot solely and unilaterally control bringing your personal goal to completion (be that strength performance, education, weight loss, etc) then it has NO place as the metric of success in a SMART goal!  It simply doesn’t.  That’s just…dangerous.  For those of us who are blessed to be permitted to walk with people in their journey – either as friends or as a coach, it is disingenuous of us to permit goal-setting which can fail for reasons outside of our friends, family, and clients’ control.  If we’re going to be SMART, let’s stop being stupid.

About Author

Tyler Cartwright
Former fat guy (well, I'm still fat...but less so and getting thinner and stronger). I've lost 282 lbs - while on a ketogenic diet. I love to lift, to learn, and to live...anything else...just ask.

2 Comments

  1. Vicky Cox

    Again Tyler, you challenge me to think in a new way. It’s so hard to not get caught up in comparing my progress to someone else’s and the flip side is I was the middle age woman trying to exercise my weight away to no avail. SMART goals can be effective but this is a great example of where we need to recognize all the other changes we are making along the journey besides the pursuit of a number.

    Reply
  2. Nicole Collins

    Great post! I, like so many others, have created and subsequently failed at so many SMART goals it is very refreshing to read this perspective. I’d never considered the element of control into a goal or focusing on goals which are inherently controllable. Good stuff. Thank you!

    Reply

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