Black circle with line across it. Inside are colored horizontal lines with a black all-caps word on each line. Top to bottom: Specific (lime green). Measurable (medium blue). Achievable (orange). Realistic (bright purple). Timebound (bright pink).

Non-Traditional Alternatives to SMART Goals

Since the early 1980s, SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely) have been the standard method for setting goals. The SMART method works well for goals that have a specific outcome. But if you are working on personal goals or creating and maintaining habits, it may not be as helpful. It’s cliché, but SMART goals focus on the result, not the journey. Don’t give up on goals, though! After we share some insights about why SMART goals aren’t perfect for every goal, we’ll add some alternatives to try.  

Why SMART goals aren't always the best way to achieve your goals: 

  • Measuring success and failure. SMART goals can be very effective when you are working on a project in a controllable environment. However, they can be very demotivating if you use them to determine success or failure without noting your progress. In some situations, doing so can even damage your mental health. 

  • Short-term goals often take precedent over long-term success. Say your goal is to lose 20 pounds in six months. That breaks down to 3-4 pounds a month. While this is a realistic goal, you are focusing on the outcome more than establishing habits that will get you there. If your circumstances change -- perhaps you must work a second job and have less time to cook and exercise -- you may not reach that goal. But if you track what you CAN do, you will see your effort and still feel like you accomplished something. Maybe you didn’t lose weight but gained muscle and improved your wellness habits. That is worth celebrating. 

  • What do "Realistic" and "Achievable" mean? Do they have the same meaning? Think about the cost of achieving these goals. People who are extremely self-driven tend to overload themselves with too many priorities. If you place too many goals in the "top priority" category, you can lose focus by attempting to achieve them all at once. One or two top goals can be achievable and realistic, but you will get bogged down if you add several others that are just as important. "Realistic" is relative. Don’t just think about if you can reach that specific goal, but if it's realistic while trying to reach other goals. 

 

A notebook is open to a page made of graph paper and says “notes” at the top. It’s on a black background. On the open page are dice with letters are them that spell both “CHANCE” and “CHANGE,” where the “C” and “G” near the end are sharing the same space.

What are some alternative goal-setting methods? 

  • Create anti-goals. This is different from typical goal-setting methods. Here, we focus on what we won't do so that we can achieve our goals. What does a really bad day for you look like? What can you stop doing (or do less) to avoid that scenario? Think about controllable parts of your life that make you unhappy, anything you want to avoid, decrease, or eliminate. For each one, create an anti-goal that includes a workable solution. Really think about what you have the power to change and try not to fix everything at once. Change does not happen overnight.
    • Are you constantly distracted by emails that interrupt your workflow? If possible, set specific times in your day when you check – and answer – your email. Try setting quiet hours for whatever time of day you tend to be most focused. You may want to meet with your supervisor, if you have one, to ensure they are onboard with your plan. If people are used to you responding to their emails immediately, they will need to be retrained to not expect that and having your manager on your side will help.

  • Set micro-goals. We often use micro-goals as part of reaching larger goals. However, they can be goals on their own, especially if you’re trying to create good habits. The trick is making them very small – they are MICRO-goals, after all. We’re talking 10 minutes a day at most. This method helps you build habits that will start to feel automatic after some time, and you'll feel even more motivated after realizing how little time it takes to achieve this goal. It’s great if you feel like doing more on some days, but don’t expect yourself to do more. Otherwise, the micro-goals can be as overwhelming as the big goals.
    • Do you want to incorporate a meditation practice? It’s best to not try to go from zero to an hour a day immediately. Change doesn’t happen overnight. (Are you seeing a pattern, here?) You don’t have to meditate for an hour every day to reap benefits; just taking 5-10 minutes each day to sit quietly and focus on breathing can help you develop that habit. You’ll start to notice that you automatically take a few deep breaths when you are stressed and need to re-center yourself.

  • Choose a theme. We often set goals for different parts of our life - career, health, financial, spiritual, etc. Sometimes this can make us feel a bit scattered, and it’s easy to set goals that conflict with each other. Choosing a theme – annual or monthly -- can help you focus. Think about what worked and what didn’t in the last 12 months. Did you end the year in more debt than when you started? Are you suffering from burnout? What you uncover can help you determine your theme.
    • For example, this could be your "Year of Finances" where you set realistic goals regarding debt and savings. You may think it’s not specific enough, but it’s OK to make this one a bit broad. If you are making progress, you’re on the right path. You may want to choose a monthly theme, especially if you expect some changes in your upcoming year. You might want to make April your “Month of Finances” where you file your taxes on time (even early!), update your budget, and cancel some unused subscriptions.

  • Change your environment. Where we live, learn, work, and socialize (and who with) tends do greatly affect our ability to reach our goals. Changing just one of your environments can help you make better choices.
    • If you want to drink less alcohol, make plans to meet friends at a coffee shop instead of an establishment that serves alcohol. Reduce how much alcohol you keep at home. If you are using alcohol to self-medicate, talk to your doctor or enlist a therapist to help you find better coping mechanisms.

While SMART goals don’t work for everyone and every goal, it can still be a useful method for straightforward and measurable goals. For other goals, try using one of these alternatives. You could even use a different method for each goal to understand what works better for you. Measuring growth and effort is as important as the result. 

If you are working on goals of any type, we recommend our Achiever II Planner. Available in two sizes (A5 and B5) and several colors, it has everything you need to envision, track, and review your goals no matter what method you use! 

 

Related Blogs 

Setting Goals: What's Your "Why"?

Coping with Goal-Setting Anxiety

Should You Use Both a Weekly and Daily Planner?