So why don’t SMART goals work?
A specific goal is only useful if it’s something you can control. Although this may seem obvious, the fact is that far too many people set goals that appear to be under their control, but really are not. Outcome goals are often at least partially outside of our control. We have to identify what we can control and what we can’t, and then focus our efforts on the former.
Another question is when we can measure our progress. Goals work best when we can measure progress along the way. The more that the progress is at the end, the harder it gets. This is another reason we focus on process and learning goals: those are much easier to measure and under our control to a much greater degree.
A goal may be too big. If a goal takes years to accomplish, it can be extremely difficult to maintain motivation. Big, ambitious goals are wonderful, but they need to be carefully structured. It is vital to break them down into subgoals that can be accomplished in a much shorter period of time. The perception of progress is critical to maintaining motivation.
Having too many goals is another common problem. Well constructed goals are great, but if you have too many of them at once, they become a distraction. Many people can focus on three to five unrelated goals without too much of a problem, but not ten or twenty. Keeping in mind that each goal might generate numerous subgoals along the way, it’s easy to see how having more than a few key goals can easily balloon out of control.
Is the goal something you really care about? Many people have goals that they don’t really care about. Perhaps they’ve been told it’s something they ought to do or they believe they should do, but they don’t really care about the outcome. If you don’t care whether or not you accomplish a goal, it’s hard to find the motivation to do it. Sometimes, you have to work to connect the goal to something you care about.
Used properly, SMART goals can be a very powerful and effective tool. Well-constructed goals can increase motivation, improve focus, and build self-confidence. Used improperly, they can decrease motivation, and destroy self-confidence. If you’re using SMART goals, here are some questions to ask yourself:
Do I control the outcome?
Can I measure progress in a meaningful way?
Is my goal too big? Can I break it up?
Do I have too many goals? Is there enough time in the day/week/month to work on each one?
Do I really care about my goal? Is this something I genuinely want to accomplish?
Using goals to bound unpleasant tasks
One of the tough things about staying focused on any goal is that there are always annoying aspects to the task. Those things need to get done, even if they aren’t much fun. One of the ways to approach them is to set a goal to work on the task for a specific amount of time or until a certain logical end point arrives (dinner is ready, the mail is delivered, the sun sets, etc). By bounding the unpleasant tasks, you get to feel you’ve accomplished something. If you leave them unbounded, then they have a tendency to fill the available time.
Also, when we bound a task, if we decide to do extra, we can feel good about it. That makes it easier the next time.
To make this work, though, you do have to allocate enough time to actually make progress on the tasks, whether it’s cleaning the house, doing homework, grading papers, or anything else. I cannot tell you how much time you’ll need. You need to experiment.
Use Implementation Intentions
Implementation intentions, or trigger actions, help us use the environment to trigger our next goal. If you know you’ll have three things to do, use each one to trigger the next: “When I finish X, I will start Y.” For example, “On Tuesday, after I finish dinner, I will write my paper.”
Particularly when you’re tired, if you’ve preplanned and predecided on your actions, you’re much more likely to carry them out.
The short lesson on multitasking: don’t do it.
More broadly, we can multitask simple tasks easily: you can read a book with music in the background, or cook while music or the news is playing. Complex tasks can only be multitasked if you’ve practiced them enough that you can perform them without thinking, such as playing a musical instrument or many sports.
You cannot simultaneously do multiple things that require concentration. Lots of people think they can, but the final products either take longer, are of lower quality, or both, compared to doing things sequentially. This means that responding to texts or browsing the internet (or watching TV while doing homework) will mess up your concentration and prevent you from focusing deeply on a goal.
Use your imagination
One of the tricks to goal setting is using your imagination. There are often multiple ways of approaching a goal. Don’t lock into one approach or one outcome right at the beginning. The larger the goal, the more exploration you’ll need to do. Take the time to brainstorm different ideas and different questions to ask about your goal. When you look in different ways and with different perspectives, you may well find unexpected paths. Use failure to help guide you to success.
Start Big, Go Small
It’s great to dream big. In fact, I think it’s vital. When we forget to dream, life becomes pretty dull. But you still have to work backward from the dream to today’s reality. Where you are is the foundation you have to work from. Find the small goals that will get you started, and use them to build up some momentum. You don’t need to take on the most difficult goal first.
This is really important. You want to always remind yourself that what you’re doing is worth doing. There are times when accomplishing any significant goal will be frustrating or exhausting. Getting a black belt in a martial art may well involve bruises or injuries (I’ve had my share of both on my way to my 5th dan). Getting a college degree, or a doctorate if you go that route, has its moments of pure agony. When you enjoy the successes, when you pause to admire what you’ve accomplished, you put all that into perspective. There may be a lot more mountain to climb, but there’s no reason why you can’t stop for a few minutes to enjoy the view.
I can’t emphasize this enough. Goal setting is a skill. Practice it. Be willing to set small goals just to go through the experience of doing it. Experiment with different ways of recording goals and celebrating progress. Keep at it. It really does get easier with experience.
Setting SMART Goals
Contact: Stephen R. Balzac, President, 7 Steps Ahead, LLC
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