“The Proper Role of Goals is to Liberate Us”
When I was in business school, I learned how to craft a “proper goal”. Using the SMART method coined by George T. Doran, I learned to make my goals Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Timely in order to properly direct my efforts and the efforts of my team to the achievement of the goal.
When I pivoted to Personal Coaching, the SMART criteria arose again to help people outside of the business context achieve their own personal goals, like creating healthier habits or better managing stress. By making a goal SMART, something like “I will go to the gym more often” gains the specificity needed to take action towards the goal and actually evaluate your success in achieving it (“I will do cardio 3x and resistance training 2x at 6am Monday through Friday every week this month”).
I’m a fan of the SMART method, especially for people who have never really thought about their goals before. It can prompt us to think seriously about what we want, and what the steps needed to achieve what we want actually look like. It gives us a clear way of tracking our progress and measuring our success.
The more I think about it, the more I think that not all goals benefit from this model. Or rather, we don’t benefit from fitting all of our goals into this model.
I recently read this quote in Harvard Professor Tal Ben-Shahar’s book “Happier”, which offers a perspective on what makes life worth living based on the scientific findings of positive psychology (‘the study of human flourishing’):
“The proper role of goals is to liberate us, so that we can enjoy the here and now.”
It seems counter-intuitive — “to be present, plan for your future” — but when I think about the times in my life when I felt I was thriving, I can clearly pinpoint an overarching goal that was driving me — and it wasn’t a SMART goal. At one point, it was simply to put on a school musical. For most, it was to graduate having done my best in school.
More importantly, when I think about the times in my life when I’ve been floundering, lost, hopeless, or paralyzed, I know that I hadn’t set meaningful goals for myself, if any at all. One such time was the beginning of last year, when I was working at a good job but had not created a clear direction or purpose for myself for being there.
SMART goals tend to be focused on the immediate future, on a specific outcome that we want to occur as a result of our sustained efforts. We organize our actions towards achieving the goal, always keeping it in focus, letting it determine exactly what we do.
Ben-Shahar takes a different approach to goals. And I think he indirectly addresses some of the criticism levied at the SMART method — SMART goals lack flexibility, and they stifle creativity and excitement by acting as a checkbox exercise rather than a compelling vision of the future. The method doesn’t work well for long-term goals.
Because the proper role of long-term goals in particular is to liberate us in the present. We create goals for our future because we need our actions today to be directed by something. We need a way to make decisions, a destination towards which we can guide our choices. But I don’t think the reaching of the destination is what matters when we’re thinking about our long-term goals; as Ben-Shahar advocates, we must set goals for the future so that we can enjoy the road we’re on now.
That’s a very different way of thinking about goals than is often encouraged with the SMART method, which is ultimately concerned with the actual achievement of the goal and is therefore focused on the future and a very specific definition of success. If we frame our long-term goals in SMART fashion, the problem then becomes that we risk waking up 20 years into our lives having achieved our goal, but having missed the creation, the process, the living of that achievement.
And then what comes next? Do we set a new goal and only feel happy in the brief moment that we achieve it? At the extreme end, we can spend our entire lives chasing the next SMART goal, forgetting that life is only ever made up of moments in the Now.
Try making your short-term goals SMART. When you need to take organized action, when you’re putting in the work to climb a ladder upon which you can clearly see the top, take the time to get Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Timely.
But for the things that are guiding you, the goals that stretch 5, 10, 50 years down the road, try crafting them so that they liberate you in the present. Broad statements that excite you; a vision that compels you, that lets you get creative, that accounts for the fact that life is only made up of moments in the Now, and that is built upon the fact that change is inevitable…
“If we do not know where we want to go, every fork in the road becomes a sign of ambivalence — neither turning right nor left seems a good choice as we do not know whether we want to end up where these roads lead. So instead of focusing on the landscape, the scenery, the flowers on the side of the road, we are consumed by hesitation and uncertainty. What will happen if I go this way? Where will I end up if I turn here?
If we have a destination in mind, if we more or less know where we are going, we are free to focus our full attention on making the most of where we are.”
- Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, Happier, 2007.