The idea of systematically approaching opportunities and challenges in one’s life is an ancient one. In more recent times, psychologists have attempted to explain the relationship between what we want to achieve and our actual pursuit of it. Much of the foundational work on this subject was done by Dr. Edwin Locke in the 1960s. Locke showed that people do better when their goals are challenging and when their goals are concrete as opposed to amorphous. In other words, asking someone to do something they perceive to be hard (but, importantly, not impossible) results in them trying harder than when they are asked to do something they believe is easy. Similarly, giving someone a specific goal, such as lifting a heavy weight a dozen times, generally leads to them expending more effort than being told to simply do their best.
In 1981, Dr. George Doran, an organizational psychologist and consultant, published a brief article in Management Review describing a novel method for managers to employ when writing business goals. Using the acronym S.M.A.R.T., Doran explained that goals are best when they are Specific (i.e., targeted), Measurable (i.e., quantifiable), Assignable (i.e., responsibility can be designated), Realistic (i.e., can be accomplished given known constraints), and Time-related (i.e., bounded). Doran’s model became widely popular and was later expanded by those looking to add additional dimensions and apply the approach outside of corporations. To make goals SMART-ER, various authors suggested including adding engaging, ethical, excitable, and ecological as elements, as well as rewarding, reassess, revisit, and recordable. As with the original concept, these amendments have caught on to varying degrees.
The SMART approach is a good one for certain goals and objectives. However, as with most ideas accompanied by catchy acronyms or slogans, it has a tendency to be overused and is frequently applied to situations where it is inappropriate. Having been steeped in the premise of SMART goals, I find it difficult to resist the urge to treat all of my personal objectives through its lens. In particular, I am finding it challenging to accept that changing life-long patterns of behavior cannot be treated like a discrete task. Therapy does not have SMART goals.
In therapy today, I was considering how I started off my recovery, and premised my leave of absence from work, on the idea that I could set a specific goal–in my case, it was to taper off of my medication–and accomplish it by a certain deadline. If I look at my recovery through the lens of a SMART goal, I’ve completely failed. However, goal setting for personal growth doesn’t work this way. I’ve realized that my ability to understand destructive patterns of personal goal setting–like the way I went about my recovery from depression–is one of the major accomplishments of my recovery.
The journey that I am on has neither a cute acronym nor a deadline. It just has hope and progress, reflection and restoration, trial and error.