How can organisations give themselves the best chance of achieving their objectives? As an individual, how can you help yourself to achieve what you want to achieve in life?
These are big questions. However, there is an answer. The first part of that answer is to actually set yourself some goals. Without goals, the theory goes, you are more likely to float around gently and aimlessly. However, the second part is to make sure that you can achieve those goals—or at least, that you give yourself the best possible chance of doing so.
Over the last 40 years, many organisations and individuals have been using the concept of SMART goals to do this. These are goals that meet certain criteria: they are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic (or relevant) and time-bound. However, is this the most effective way to set goals? And do SMART goals really help you to achieve more? The answer is more complex than you might think.
What Are SMART Goals?
SMART goals are defined as goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic (or Relevant) and Time-related (or Time-bound).
Goals should be specific: that is, you should understand exactly what you are trying to achieve.
When you define your goals, include as much detail as possible.
Goals should be measurable: you need to know when you have achieved them, and how much progress you have made.
Be clear about what measures you are going to use to assess your progress, and how you will know when your goal has been achieved.
Attainable or Achievable
Your goals should be achievable: you need to be able to see that you can reach them.
The thinking is that you will not be motivated to work towards a goal that you do not think you can achieve.
Goals need to be relevant: they need to contribute towards where you want to get, or towards your organisation’s overall purpose.
Look at whether your goals help you or your organisation towards your overall ambition. If not, they’re not relevant.
Time-bound or Time-limited
Goals should have clear time-limits or deadlines.
This will help you to see whether you are likely to achieve your goals by the required time, or if additional resources may be needed.
This may be easier to understand with an example.
Suppose you wanted to set a goal to help you to learn French, because you were going to be working in France for six months, starting in three months’ time.
A suitable goal might be:
- Over the next 3 months, I want to improve my French to basic conversational level by using Duolingo every day, and listening to French radio online for at least 30 minutes at least three times a week. Confirm progress by trying to find a native French speaker to practise with, maybe through the contacts that I have already made in the office.
This is specific: you know what you are going to do. You can see if you are taking the steps that you plan, and you also have an objective way to measure your progress. The goal is relevant, because it will support your move to France. It is time-bound, and will end when you move to France. It is also achievable in that you know what level you want to get to, as well as having the goal of doing the work.
The Start of SMART
Back in November 1981, George T. Doran, a management consultant, published an article setting out a new way of setting goals and objectives for managers and teams. This seems to have been the first recorded use of the SMART acronym.
Doran defined the acronym as:
- Specific – targeting a specific area for improvement.
- Measurable – either fully quantified, or with a clear indicator for progress.
- Attributable – specifying who was responsible for the achievement of the goal.
- Realistic – can reasonably be achieved, given the resources available.
- Time-related – specifying when the results can be achieved.
Source: Doran, G. T. (1981). There’s a SMART way to write management’s goals and objectives. Management Review, 70(11), 35-36.
Subsequent iterations of the SMART criteria have changed some of the words from Doran’s original, or added new letters to the list.
One of the most common substitutions is ‘Achievable’ for ‘Attributable’.
A second is the replacement of ‘Relevant’ for ‘Realistic’.
Some commentators add ER on the end, for Evaluated and Reviewed, or Exciting and Recorded, or Exciting and Reach (to mean a goal that will cause you to reach or ‘stretch’).
Do these changes make much difference? It depends on your circumstances.
For example, Doran was talking about team and management goals. In that case, ‘attributable’ makes a lot more sense than ‘achievable’, because you need to know who will be responsible. However, if you are setting personal goals, they are all attributable to you, so ‘achievable’ makes more sense.
There is now a general assumption that the person setting the goal is responsible for its achievement. Most people therefore use ‘achievable’ rather than ‘attributable’.
The substitution of ‘relevant’ for ‘realistic’ may go alongside the use of ‘achievable’. ‘Realistic’ and ‘achievable’ have very similar meanings. Relevant therefore teases out a new concept, of whether it helps you to reach your overall ambition.
The addition of ‘Reach’ is consistent with evidence about goals and motivation. This suggests that challenging goals are more motivating than ones that you know you can achieve.
Examining the Evidence
Are SMART goals more effective than vaguer goals or goals set using other criteria?
Interestingly, given how widespread this approach is, the jury still seems to be out on this one. Part of the problem is that there are few research studies on organisational and individual objective- and goal-setting, so it is very hard to tell.
