Why Most SMART Goals Aren’t Smart…. What You Can Do to Reach Your Goals or Help Others Reach Theirs

With January passing by quickly, how are your New Year’s Resolutions going? For many of us, creating New Year’s Resolutions is an annual ritual in which we commit to new health, but usually end up making the same promises to ourselves year after year.

What’s the best way to achieve your 2016 goals? Most experts agree it’s about making them “SMART,” that is, Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely.

Compared to wishful thinking, SMART goals offer a concrete, coherent approach to change. Here are some examples of SMART goals, including one from a university HR department:

  • I will walk 5 days every week for 30 minutes each.
  • I will lose 15 pounds in three months starting January 2nd by cutting out desserts and snacks and by controlling my portion sizes.
  • By August 1, 2016, implement a new performance management system for Classified Staff, A& P Faculty, and University Staff using clearly defined processes and guidelines so employees and managers can more competently evaluate performance and develop their careers.

SMART goals are much better than the dreaming and fantasizing of “getting more exercise,” or “retiring by age 40.”

But how smart are these SMART goals?

Based on what we know about the science of change, what’s the chance they actually will work and produce the intended results?

Unfortunately, it turns out “SMART” goals actually aren’t as smart as they could or should be.

The Problems with SMART Goals

Take a look at the examples again and imagine how these SMART goals might be carried out. If anything is true, it’s that we humans are hard-wired for efficiency and survival, which means that given a choice, we’d rather be couch potatoes than gym rats. We are programmed to conserve energy, whether physical or mental, and we don’t like paying high costs, whether it’s in money, time, or effort.

The problem with SMART goals is that they don’t take this into account. Plus, people confuse having made SMART goals with finding the best ways to achieve those goals. Walking 5 days a week for 30 minutes each time is a fine goal to aim for, but how you get there is another story.

4 Key Factors for Success

A successful process accounts for 4 factors: scope, context, environment, and reward.
1. Scope. Small is better than big and tiny is best of all. Stanford professor BJ Fogg has demonstrated that the secret to creating successful, enduring change and making desired daily routines automatic is to start out by making the desired behavior tiny. He calls his approach Tiny Habits. His example of Tiny Habits is flossing just one tooth as the way to work up to flossing all your teeth. If walking 30 minutes every morning as soon as you get out of bed is your goal, then the tiniest behavior to establish first is the habit of putting on your walking shoes first thing out of bed.

2. Context. Humans are highly sensitized to cues, so taking control of the context in which the new, tiny behavior takes place significantly boosts the likelihood of success. In addition to establishing new behaviors by making them tiny enough to meet the “not too much effort, time, or money,” Fogg also prescribes triggering the new behavior by something you already routinely do. (Remember Pavlov’s dogs?) An example of a flossing trigger is, “After I brush my teeth.” An example of the complete Tiny Habit formula would be, “After I brush my teeth, I will floss one tooth.”

Peter Gollwitzer, a professor of psychology at New York University, has also studied how to create and achieve goals. He uses an “if-then” formula to trigger behavior that helps people reach their goals in situations that may not be routine. This “if-then” formula translates intentions into action by linking desired behaviors with situational cues: “If situation Y is encountered, then I will perform behavior Z (in order to reach goal X!)” An example of this is: “If I notice myself getting tense during a meeting at work, I’ll take a deep breathe, drop my shoulders, and tell myself, “Stay cool” (in order to manage my stress during meetings).

3. Environment. Environment, both physical and social, plays a key role in whether you succeed or not.
For example, stairways decorated with art, putting fresh fruit in an attractive bowl under good lighting, and dressing up salad bars with kale are environmental factors that have been shown to enhance increased physical activity and healthier eating. Likewise, obesity is contagious: When friends become obese, the risk of your putting on the pounds also increases. So, hanging out with healthy-weight friends is critical if you want to achieve your healthy-weight goal. The important point to remember is that regardless of what kind of change you want to achieve, make sure your physical and social environments support your efforts.

4. Reward. Feeling good drives us. Fogg emphasizes the power of celebration to increase the likelihood your new tiny behaviors will “stick.” Celebrate even the smallest achievement. I don’t mean buying a new scarf or golf club. Again, think tiny. Increase your sense of “feel good” and accomplishment by rewarding yourself after even the smallest success. Say to yourself “good job!” or smile at yourself in the mirror after you floss one tooth, tell yourself, “happy and healthy!” after you eat a piece of fruit and some veggies. You’ll be amazed at the power of celebrating.

By taking these four steps you can turn your “SMART” goals from this year’s resolution to next year’s success story!