Beyond SMART: a guide to more courageous goal setting.

I know SMART goals have their place.

They drag our bog-standard goals out of the corner and shine a fluorescent light in their eyes. They make sure we ‘mean business’.

But there are scenarios when applying this kind of specificity to our goals can be overwhelming or premature. Sometimes our intentions need to live and breathe. It’s not always appropriate to nail down the details.

(For those who aren’t familiar with the SMART acronym, it stands for specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-based.) It’s a framework applied to goals to make it more likely they’ll actually happen.

Sometimes, making goals SMART can actually set us up to fail. We add timelines and metrics that we aren’t ready for. We believe we are ready, but on a deeper level there’s a conflict that eventually sabotages our progress.

Just like a ‘failed’ New Year’s resolution, we’ve found a structure that gives us a temporary sense of control. Then the deeper forces at play have swooped back in to derail what we’ve put in place. We may use the perceived failure to beat ourselves up, when the only thing that was actually lacking in the first place was a bit more self-compassion and spaciousness.

To be logical and strict with goals can feel reassuring. There’s a period of time where I am motivated by it, where the resolution to tackle my marketing plan or eat healthy food feels energising and real. But a couple of months down the line, the false power of intellectually-driven promises will be waning.

Of course having accountability and coaching helps in this situation, but how can you hold ourselves accountable in an effective way? How do we apply rigour and efficacy in executing goals, without relying on force and control?

The key isn’t in avoiding SMART goals or similar tools entirely, it’s in waiting for the right moment to apply them (and having more appropriate systems in place when we’re not ready for them).

So before you make a goal specific, measurable or time-based, run through these check points. Don’t start making action plans until you are comfortable with each of the areas in relation to the changes you want to make.

And if you’re wondering why the title of this post is about courage, try out these four areas sincerely and deeply with one of your goals. You’ll understand why it takes a certain something.

1. A meaningful goal

What does it mean for me to achieve this goal?

What is the deeper significance of this goal in my life?

What does this goal give me, beyond the more obvious outcomes?

If I complete this goal, what does that tell me about myself?

For example, the goal could be as simple as creating a clear marketing plan for the next 3 months. The marketing plan is beneficial in its own right, as are the benefits such as clarity, better focus and more consistent action.

What could this goal represent that goes beyond the benefits above?

In creating and executing this plan, there may be more time for family and friends. Perhaps achieving this goal affirms a sense of confidence and self-worth that has been lacking for a while. It may signify overcoming a fear of visibility and self-expression.

The goal almost always means more than it seems, and tapping into this significance increases your commitment and follow-through.

2. An authentic goal:

Is my motivation internal, external, or a bit of both?

How does it take into account my whole life, not just my work?

How does it fit with my values?

Checking the authenticity of the goal makes all the difference. For example, if the marketing plan includes posting 3 times a week on Linkedin, this could seem fairly simple to implement. But, is it genuinely easy to see this kind of commitment through consistently? Nope.

Tapping into the true motivation that is driving the goal helps with this, as does addressing its broader context.

An internal motivation might centre on my personal value of community-building, or perhaps my enjoyment of the platform and the interactions I have there. An external motivation (which I will probably try to sweep under the carpet instead of acknowledge) would be driven by what I ‘should’ be doing. Perhaps comparison to colleagues who use Linkedin, or a webinar where they pushed the idea that it was the best way to promote my business.

These external motivations tend to create shaky foundations. The action doesn’t remain positive or consistent because it’s based on some level of shame or fear. Authentic goals lead to aligned actions that are driven by positive energy (instead of willpower).

3. A congruent goal

How might I sabotage this goal?

What part of me does not want to achieve it?

Can I just… not?

Instead of pushing away the niggling doubts and contradictions, lay them all out on the table. Be honest about the whining teenager voice inside that simply cannot be bothered to do this. Be honest about the hectic schedule, and the million things that might get in the way.

And, most of all, be honest about whether this goal is yours to achieve.

Yes, doing boring things is a part of adulting. But if a task is not congruent, it may just be a big waste of time.

If you don’t even like writing for Linkedin, but you force yourself to do it… what’s that content going to be like? After trudging through the task, you’ll probably end up with lacklustre posts that nobody reads.

By acknowledging what could get in the way of the goal, you shine a light on the unconscious sabotage that might take place (which makes it less likely to derail your efforts). Consider the 80/20 rule here and see what it’s like to remove tasks instead of always feeling you should do more.

4. A full-bodied goal:

What do you feel in your body?

Is there an opening or a contraction?

Do you feel wobbly or stable?

This is about the non-verbal aspect of goal-setting, and it requires practice and commitment to get used to it.

Write out your goal. Imagine executing it, taking the first steps (I like to do this standing up, as it can help me sense how the goal impacts me in terms of my posture and stability). This isn’t about positive mindset or visualising success, it’s about noticing rather than changing anything. With our Linkedin example, it could go like this:

When I focus on posting more on Linkedin I feel a sense of contraction. I feel tight in my chest and I feel tense. Distracted and wobbly. When I focus on alternative marketing activities (for example, going to more networking events), I feel a sense of warmth and openness in my body.

In the context of all the other aspects we’ve looked at here, the felt-sense can be helpful in deciding whether you’ve found a good goal to proceed with. With practice, you don’t need to set time aside to do this exercise – it becomes automatic. This is your intuitive messaging system and it often knows a lot more (and a lot more quickly) than your conscious mind. Listen to it.

In coaching sessions with my clients, I steer clear of action planning until all of these areas have been checked out. Whilst it sometimes feels more reassuring to make tick lists and plans, it’s really worthwhile to spend time here first.

Once you’ve fully examined your goals in this context and given them some time to develop naturally, applying a framework like SMART can be really helpful. 

A goal is a commitment to change. If everything was already in place then you wouldn’t need a goal. This may sound obvious, but reframing goal-setting in the light of transformation can be a reminder that it’s not just about what we do. Beyond the actions and surface-level change must be a shift on the level of emotion and belief.

How can you bring some of these questions into your planning process to make it more effective and compassionate?

Considering working with me? Want to meet and see if it's a good fit?
We can have a 30-minute, no-pressure conversation to discuss your current situation and identify your next steps.