There is a lot of talk these days (well, for a while now) about SMART goals. Goals should be S.M.A.R.T., or that is what people say. I get that it’s a good acronym (though I suspect it’s more of a backronym than an actual acronym). But I have issues with the whole thing.
First of all, the only consistent bits are the “specific” and “measurable” parts, but I feel like those are nearly redundant. Of course with an explanation you can see the difference, but how hard would it have been to combine those ideas into something that embodies both ideas? But then it wouldn’t fit into the neat little acronym, right?
And even if you don’t feel like those ideas can be joined together, do we really need to make sure every goal meets five criteria? And don’t forget that some authors add additional letters to the end (SMARTER, for example). I want to write goals, not go through checklists to make sure my goals meet five or seven or more criteria.
For various reasons I have been asked to write a lot of goals lately. And I’ve also been trying to help others come up with and meet goals that will help them improve. And that’s the thing: I feel like most goals should lead to some kind of improvement. Isn’t that the focus, anyway?
So I feel like the first criteria should be that goals focus on improvement and responsibility. Of course, we don’t need to include “improvement” in some kind of “how to write goals” piece, because that’s the purpose of a goal, not part of the design. But it is worth mentioning, in case someone is setting goals that might lead to some kind of degradation. Plus, when we take responsibility for our own shortcomings we set goals. We aren’t blaming circumstances, or our parents, or our spouse, or our coworkers, or our boss, we are saying, “I have something I need to improve because I am responsible for this.” And with that in mind, goals that you set for someone else will rarely be reached, unless they are heavily invested in all aspects of the goal. They must feel that the goal is necessary and be invested in generating the goal to the maximum allowable extent.
#1 Goals should be focused. You should be pretty specific about what category you want to set a goal in, how you plan to execute it, what you plan to do, and why you are doing it. Focus on something, find ways to remind yourself about the goal and the focus. This is something you’ll need to carry with you in the forefront of your mind through to reaching the goal. Focus is key.
#2 The next thing that I think a goal should be is reasonable. I don’t just mean this in the normal sense of the word (that the goal not be absurd or unreasonable). You should be able to reason about your goal, you should have reasons for your goal, and you should reason your way to the goal. Goals should be accompanied by reason from inception through to completion. Of course goals should also be reasonable in the sense of “not unreasonable or absurd.”
#3 The final thing I feel is an important part of goals is that they be restrictive. I know that one is a little odd (especially since it’s such a negative word most of the time), but hear me out. We grow though self-imposed restrictions and through work. We increase in self control by exercising restraint, which leads to work. We deny ourselves instant gratification in order to gain discipline. Nearly all good things in life come through some form of personal restriction and hard work. By restricting our options we gain freedom. There are a lot of potential actions I could take right now, but by removing most of them I am free to chose the best options. For example, I could commit any number of crimes right now, but by restricting myself to the list of possible actions in the “completely legal” list I am avoiding issues with the law (which could lead to even worse imposed restrictions) and I have a much shorter list of potential activities to choose from, which avoids overload. The brain is actually pretty good (most of the time) at removing options in order to more easily and quickly make decisions. And similarly, by occasionally imposing restrictions on ourselves with purpose we can grow more readily and easily. A favorite exercise among writers and one I enjoyed in college was to pick a common word and write a paper or story without using it. You might try writing a short story without including the word “the” or “and” or “then.” By doing so you grow, because you are forcing your brain to work harder than usual to complete a mundane task. Restrictions lead to growth, so long as they are reasonable (see #2). Reasonable here means your restrictions shouldn’t be too loose or too tight. Seek moderation.
Again, like with the mention of “improvement” above, I don’t feel that my mnemonic device need include the final bit of advice. Moderation, balance, simplicity, and elegance. These are fantastic criteria for anything, whether it be a goal or an interaction with your neighbor. I seek moderation, balance, simplicity, and elegance in all things, and I encourage others to do the same.
So while FRR isn’t a great acronym (Focused, Reasonable, Restrictive), I do feel that it is a better set of criteria for goals. Before finalizing any goal, ask yourself these questions:
- What is the focus?
- What are the reasons for needing goals here? Why am I focusing on this? Why do I need the goal? What do I hope to accomplish? How can I reason my way to that accomplishment? (Don’t stop here, there should be lots of questions in the “reasonable” stage, all the way through to reaching the goal.)
- In what ways will I restrict myself in order to reach this goal?
The final bit of advice I have for goals is to keep records. Record your progress. Record your thoughts. Record your failures. Reason your way through the records from time to time and take assessment. Do you need to adjust course? Is the goal wrong? Is your methodology flawed? Are there any potential improvements you’re missing?
So while the three steps (FRR) are the most important bit when forming goals, the entire process looks like this:
- Take responsibility and use goals for improvement.
- Create goals that are Focused, Reasonable, and Restrictive.
- Seek moderation, balance, simplicity, and elegance.
- Keep records throughout the process.
If you do all of those things you will have success, which is the primary objective of any goal. If you do not taste the sweetness of success you will struggle with goals for the rest of your life. Start small (and simple), taste the success, and take small steps from there, setting goals along the way.