Time to TWEAK the SMART Goals concept

The Problem with SMART Goals

They can set you up to under-perform

Ellen Goodwin
5 min readFeb 15, 2018


When you Google “Goals” one of the first things that always comes up is SMART Goals. Somewhere along the line, this became THE way to set up goals.

Just for the record, it is not THE way to set up goals. It is A way. It’s a pretty good way.

Sort of. But that doesn’t mean it can’t use a little tweaking.

As you probably know, SMART is a mnemonic device that’s designed to help you remember that your goals should be:

This really makes sense, right? Setting up a very Specific, Measurable goal that is Attainable and Realistic in a very specific Time frame has to be a recipe for success.

Except it’s not.

It’s really great when you set up a SMART Goal; it has a very Specific, Measurable goal with a specific Deadline that you can track, but, in my book, things go completely sideways you get to the part where you decide if your goal is both Attainable and Realistic.

Let’s look at those terms.

Is your goal Attainable?

Attainable in whose book? This term can lead to two different things. First, it can cause you to aim too low and set a goal that is guaranteed to be Attainable, so you WILL achieve your SMART Goal.

The only problem is you’ll be setting a goal you know you can reach without much effort, which means that you will not be pushing yourself to achieve more. You’re sacrificing growth in the name of guaranteed success. You’re going for the easy Gold Star of Accomplishment rather than the life lesson of expanding your reach.

It’s like setting your goal to be County Champion (of whatever your particular sport, skill, or hobby happens to be) when you could set your goal to be the World Champion.

You might not ultimately succeed as the World Champion. Still, you’ll definitely stretch and grow and learn more than if you just settled for County Champion.

A purely Attainable goal limits you.

Goals that seem crazy or impossible are the way we change our worlds. What’s more important — achieving a too-small goal or trying to achieve something we’re not sure we can do? Both of them move you forward, but in one case, it’s just a baby-step — in the other, it’s a hop-skip-and-a-very-enthusiastic-jump-forward. So which one do you want in your life? (Hint: the whole hop-skip-jump thing is way more fun, exciting, terrifying, and satisfying.)

Is your goal Realistic?

Within the strict context of SMART goals, this is a yes or no answer, and it’s another way to keep your goals small. You’d like to think, “Yes, of course, my goal is infinitely Realistic,” but who knows what is genuinely Realistic? Every day people achieve goals that no one ever believed were Realistic: best-selling books get written, Olympic heroes are crowned, and people recover from horrifying accidents.

Were these ever Realistic goals? No, they were pie-in-the-sky goals that people went for without limiting themselves by worrying they were Realistic.

Asking if your goal is both Attainable and Realistic limits your inspiration, your enthusiasm, and quite possibly, your future.

I propose a change to the whole SMART Goals concept.

Let’s replace Attainable and Realistic with Action and Response.

Attainable needs to change to Action Plan, as in “I have an Action Plan to do this,” and Realistic needs to be replaced with Response as in “I have a Response Plan for the inevitable obstacles that are going to show up as I move forward.”

Subbing Action and Response into the SMART mix proactively takes care of two problems that show up when working towards goals: knowing what steps are needed to move forward and knowing how to overcome obstacles that get in your way.

The good thing is that the two kinds of plans don’t have to be dull and boring. You need a little imagination to make your plans fun. And you just need a little creativity to make your ideas something that inspires you and makes you want to follow through.

Developing an Action Plan gives you a concrete track to follow so you aren’t winging it as you go along.

You want your Action Plan to have defined steps that guide you as you move from where you are to where you want to be. So before you start working on your goal, think about what you need to do first, second, third? What’s going to move you ahead faster? Where might you need help? Who could you look to for help? Put all of this information into your Action Plan.

Action Plans are really the roadmaps of how you plan to achieve your goals. They give you the step-by-step direction to get to where you want to go. Of course, Action Plans are nothing if you just look at them and don’t follow them. Their very name (Action!) is designed to inspire you. Action Plans require you to be proactive about achieving your goal. (And proactive is always better than being reactive!)

As you move forward towards your goals, using your Action Plan, obstacles will invariably show up in your path. Steve Jobs didn’t build Apple in one seamless, obstacle-free step. Sir Richard Branson, Martha Stewart, and the owner of your favorite restaurant down the street all encountered obstacles on the way to success, and somehow they overcame them, and so will you.

The path to goal achievement is never straight, which is why you need to be ready with a Response Plan that details what twists and turns and roadblocks you might encounter and your options to move past them.

You know what really helps with a Response Plan? Looking at others who have achieved what you’re trying to achieve and how they dealt with the obstacles that showed up.

Who has done what you’re trying to do? What problems did they encounter? How did they overcome them? How would that same obstacle impact you? What are some options that you could use that would enable you to keep going?

Using this information, make an “IF this happens, THEN I will respond like this” list. If you’re ready before obstacles show up, then you’ll be less likely to be stopped in your tracks.

Replacing Attainable and Realistic with Action and Response in the SMART Goals plan make you much more likely to achieve your goal.

You’re no longer limiting what you can achieve by deciding if your goal is Attainable or Realistic. Instead, you’re shooting for the stars with big goals, knowing that you’re fully prepared for whatever you might encounter on your way to success.



Ellen Goodwin

Productivity Consultant, TEDx Speaker, Podcast Co-host, Author of DONE: How To Work When No One Is Watching. Learn more at Ellen@EllenGoodwin.com