Why S.M.A.R.T. goals are D.U.M.B. for creatives (and what you should be doing instead)

A Quick Confession

I have a confession to make. I am terrible at setting goals for myself. Life goals, educational goals, business goals, creative goals, yearly, five-year, quarterly, does not matter. Name a type of goal and I have proven myself terrible at setting and sticking to it.

I have tried all sorts of approaches and frameworks. I bought and read business books about effective goal setting and S.M.A.R.T. goals. I have taken courses and workshops on how to do “annual reviews”. I have spent too many hours perfecting my Notion.so set up with the goal of getting my goals organized and implemented (Goalception).

I always come away either feeling guilty because I did not accomplish a goal or let down when I do accomplish a goal because there were 13 other goals on my list that did not get done.

It has taken time, but I have come to realize that my issue is not a lack of motivation (I do the work consistently) or my goals not being in alignment with my values (I put a lot of effort into thinking about what I am working on and making sure it jibes with what I want in life).

The issue is that when it comes to designing a life focused on producing and creating meaningful work; setting goals simply does not work.

S.M.A.R.T. goals are D.U.M.B. for creatives.

I know it sounds heretical. We have all been told over and over by guidance counselors and productivity bloggers that the key to success in life and work is to set goals and stick to them ferociously until they are completed.

If you are not accomplishing your goals, then you are either:

  1. Not trying hard enough
  2. Undisciplined
  3. Overly ambitious
  4. Not organized enough
  5. a quitter
  6. Plain old lazy.
  7. Some combination of the above

This is 100% wrong. Wrong for creative work, wrong for personal development, wrong for career development, wrong for just about any person whose life and career is built around creating valuable, innovative stuff.

Quick Caveat

If your work is focused on doing specific, known, quantifiable, repeatable tasks (or managing those who do that type of work), ignore what I am writing. Go have a blast with your S.M.A.R.T. goals or C.L.E.A.R. goals or S.M.A.R.T.T.E.R. goals or whatever mnemonic acronym the MBA kids are using these days.

For all the rest of us whose work is focused on innovation, creativity and dealing with an unpredictable world, this approach is not just D.U.M.B. (Don’t Use Methodology Blindly) but counterproductive.

WTF are S.M.A.R.T. goals and why don’t they work well?

If you are not familiar with the concept of S.M.A.R.T. goals it is a goal setting and management framework written about by George T. Doran in the early 1980s. The Acronym stands for Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic, and Time-related [1]. According to Doran, the framework was supposed to aid with

“the fact is that most managers still don’t know what objectives are and how they can be written.”

George T. Doran – Management Review[1]

The framework since then has been appropriated, re-defined and forced on well-meaning students and workers across fields and domains for decades.

There have been various iterations of the concept and alterations of specific letters over the years, but most are distinctions without much of a difference (Assignable switching to attainable, realistic switched to relevant etc.).

Let us go over what the terms mean and more importantly, why the approach does not work for creatives.

Specific –

What it means:

Specific in this context means “target a specific area for improvement” [1].

Why it doesn’t work:

Specificity has its place in project design and other areas but encourages turning creative, dynamic processes into siloed rote repetition (which is the opposite of what you should be doing in creative work).

Suppose you are an aspiring writer. Setting a goal of “Become a successful writer” is way too broad because there is no known, direct, repeatable path to achieve that goal. “Write a novel” is way too broad for the same reason. “Write 70,000 words” starts to be specific enough. You could even get more specific and set a goal of writing 1,000 words a day and track it for 70 days.

If you are fixated on writing 70,000 words you may be well on your way to finishing a novel, but you are also neglecting everything else that is required to make the novel worth reading (editing, iteration, creativity, cohesive storytelling, etc.). Specificity in this case turns you into a hack instead of a successful writer.

Measurable

What it means:

M stands for “Measurable” which means to “quantify or at least suggest an indicator of progress.”[1].

