Specific Times When SMART Goals Can Be Counterproductive (and What Strategy to Use Instead)

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Fire up your browser, do a search for “goals,” and you’ll probably see something about SMART goals within the first few hits. Because whether it’s school, sports, business, diet/exercise/fitness, or personal finance, SMART goals are everywhere. Heck, my middle schooler was learning about this in gym class the other day.

SMART goals, of course, refers to the idea that we’re more likely to achieve a goal, if the goal is specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timed (or something along those lines, as the letters sometimes stand for different things, depending on who you ask).

And despite my weird, inexplicable pet peeve about acronyms, I will begrudgingly admit that SMART goals do make pretty good sense.

But how well have SMART goals actually worked for you?

Even if you enjoy the occasional clever acronym, haven’t SMART goals been kind of hit or miss? Or even if they’ve worked great for you personally, perhaps you’ve had students who struggled to make SMART goals work for them?

If so, not to worry. It turns out that there are reasons why SMART goals may not work so well for everyone. And there’s another approach, which might not only get you better results, but make the journey more enjoyable too.

Let’s take a look…

SMART vs. open goals

Building on some previous research in this area, a team of British and Australian researchers (Hawkins et al., 2020) wondered if the effectiveness of SMART goals might depend on how experienced or skilled the individual is in a particular activity.

For instance, in the early stages of learning a new skill or activity, a goal that is too specific might feel a little overwhelming, and be less effective than a goal that’s more flexible and open-ended. 

Like, if you’ve already been working out three times a week for years, setting a specific goal of 50 pushups in a row might be motivating. But if your exercise habits tend to be rather sporadic, it might be more motivating to have an open goal – like “I wonder how many pushups I can do?”

A test of goal-setting strategies

So, the researchers recruited 36 participants to participate in a study that looked at how three different types of goal-setting strategies might affect their level of physical activity. And to see if the strategies might work differently at different levels of experience, they made sure half of the participants were relatively active individuals (150+ minutes of moderate physical activity per week), and half were less active (<30 minutes of physical activity per week).

To test each strategy, they had participants go for a series of three short 6-min walks, on four separate days.

On one day, they were asked to “walk at a comfortable pace, that represents your typical walking activities” for all three walks (control condition).

On another day, they were asked to take their first walk “at a comfortable pace,” but then asked to “do your best in 6 minutes” (i.e. walk as far as possible) for the next two walks (do-your-best condition).

The SMART goal condition was the most specific. They were asked to take their first walk “at a comfortable pace,” and then asked to increase their distance by 16.67% for the second walk, and then an additional 8.33% beyond that for their third walk.

Meanwhile, the open goal condition, while still aspirational, was not nearly as specific. After taking their first walk “at a comfortable pace,” the participants were asked to “see how far you can walk in 6 minutes.”

Between, during, and after their walks, participants were also asked a number of questions to learn more about their subjective experience of each type of goal. From their mood, to how much effort they felt they were putting in, confidence in their ability to meet the goal, how well they felt they performed, how much they enjoyed the activity, motivation, and so on.

So which goal approach was best?

The results

Well, in terms of which condition maximized physical activity, all three goal groups walked significantly further in six minutes than the group that was told to walk at a comfortable pace. But that’s not really surprising – I mean, of course people would walk faster when asked to do so.

What is interesting, is how the active and less-active participants responded very differently to the goal types.

Performance

In terms of effort, the active participants walked significantly further when using SMART goals than when using open goals.

However, it was the exact opposite for the less-active participants. They walked further when using open goals than when using SMART goals.

The implication being, that vaguer, exploratory, curiosity-driven goals may indeed be more productive in the early stages of engaging in a new activity or skill. While on the flip side, specific, challenging goals may be better as one becomes more experienced with the activity or skill.

Enjoyment

Maybe more importantly, the goal types also appeared to feel different to the active and less-active participants.

For instance, the active participants reported enjoying the walks a lot more when using SMART goals, than when using open goals. Whereas the less-active participants again had the opposite experience – reporting much higher enjoyment ratings when using open goals than when using SMART goals.

And because the emotions we experience during exercise is a pretty good predictor of whether we’ll exercise again in the future (Rhodes & Kates, 2015), again, it seems that in the early stages of a new activity or skill, maybe open goals could make it easier for us to establish a new habit. 

Like if we have a positive experience while using a new meditation app, or learning some new tunes by ear, or memorizing music, we’re more likely to do it again.

Perception of performance

It’s also worth noting that the less-active participants reported higher perceptions of performance and greater confidence, when using open goals too.

And since that feeling of performing effectively can help increase self-efficacy, and self-efficacy tends to predict whether someone will stick with an exercise habit or not (McAuley et al., 2007), the authors suggest that this is yet another way in which open goals may be more useful than SMART goals in the early stages of developing a new skill.

Hmm…so why is that open goals seem to work better when we’re in the early stages of a new activity?

Why?

Well, one of the authors has suggested that it may be because instead of comparing yourself to where you’re supposed to be, and constantly coming up short, you’re comparing yourself instead to where you began, and building up from there. Which is the sort of mindset that might be more motivating in the early going.

Like, the specific goal of memorizing the first movement of your concerto by your next lesson might be a motivating goal if you’ve already been doing some of the work, have a memorization strategy that you have confidence in, and have done this sort of thing before.

But if you’re not accustomed to memorizing music on a deadline, and don’t have a strategy, this might feel pretty overwhelming, be kind of paralyzing, and make for a miserable, ineffective week. 

Instead, an open goal of “I wonder how much of the first movement I can memorize by next week’s lesson?” might be a more productive mindset from which to approach the task. Where you will definitely challenge yourself – and perhaps surprise yourself by what you can accomplish – because you’ve taken away the fear and pressure of falling short of a specific target.

So what are we to take away from all of this?

Takeaways

Well, to me, this study suggests that SMART goals do still have a place in our lives. But we might have to use them more selectively – for the right person, at the right time. Not as a sort of default, one-size-fits all solution that we expect to work for everyone all the time.

So, the next time you have a student who seems to be a little stressed or overwhelmed with the task in front of them, maybe try a more open, exploratory, “see how well I can do”-type goal. It could be that this is exactly the thing that helps them approach the task more productively. Perhaps even with some genuine curiosity and excitement. =)


References

Hawkins, R. M., Crust, L., Swann, C., & Jackman, P. C. (2020). The effects of goal types on psychological outcomes in active and insufficiently active adults in a walking task: Further evidence for open goals. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 48, 101661. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychsport.2020.101661

McAuley, E., Morris, K., Motl, R., Hu, L., Konopack, J., & Elavsky, S. (2007). Long-term follow-up of physical activity behaviour in older adults. Health Psychology, 26, 375–380. https://doi:10.1207/s15324796abm3002_6. 

Rhodes, R. E., & Kates, A. (2015). Can the affective response to exercise predict future motives and physical activity behaviour? A systematic review of published evidence. Annals of Behavioural Medicine, 49, 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12160-015- 9704-5. 

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice,
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