A review of the evidence about the use of SMART goals to encourage physical activity, published in 2021, highlighted several flaws with the use of SMART goals. These have wider applicability to the use of these criteria.
The SMART acronym is not based on scientific theory, and is not consistent with empirical evidence.
Fundamentally, the SMART acronym is not based on any particular scientific theory. Doran simply came up with an idea, and it has been enthusiastically adopted around the world. This is interesting, because it has led to the issue that SMART goals and their use are actually not consistent with empirical evidence about goal-setting.
The review authors pointed out two particular issues:
Goals should be challenging rather than ‘achievable’ or ‘realistic’.
In physical activity, at least, challenging goals are more motivating than achievable or realistic ones. Generally, people who set themselves higher goals did more activity—even if they did not always achieve their goals. The same is also likely to be true in organisations, or in life goals. When you know you can achieve something, there is very little incentive to work harder at it.
Goals do not need to be specific to be helpful
Studies on goal-setting to increase the level of physical activity found that specific goals were actually counter-productive.
For example, if you set yourself a goal of reaching a certain speed for running 5km, and then you find that you won’t be able to achieve that, you may become demotivated. Instead, it may be better to have a vaguer goal, such as ‘increase the length of time I can walk’ or ‘see how far I can walk in an hour, and how much I can improve that’.
Indeed, individuals who set open goals for physical activity tended to do a lot more than those who set SMART goals. They also reported getting far more enjoyment out of their activity. Setting SMART goals can therefore be counter-productive as a way to encourage physical activity.
The acronym is not applied consistently
It should be clear just from this page that this is absolutely true.
There are many different possible interpretations of each word in the acronym, and no detailed and agreed guidance has been published. It is therefore impossible to say what is ‘best practice’.
There is also very little detail in the criteria, which again makes it harder to comply with ‘best practice’ on goal setting.
There is redundancy in the criteria
There is considerable overlap between the criteria.
We discussed this in the context of ‘achievable’ and ‘realistic’ earlier. However, there are other examples. Making a goal ‘specific’ could mean including a time limit. Making something measurable also tends to make it specific.
The use of the acronym does not consider the type of goal set.
The review authors noted that there are over 20 different types of goal. Some of the key distinctions include:
Learning vs. performance goals (and you can find more about this distinction in our page on The Importance of Mindset);
Behavioural vs. outcome goals, because a focus on behaviour rather than outcomes can be important in changing behaviour.
The SMART criteria are not being used as originally intended
Doran’s original concept was to provide a way to create goals for teams and managers, as part of overall organisational goal setting. SMART goals are more often developed by individuals now, either as part of an organisation, or to achieve personal goals and ambitions. It is arguable whether Doran intended them to be used for this kind of purpose—and he certainly did not say that they would be effective if used for this purpose.
Source: Swann, C., Jackman, P. C., Lawrence, A., Hawkins, R. M., Goddard, S. G., Williamson, O., ... & Ekkekakis, P. (2023). The (over) use of SMART goals for physical activity promotion: A narrative review and critique. Health psychology review, 17(2), 211-226.
Addressing the Limitations
Do these limitations mean that SMART criteria, and SMART goals are not useful?
It is useful to consider all the aspects of SMART when setting goals. However, you do not need to be constrained by them, and you may want to use other methods of setting goals as well as, or instead, of SMART.
In particular, it is wise to be aware of the most important limitations and find ways to address them.
Consider how you can address the evidence that challenging goals are more motivating (see box).
Stretch goals and performance reviews
There is an essential mismatch between the importance of setting challenging goals, and the expectation in organisations that individuals must meet their performance objectives to achieve a pay rise or an excellent rating in a performance review.
Some organisations have got round this by asking individuals to set ‘stretch objectives’. These objectives are not expected to be met, and performance reviews only discuss progress towards them. These objectives do not have to meet SMART criteria.
Try using several different approaches to goal-setting, and see which one works best for you, or for different activities.
What works well at work may not work for personal or academic goals. Trying different approaches to goal-setting can help you to understand more about what motivates you, and how you can best achieve your different goals.
A Final Thought
SMART goals may be a useful way of thinking about what you want to achieve, and how you can do so. However, you should not feel constrained by this format if a different sort of goal works better for you.
Crucially, what matters is NOT the format of your goals—but whether they help you to get where you want to get.