Six (Not So) SMART Goals Mistakes—and How to Fix Them

If you’ve been in the professional world for more than a few years, chances are high that you’ve been encouraged to utilize SMART goals to enhance your performance.

Developed in 1981 by a consultant and former executive for the Washington Water Power Company, SMART goals are now virtually gospel in executive circles. But when it comes to achieving peak performance, SMART goals have some real limitations.

If you’re making these six mistakes, your SMART goals may actually be holding you back.

Mistake #1: You’re Using SMART Goals as Motivation

SMART goals are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic (or relevant), and time-bound. Unfortunately, when we attempt to craft a goal that meets all five of these criteria, it is easy for us to lose the sense of excitement, aspiration and energy that inspired us to achieve the goal in the first place.

The answer isn’t to toss out SMART goals. Instead, make sure that your goals stem from outcomes. Outcomes answer the question, “What does success look like and feel like?” It captures—either directly or indirectly—why success is important to you.

Goals, on the other hand, are the milestones or guideposts that let you know if you’re on track to achieve your desired outcomes.

Here’s an example of how outcomes and goals can work together:

Outcome: Success looks like one year from now, my resume meets the minimum standard job requirements for 90% or more of the published senior project manager positions in my industry…so that I can maximize my chances of securing a great job once my family relocates to Cincinnati.


  • Obtain PMP® certification through PMI by Dec. 31, 2021.

In this case, our aspiring senior project manager has a clear vision of what success looks like—as well as their “why.” The goal—obtaining PMP certification—is a clear step along the path to the outcome.

Mistake #2: You’re Bending Over Backwards to Identify “Trackables”

While the SMART acronym provides a great framework for thinking about goal-setting, not everything worth achieving is measurable. In fact, even the creator of SMART goals thought it should be understood that “the suggested acronym doesn’t mean that every written objective will have all five criteria.”

A goal should be an indicator of progress—which means that while you should be able to at least intuitively know when it has been met, the goal doesn’t have to be a single number, percentage, or “yes/no” answer.

As an example, you may have a goal to successfully complete the $1M construction project you’re leading this year. You decide that “successful” means:

  • The project is delivered within the scope, schedule, budget, and value objectives defined by your stakeholders.
  • As a result of the project, you’ve established a high-trust, long-term relationship with your customer (with whom your company will continue to do business after the project is over).

While it’s critical to define fuzzy terms when setting goals, you’ll notice that this definition isn’t strictly objective. For example, how will I know if I’ve established a “strong” relationship with my customer?

There are many signs and symptoms of a high-trust vs. a low-trust relationship I can use to determine the answer—but ultimately, it is subjective. And in this case, it is subjective on purpose.

In a case like this, it can be tempting to force measurability, perhaps by adding a stipulation that the customer should do a certain amount of additional business with us. Unfortunately, doing this would risk over-focusing on sales at the expense of the relationship. If I want this customer to become a long-term advocate, it’s better to focus on goals that are consistent with that strategy—even if that requires sacrificing measurability.

Mistake #3: You’re Not Balancing Short-Term and Long-Term Goals

Short term long term SMART goalsThe latest research on goal-setting suggests that setting a challenging long-term (distal) goal combined with short-term (proximal) goals leads to the highest goal attainment. Unfortunately, many people focus exclusively on one or the other.

For best results:

  1. Start by defining your desired end-state (outcome).
  2. Assess your current position relative to your definition of success.
  3. Set goals with varied “due dates” that will help you close the gap between where you are and where you want to be…both short-term and longer-term.

Mistake #4: You’re Overly Focused on Performance Goals

There are two types of goals: performance goals and learning (or process) goals. Performance goals focus on getting the desired end result, like running a four-minute mile. A learning goal, on the other hand, focuses on acquiring knowledge or a new skill.

Using the running example above, a learning goal might be to lengthen your running stride or increase steps per minute. These goals focus on learning more effective ways to do something.

Research demonstrates that in most cases, learning goals are associated with much higher goal attainment. If you’re constantly struggling to achieve your SMART goals, try adjusting them to reflect process over performance.


Mistake #5: Your Goals Are Too Realistic and Achievable

Good goals shouldn’t be impossible to achieve, but SMART goals can lead to a watering down of our aspirations. Leadership IQ, a leadership training and research company studied 4,182 workers from 397 organizations to see what kind of goal setting processes were actually effective. They discovered that for people to achieve great things, their goals needed to push them out of their comfort zone and require them to learn new skills.

Ask yourself whether your SMART goals represent a challenge to you. If not, you may be aiming too low.

Mistake #6: You Aren’t Willing to Change Course

Some goals simply don’t survive the first contact with reality. Priorities, circumstances, and support resources can change without warning. It’s important to periodically revisit your goals and ensure that they are still valid. While outcomes (“what success looks like”) should stay mostly consistent, high achievers won’t hesitate to adjust goals if required.

Think about what other goal-setting mistakes you could be making.  What are your techniques for effective goal setting?

The Bottom Line?

The SMART framework can provide the clarity and focus you need to achieve your goals…but it may not be enough to achieve your dreams. Think critically as you apply the tool!

For more information about the potential weaknesses (and mitigations) of the SMART framework, see this article on Locke’s Goal-Setting Theory or this one on the advantages and disadvantages of the SMART framework.

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