Why it doesn’t work:

Measurability is great when making widgets, not so great with everything else. Successful creative work relies on empathy, connection, emotional resonance, and transformation of the audience. What goal could you possibly set that quantifies these essential elements?

I have never in all my years teaching creatives heard a successful artist say “I will create a piece of work that has 14 points of connection and 34 points of aesthetic appeal”

You could always measure the number of pieces you create or the number of words you write, but that actively does damage to your process which should be focused on the quality of work, not how much you produce. (see specificity above)

Assignable

What it means:

Assignable means “who will do it?” [1]

Why it doesn’t work:

There is no assigning of your goals. You will do it. You are the one assigned. We are dealing with your goals, not your teams, not your virtual assistant’s. I have also seen the A in SMART be switched to “attainable” which relates to “realistic” below.

Realistic

What it means:

R stands for “realistic”. “state what results can realistically be achieved, given available resources” .[1]

Why it doesn’t work:

The problem with setting “realistic” or “attainable” goals is that you are setting the bar low enough that you know you can do it.

It is basically saying “Do not aspire to new things, don’t push yourself into unknown territory creatively or intellectually. Be realistic and set that goal so low that you know you cannot fail.”

This is the exact opposite of what you should be doing as a creative. If you are pushing yourself creatively and intellectually you have no idea what is realistic or achievable.

Time – related

What it means:

Time related means “specify when the results can be achieved”.[1]

Why it doesn’t work:

Setting time frames for goals is again great for widgets, not much else. If your goal is to do something known, consistent, accurately measured, and in multiples by all means extrapolate a time frame. Everything else is just a guess and even the most experienced creatives I know are terrible at knowing how long goals will take.

Life gets in the way. Health issues happen, pandemics happen, your children’s needs change, your needs change, and trying to predict the unknown and set a time table for long term and even medium term goals only sets you up to fail.

Which brings up the larger point of why rigid goal setting and frameworks like S.M.A.R.T. goals can be so detrimental to your work and long-term state of being.

A Constant State of Failure

Setting specific, measurable, assignable, realistic, and time-related goals for your life, career, and work encourages a rigid attachment to some imagined future state that gets less and less likely the farther out you look.

The moment you set a goal you put yourself into a state of self-imposed failure. You are failing until that goal is completed. If you manage to achieve that unlikely imagined future state by completing your goal, congratulations! Celebrate and get ready for the next constant state of failure.

Fear of failure may motivate temporarily but it is a mindset that actively damages your creativity, long-term motivation, and wellbeing by pushing anxiety, guilt, and shame about what you should be doing or did not get done yet. Magical thinking about what could or should be replaces appreciation for and connection to what actually is.

A Constant State of Exploration

Instead of putting yourself into a state of failure to be overcome, you should be trying as hard as possible to put yourself into a state of exploration to be experienced.

If you are serious about producing meaningful creative work you need to be constantly observing, listening, exploring, testing, playing with and expressing ideas no matter what your medium or domain.

To do this you need to approach change, failure, constraints, and the unexpected as gifts, not something that will shatter all of your goals and dreams.

How do we find and navigate this state of exploration? With a compass, not a map.

Intentions vs. Goals

When I talk about not setting goals (S.M.A.R.T. or otherwise), I do not mean wander around aimlessly, do whatever, and detach from responsibility or expectations.

Direction and vision are important no matter who you are and what you want in life. The key is shifting from a goal setting framework to an intention setting framework.

If a goal is a pre-determined static finish line, then an intention is more about committing to an emergent, connected, flexible and meaningful direction.

In the next article, I’ll expand on why designing intentions is a much more effective and meaningful way to work on your professional and creative development.

In the meantime, I hope we can connect through my regular scheduled newsletter (sign up below) which is designed around helping creatives through shared insight and resources as we all try and build effective professional and creative paths together.

References

  1. Doran, G. T. (1981). “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives”. _Management Review_. **70**(11): 35–36.

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