Monday, June 4, 2012

Are SMART Goals Dumb?

Ok, first things first, the title of this is a deliberate juxtaposition of the words smart and dumb, what a cheap trick. Now back to SMART goals.

The chances are if you have ever had to set a goal, been in a gym, attended a fitness course or a business course, someone somewhere has mentioned SMART goals at some point. It has almost become a mantra in any discussion of goal setting, the phrase 'goal setting' and 'SMART' have become inextricably linked.

But what if SMART goals don't work, what if people use them all the time but still fail? Why do they fail? And then why do people who have consistently failed to achieve a goal then have spectacular success, like in the case of the TV programme The Biggest Loser? And what do elite athletes do differently to achieve their goals?

I've spoken to hundreds and now I think about it maybe even thousands of people about their goals. I ask people on a daily basis what their goals are and what they want to achieve. Some people have a clear idea, some people have a more nebulous idea. In discussion I help them to formulate and shape a goal, and in many cases we the write the goal down, make it time limited, discuss possible barriers and come up with a statement like 'It is now the (insert date) and I now weigh 5kg less, I am able to fit into my dress/jeans/ suit etc and I feel confident and energised', and then there will be the specific plan 'to achieve my goals I will train x per week, and follow this nutrition plan & eat this etc etc'. And then they sign and date their goals, and take a copy to put on the fridge, and in most cases they then fail.

They come back, we re-evaluate, look for solutions, and then I never seem them again. Its a familiar story in gyms all over the world.

If I'm being generous to myself, maybe 10% achieve their goal, but in reality it's probably closer to 1%.

And they are not alone, I can't tell you how many goals I wrote down and then failed to achieve my goals, and I used the SMART structure and followed what the gurus said, and made them public and all of that and still didn't get anywhere. And then other times, I didn't even write the goals down, didn't follow any type of goal setting plan and achieved them. I achieved them because I internalised them, and the completion of them meant so much to me at that particular time that I just did it. Some of the goals were fitness ones, some weren't.

Before we get on to the specifics of how to break out from the mundane SMART formula, lets review SMART goals for anyone who has been living under a rock.


This is self explanatory, the goal has to be specific for you to know how you are going to get to it. It has to be quantifiable. Or does it? Recently, I decided to do the 21 day squat challenge as outlined by Nick Horton here, for no other reason than to do it.

The idea of squatting every day for 21 days is specific, but note, I never actually wrote down the exact routine I was going to do everyday. In fact, I didn't write it down at all. In my mind I had my own personal idea what would constitute me completing the challenge, a threshold that had to be crossed for it to be meaningful. For example, cranking out a few bodyweight squats was not going to be acceptable, but also I knew I wasn't going to squat my 1 rep max every day. There was an inherent flexibility in my plan, but I had a concrete idea of what I considered a challenge, and what I thought was not a challenge. I posted on twitter everyday what squats I had done, so I had made it public, but I knew I was going to finish the challenge regardless. How did I know? Well I just knew, because I actually wanted to do it, even when I was fatigued and my hip flexors & lower back hurt.

This is also what I'm going to call a process goal. The goal was a means to itself, I had no aim to increase my 1 rep max squat to a certain number, so it was both specific and flexible. Many of the goals that beginners set in the gym or on a fitness regime are often process ones, the goals might be to go the gym twice a week or 'workout' three times a week. These are specific, but in most cases they don't get to the crux of why most people are training - normally to lose weight, and get buff. They may achieve their process goal, but their secret hidden goal remains elusive.


This is straight forward, you either lost 5kg or you didn't. You either hit that sales target or you didn't. However, the numbers people choose often have underlying influences. For example, in business, managers are notorious for setting target that may be too high to avoid bonuses and people on the ground floor get wise. They look at what is actually achievable and minus off 10% to guarantee hitting what they are measured on.

In weight loss, the most common phrase I hear is 'I want to lose a stone'. Note, this number has no basis in reality, a woman could weigh 18 stone and she will tell me that, or she could weight 9 stone and she will tell me that. The goal post always move. In the UK, the 'losing a stone' statement is like a magic phrase people utter, sometimes its half a stone, but mostly the former. I imagine in countries where they don't use this form of measurement, the number chosen is equally as random, in the USA could it be 'lose 10 pounds' or in Europe 'lose 5kg', and the person who weighs 70kg wants to be 65kg, and the person who weighs 60kg wants to be 55kg. Chasing numbers, measurable for sure, but are they actually what you want or culturally ingrained?

Attainable/ Achievable

This is a tricky one. Setting an attainable goal is easy, for example, back to 'training in the gym twice a week', this is attainable for nearly everyone, and if it isn't I don't know what to say, except you're lying. It is achievable. but is it meaningful? Setting goals you can easily knock down is easy, but that twice a week in the gym isn't even meeting the basic government guidelines on what you should be doing activity- wise, the chances of any type of fitness improvement are low, and with no other changes, weight loss isn't going to happen. So unless this goal is a stepping stone to bigger goals, it can be worthless.

