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

I’ve read books about goal-setting frameworks. I have taken multiple courses on goal setting and how to do effective “annual reviews”. I have spent too many hours perfecting my to-do lists and project management systems with the goal of getting my goals organized and implemented (Goalception).

The massive gap between the long-term vision I had for myself and the day-to-day work I was focusing on never seemed to shrink. The cause wasn’t a lack of motivation (I was doing the work consistently) and it wasn’t my goals not being in alignment with my values (I was constantly focused on doing work that felt relevant, interesting, and valuable).

What I came to realize is that if you are trying to design a life and career focused on innovative creative work; rigid goal-setting frameworks do not work.

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

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. Close this article and 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, goal setting 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.


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)


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 assistants. I have also seen the A in SMART be switched to “attainable” which relates to “realistic” below.


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 with creative work. 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. Trying to predict the unknown and set a timetable for long-term and even medium-term goals only set you up to fail.

This brings up the larger point of why rigid goal-setting frameworks like S.M.A.R.T. goals can be so detrimental to your work and 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 to set your next goal and the next 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 “should be” replaces a 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.

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.


  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.