3/24/22: Smart athletes don't set SMART goals

Sent 3/24/22


  • I published an excerpt from Chapter 10 of Make the Leap about Risk and Performance Rewards. I refer to it often in talks or articles and wanted to have a reference point online. If you like the framework, please share it!

This week's Think Better Newsletter is about why smart athletes don't set SMART goals. 

The Idea

If you're interested in an overview of recent articles with a scientific bent, I recommend Amby Burfoot's Run Long, Run Healthy newsletter. He identifies lots of interesting articles related to the science and psychology of training. This week, an entry titled "SMART goals are dumb" caught my eye. (Here's a link to the full paper.)

If you've worked at a large company, you've almost certainly been exposed to the SMART goal-setting methodology. It was created in the 1980s to help businesses set better goals. In its most common--but not universal--form, the letters stand for: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timebound. 

Over time SMART goals have permeated all areas of society. Look up an article on goal-setting and the vast majority will push this approach. What this paper digs into is how well the SMART methodology aligns with goal-setting theory and whether they work in an athletic context. It turns out SMART goals may not be the smartest approach to goal-setting.

My biggest beef is that SMART goals overlook two critical qualities. Goals must be meaningful and they must be challenging. 

Comments on the components of SMART goals

The article outlines 8 problems, including my beef. Three others that stood out to me are:

  1. SMART goals are not based on scientific theory (!)
  2. Physical activity goals do not need to be specific to be beneficial
  3. SMART goals can actually be detrimental to athletes who are not sufficiently active; these athletes benefit more from learning goals

All of these make sense and align to my general approach to goal-setting. If you are setting a long-term North Star goal, then a SMART approach might work (assuming you go above and make it meaningful and challenging!).

Otherwise, it's more important to focus on Next Step goals which can be done in the moment and strong, productive systems that help you execute beneficial activities without a specific goal in mind.  

The System

One of the funny recommendations the researchers make is to not set goals based on a catchy acronym, and to not try and replace SMART with a new and better acronym. That hit me right in the gut. I love making new acronyms!

But I think they are probably right. And so rather than try to outline all the key components of the hypothetical goal-setting system you don't need, I'll just emphasize what I wrote above: make your North Star goals meaningful and challenging.

Your goals should stir you emotionally and resonate with you. If they don't move you, you won't move for them.

Your goals should also be hard to achieve. If they don't force you to change your behavior, think hard about how to achieve them, and be different in some way then they aren't going to make you better. 

Then build systems and Next Step goals that will generate the momentum you need to achieve them.

The Question

Think about your biggest North Star goal: is it meaningful and challenging?


Go Be More,

Bryan Green
Author of Make the Leap: Think Better, Train Better, Run Faster and the companion Think Better Workbook
Co-host of the Go Be More Podcast
Co-host of the Fueling the Pursuit Podcast

“If we have a goal and a plan, and are willing to take risks and mistakes and work as team, we can choose to do the hard thing.”
— Scott Kelly



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