Also, how about a goal that is going to stretch you. When Reinhold Messner decided to climb Everest without supplemental oxygen and then every peak over 8000m, did he sit down and think if this was achievable or attainable or realistic (in fairness, he probably did, see the section on the elite mindset later) .Now I'm not suggesting, we all have to go and make history, but have some cojones, stretch yourself.

Relevant/ Realistic

Just in case you were going to set a goal that wasn't relevant. This mainly applies to business and the workplace, where setting a goal that doesn't gel with your company needs seems odd to managers. Often times, the word 'realistic' and 'achievable' are used in the SMART acronym, which is tautological.

Reinhold: I'm off to climb Everest without oxygen
Boss: How is this relevant to the MacGuffin account
Reinhold: Catch my fist pen pusher, I'm off to find the yeti

Using my 21 day squat goal, was it really relevant to anything, rather than me wanting to see if I could do it, and get a minor insight into Bulgarian training.

For realistic, see above, realistic may not be worthwhile.

Time -bound

Seems obvious. The time frame chosen is the important thing, I commit to losing 2 pounds of weight over the next... 2 years. In discussion unless people have a particular event they are aiming for, for example, weight loss for a wedding, they are loathed to be measured. They want to lose half a stone, but they don't want you to judge them in 8 weeks time if they haven't done it.

Sometimes, other words are used in the SMART acronym, or additional words are added to make it SMARTER, like energised, re-evaluate etc. But, in a nutshell that's your smart goal. And in most cases, people will nod their head, write it all down, and then go away and fail, and the main reason is...

The Comfort Zone

In the words of Dr Sheldon Cooper

"It's called the comfort zone for a reason."
Dr Sheldon Cooper - he's smarter than you
  The comfort zone is so powerful that many people would rather die than leave it. Exercise referral/ GP referral clients are the classic example of this. A GP or doctor has specifically prescribed exercise for them to do, it could be because of hypertension or type 2 diabetes or a whole plethora of conditions. And in some cases they take up exercise, but in many cases they don't. Even in the case of cardiac artery bypass graft surgery, some people do not modify their lifestyle afterwards. A close encounter with death and fear of dying is still not enough to push some people out of their comfort zone, the pain of change is too much. Now, of course, there can be deep psychological reasons for this, or in some cases some people just hate their life or they think its too late. And in many of these cases, psychological counselling would be more beneficial than a prescription for exercise. However, everyone has free will, and in most of these cases in the Western world people made the choices themselves, they chose they path they are on in terms of health. Yes, there are certain things you can't control, the global economy, your company going bankrupt, but going for a 20 minute walk is not one of these.

How to break out of the comfort zone

The chances are you could do it, if you wanted to. John Broz - an American Olympic lifting coach, once said that if someone held a gun to the head of a member of your family, and said you had to squat a certain amount of weight before a certain date, you would probably squat more than once a week. Now, even though this quote was really in relation to squat frequency, the premise hold true (unless you hate all your relatives!). If someone, held a gun to you or a member of your family and said you had to achieve a certain goal, you'd probably give it a good shot (pardon the pun). In the case of many of the exercise referral clients who fail to exercise, they just haven't realised yet that the gun is being held to their head, the idea of death is still not tangible enough for them to act.

And in real life, no one is holding that gun to your head. You have to hold that gun to your own head (metaphorically my friends), because as I've stated before, if you don't lose a stone or run a marathon or write a book, no one else cares. No one is waiting for you to do it.

To quote John Broz

"How you feel is a lie."
 He was talking about physically, but lets look at that in a psychological sense. Your inner voice is very persuasive, you will tell yourself all sorts of things to maintain the status quo, to stay in the comfort zone. And in many cases, other people will try and sabotage your success, they want you to be like them, in the comfort. Don't listen.


To get out of the comfort zone you either need to have something that pushes you out of the comfort zone, or pulls you out of the comfort zone. An internal force like a brush with death can push you out of it, or in fitness an external event can pull you out.

Entering an event may help to pull you out, but it has to be at the right level. If you've never run before, entering a local 5k might be enough, but in most cases I would suggest it's not. You probably already know you can complete 5k, you could power walk it right now (if you want to run it in14 minutes, that's a different matter). Also, the financial out lay is not high, on the day of the race, its easy to roll over in bed, you've only lost the £10 entry fee and you can tell all your friends you had an injury.

