Why SMART objectives aren’t always smart


Ever been in a meeting where people are discussing objectives or goals? Someone invariably says, ‘We must make our objectives SMART!’ and everyone else nods sagely in agreement. We often use the same logic with personal goals.

The idea is sound enough. If your goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound, it focusses the mind, allows you to say for certain whether or not something was achieved, and you can keep tabs on whether you’re on track along the way.

But there’s a big and often overlooked problem with this type of goal setting, and that’s our old friend human nature. I’ve written about intrinsic motivation before – it means the inherent satisfaction in working on something, above and beyond any material rewards (or threat of punishment.) Psychologists have discovered that the way we set goals affects our motivation and the extent to which we meet them. So whilst SMART objectives can be useful some of the time, you have to be careful and avoid using them in all situations.

Take learning a language for example. You could set yourself a SMART objective something like ‘Learn French and score an A at the test before the end of the year.’ This is what phychologists call a ‘performance goal.’ Getting the A is the target. The alternative is setting a ‘learning goal’ which would be more along the lines of ‘Improve my French to get more out of my holidays there, make French friends and get absorbed in the culture.’

The learning goal is not SMART. It’s actually pretty vague, but what it promotes is mastery of the topic – that is, continual improvement towards perfection (which of course can never be fully reached.) The big difference is that mastery is one of the factors which really motivates humans. Performance goals less so. In studies with children, it has been shown that they perform better at tasks when the goals are learning, not just performance. For example, when the focus is on a specific measure of performance, it has been shown that people work hard to achieve it, but that they often stop there, short of their potential to do even better. They are also less able to apply the skills to new situations than with a broader learning goal.

So next time you’re setting some goals think carefully about whether a SMART objective or learning goal will actually help to motivate and get you there.

Finally, another plug for Daniel H. Pink’s excellent book, Drive which talks more about goals and motivation and has the citations behind these insights on goal setting.