The “SMART” acronym is widely used in various types of goals, from professional targets to fitness regimens. Developed by George Doran in 1981, the framework of setting “Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-Bound” goals became so popular that it even influenced public policy.
For example, the Transport Accident Commission (TAC) and WorkSafe Victoria wrote their Clinical Framework for the Delivery of Health Services to require healthcare providers to set SMART goals with their patients. However, recent critique in the field of health psychology shows that it may be worth setting goals that don’t necessarily fit the SMART acronym.
Christian Swann, who is currently working as a senior lecturer in Psychology at Southern Cross University, and his associates from many other institutions, all wrote a critique on SMART goals based on synthesizing multiple research studies on goal setting. This is not to say that SMART goals are inherently bad or wrong, just that there are other aspects relevant to goal setting that the SMART acronym either contradicts or does not cover.
Learning and Performance
One major point in Swann and his associates’ critique is that there are many aspects of goal setting previously covered in theory that the SMART acronym does not cover.
One example is Locke and Latham’s goal setting theory that highlights the importance of differentiating between learning goals and performance goals. An example of a performance goal is “increase your step count by 1000 steps” whereas an example of a learning goal would be “identify three strategies to increase your step count.”
Locke and Latham found that learning goals are best when an individual is new to a task or situation or is still developing required proficiency. Therefore, when setting a goal, it’s important to look at current circumstances. For example, if the goal is related to physical activity, an inactive person would more likely benefit from learning goals. An inactive person would likely benefit from performance goals.
Achievable or Challenging?
In one study by Anson and Madras, people who set challenging goals compared to realistic goals ended up walking more, even if they did not meet the goal.
While there are benefits of physical activity, there are mental health benefits in achieving a goal, especially when it’s broken up into realistic, achievable steps. When setting your goals, this is where it’s important to self-reflect. Which group would you rather be in? Would you want the benefits of walking more, or would you want the feeling of accomplishment from meeting a goal?
This finding could also be applied to setting time management goals. For example, if you want to read consistently, but you have a habit of getting lost in a good book, this is a scenario where achievable and realistic goals may be better than challenging goals. You may read less than someone doing a reading challenge, but you will have achieved a goal and still have more time to spend outside the goal.
In addition, the acronym is inherently ambiguous. For example, what does “time-bound” mean? There is little theory to explain how much time should be set for a certain goal (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Goal List
The new year is a popular time for people to set resolutions for the year ahead.
There is no evidence to show whether “I will take 10000 steps a day” is a better goal than “I will run a marathon by the end of this year,” even though both goals are “time-bound” as per the acronym. Some goals may not be in the picture for the entire year - such as healing an injury or saving up for a purchase. There are some aspirations that may take longer than the year ahead. There is a lot of room for interpretation on how much time a goal should take.
Another example of ambiguity is the meaning of “specific.” Doran initially identified it as “a specific area for improvement,” but there is still room for interpretation in that definition. For example, if one sets a goal to “be happy,” that’s a reasonable thing to strive for. Some may argue that that’s not specific enough, others would argue that that is specific as emotional well-being is a specific area of improvement.
To examine this example further, what makes one happy may change, and the specificity of the goal can be adapted, making it a reasonable goal to set even though it may not fit the SMART goal criteria. On the other hand, “note 3 things to be grateful for every day” is more in line with SMART goal criteria, and can still contribute to the “be happy” goal as gratitude has a positive impact on mood. Neither approach to goal setting is better or worse.
Edited by: Matsoarelo Makuke
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