You need to raise the stakes, enter a competition where you have to stand on stage in a bikini might create enough of a fear factor for to push away that pint of pimms and family pack of pringles. Plus the financial outlay of booking hotels, buying bikini, dresses, fake tan means you have invested more in it financially. I have seen this first hand, my girlfriend lost over 20 kg, trained and entered a figure competition, placed 2nd in the fitness testing and 6th overall out of 45 people. Fear of standing on stage in a bikini is a powerful motivator.

Some ultra-runs are very expensive, the multi day desert ones can cost $3000. The financial outlay, might be enough to make you go out on the weekend for your back to back runs. If you are a millionaire, it might not be.

The first ultra-run I entered, my training was driven by fear, not by financial cost. Firstly, I didn't want to let the team down, I didn't want to fail and not complete it. I didn't need to write the goal down, or put it on my fridge or write it in SMART format. I had internalised it, I got up everyday and thought about it.

Flip the switch

To use The Biggest Loser TV show as an example: The contestants on this show are normally the epitome of the person who sets goals and fails, and then suddenly they have spectacular success. This could be due to several things, firstly, something is suddenly switched in their brain, 'I need to do this or I will die', faced with their own mortality they are pushed out of their comfort zone. Then, the actual environment they are in is controlled, set exercise times, controlled food and support; they are physically removed from their comfort zone and it is hard for them to go back. Then, of course, they are on national TV, so any failure will be amplified and lastly, there is an external motivator of some prize money pulling them. Also, there is a support network around them, however sadistic it may seem, they are supported every step of the way.

Some goals are driven by replacement. There are plenty of example of ultrarunners who are ex-alcoholics or ex-addicts. Some say they replaced one addiction with another. Same with figure athletes, at a recent competition, I lost count of the number of women who had an eating disorder when they were younger and replaced it with the obsession of healthy eating. The switch flipped from an unhealthy lifestyle to an obessesion with an uber healthy one. And you know what, who cares. If someone has changed their life and moved in a more positive direction, then this is only a good thing. Anyone who steps outside the 'norms' of our mediocre media society is seen as strange. Not being like everyone else can only be a good thing (within the limits of the law of course!)

Sometimes you just have to do it. When I started writing this blog, I just did it one day. And though I need to write more, and the process of writing can sometimes be hard, I do it because I want to, because I enjoy it.

Learn from the elites

In a study by Connaughton et al (2008) the researchers interviewed elite athletes, some of which had competed at the Olympic level. Some common themes and attributes emerged. They were:-

  1. Having an unshakable self-belief in your ability to achieve your competition goals
  2. Having an unshakable self-belief that you possess unique qualities and abilities that make you better than your opponents
  3. Having an insatiable desire and internalised motives to succeed
                                                                (Connaughton et al, 2008:86)

This is the mindset you have to develop. Also notice, that initially motives are internalised, way before sponsorship deals and salaries. Of course, they may have a 'talent' to begin with, but numerous people have had the talent but failed because of mindset.

The elites cited the underlying mechanism to initially be parents (and note, the ones with pushy parents weren't the ones who succeeded) and then coaches and social support. As the old adage says, you become like the people you surround yourself with. Negative people will affect your mindset. Also, note that negativity is not the same as as constructive criticism and coaching. If you don't have this support network, then you have to motivate yourself internally.

The study also shows that elites feel pain when they push themselves to win, the same as everyone else, and they have failure and setbacks like everyone else. The important thing is the mindset, to paraphrase one of the elite athletes interviewed, you can be last in the field, but you still have to believe that you can win. And if you don't win, you look at what you could've done better, and what you need to improve on, while still holding the belief that you are unbeatable.

Just do it - the cliche

Sometimes, the only way to get out of your comfort zone, is to burn all the bridges. To make returning back impossible. To forge ahead becomes the only possibility open to you. Narrow your options down, until the path is clear. And if you don't know how to do this, get help doing it, but realise you are a grown adult, responsible for your actions. Only you can take the leap.

Burn your bridges if you have to, but only you can build your path

Ultimately, it doesn't matter if you didn't use the SMART format to write your goal, it doesn't matter if you didn't write it down or if you didn't tell anyone. You carry the goal within you, only you know whether you succeeded or if it was worthwhile.

So book that photo shoot in 2 months time, enter that ultra marathon or throw your TV away. Take that first step, do whatever it takes. No one will do it for you.

“If you're going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don't even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery--isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you'll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you're going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It's the only good fight there is.”
― Charles Bukowski

Motivational picture: Andreia Brazier. Picture chosen by my girlfriend, this is what the figure athletes aspire to these days.


Connaughton, Wadey, Hanton & Jones (2008) The development and maintenance of mental toughness: Perception of elite performers. Journal of Sports Sciences. 26(1): 83-95

1 comment:

  1. I am liking the acronym! Interesting use of words. Thanks for sharing. Keep the posts coming.