One of the first things we ask our clients when they sign up with us as trainers is–
“What’s your goal?”
When we ask this question, we know instinctively to turn this into a SMART goal.
(Either that, or we were taught to do so).
Well, this article will discuss why SMART Goals are pretty dumb.
In order to not turn this post into a short novel –
This article isn’t about their ‘why’, but connecting with it can be the the difference between their success and their ‘near miss.’ (or total flop).
More on this is coming your way really soon.
Dumb Goals vs Dumber goals
- lose weight
- get fit
- read more
- get out of debt
Dumb “SMART” Goals:
- lose 8kg by June 1st
- Be able to run 10km straight without stopping
- Read 50 books this year
- Pay off credit card ($7K) by November 18th.
Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-based.
With all of my above goals, evolving them into ‘smart goals’ might make them easier to define – but that doesn’t do anything for taking action.
Whilst it’s true that a clearly defined goal has a significantly higher chance of coming to fruition than a ‘general goal’, that’s where it’ll die.
Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.
– Abraham Lincoln
You’ve taken the first step towards achieving your goal. Congratulations!
But unless you have a completely focused and analytical mind, that’s as far as it will probably go.
Now you just have a goal that you’ve spent time defining (that you still won’t achieve).
Having your goal clearly defined is mandatory for anything serious.
If your ‘goal’ can be done in a single sitting or over a weekend, you don’t need to get too smart about it.
Goals like paint the feature wall or watch all three Godfather movies this long weekend has one major step that leads to one clear outcome.
When the goal is much larger, with many steps + variables, we need to use SMART goals, and not be dumb about them.
But how do we turn those goals into something more than (smart) daydreams?
Step 0 – Set a goal (a SMART one).
This one probably doesn’t need too much elaboration. But without this part, you can’t make progress.
Speaking of progress… let’s turn it into something!
The answer is to look into what is actually happening with the ‘Measurable’ and ‘Time-based’ parts of the SMART goal.
Step 1: Know exactly what you are measuring + timing
Part of the SMART goal setting is to ensure that the goal can be Measured and Timed.
We need to make sure that it can still be measured when we break down the goal into smaller milestones
This usually means a number –eg: lose 6cm from waist, save $10,000.
Sometimes this can also be something that is tangible (physical) but not measurable in the same way as a number.
In the example of weight loss, this is sometimes referred to a ‘Non-scale Victory’ (NSV). Whilst I agree you should never use bodyweight as a key metric, we need to be careful which NSVs we use.
”I want to feel confident wearing a bikini at the beach.”
This is not a good Measurement – because it is subjective, and ‘feel’ is something that can evolve and rely on a number of external factors.
“I want to fit into those pants that I bought that although are size 31 were way too tight”
This is technically a measurable goal – but instead of a measuring tape, I’m using clothing. (which ultimately has a number anyway– an “apparent” size 31).
But it still sucks.
Whilst you will know when your goal-pants fit (and nearly fit), you can’t break it down incrementally.
When you cut your goal up into smaller pieces, you want to be able to cut up the measurements into smaller pieces, too.
Saying that you want to fit into your size 31’s in 2 months has a clear goal and timeframe, but doesn’t allow you to break the time into smaller chunks.
You can’t half fit into them in one month.
This is exactly the same with…
Very much like the above, if my client says:
I want to increase my 5×5 bench press by 40kg per rep in 8 weeks
That’s something that we can work with.
Attainable? depending on the client – Tick
Realistic? – tick
Time-driven: double tick.
Saying that you want to bench 40kg/rep in a 5×5 eventually means that we can’t break down the measurements into smaller chunks.
Once we have both metrics measurable, we can move on to…
Step 2: Break it down into time+measurement milestones.
This one can be tough, because not many things in life have a ‘linear’ relationship.
- Weight loss (big losses early on, slower losses over time)
- Strength building (slow improvements initially, moderate increase in the middle before an eventual flattening out)
- Hypertrophy (moderate improvements early on, larger gains in the middle, before eventually tapering off)
- Long-term savings with regular investments (slow improvements before compound interest kicks in)
But you can plan for it, if you understand the nature of your goal.
Let’s take the example of your client wanting to lose 12cm from their waist in 5 months.
Based on your assessment, you might determine that this is indeed a valid SMART goal.
You also can identify that for a client who hopes to lose weight (that isn’t regularly training or sticking to a diet plan) will lose most of their weight at the start.
Knowing this, you might set the milestones as:
- Month 1: -4.5cm
- Month 2: -3.0cm
- Month 3: -2.0cm
- Month 4: -1.5cm
- Month 5: -1.0cm
= 12cm in 5 months.
While the result of these goals are the same, they allow you to see how you are tracking throughout the process. They also take into account the nature of reaching the goal.
If you didn’t break it down into milestones, you could only ‘review’ at the end of the five months (or estimate at the midway point).
This isn’t easy to work towards, and doesn’t allow for adjustment of goals or expectations.
By having 5 smaller goals for your client to work towards, they are more likely to continue to stay motivated by a goal that seems more achievable and close-by.
If you didn’t factor the nature of your milestones and instead you said “aim for two and a half centimetres per month…”
Your client might succeed in weeks one and two.
They might make the week 3 target, but they will struggle.
Eventually, they will burn out after experiencing a missed goal – even though they were probably on track to end with a strong finish.
Now that we have smaller goals – we are really smart, right?
Step 3: Design a Process that supports your milestones.
We can be super ‘SMART’ with our milestones and timing, but none of that puts anything into action.
The best way to go about it at this point is not to rely on the milestones to motivate, but the process to remove the dependence on motivation in the first place.
If you’re a trainer, this is where your magic comes in – and this is the easy part!
I’m going to lose x amount of weight each week until reaching my goal.
When people aim for this on their own, they might tack on the afterthought:
”… and I’ll do this by working out after work most days and sticking to my diet.”
But as a trainer, you know that they need a plan.
You also know that a plan that isn’t monitored (or followed) will not lead them towards success.
A Plan is only as good as its implementation.
This is where the Process comes in.
A process is independent of any variables, and is part of someone’s operations without external or internal influence.
I won’t distinguish between Habits, Rituals, or Routines here – but I’ve included some links to great resources on the matter in the bottom of the article.
A process is a procedure that you follow that eliminates things like mood, having to stay back late and therefore go to the gym late, or schedule variability – like “at least 3 times this week” – without actually defining when.
not a process:
I’ll go to the gym 4 nights per week after work, and not eat takeaway more than once per month.
I will go to the gym on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday nights at 6.30pm. I will leave the office at 6pm to make sure I’m there before 6pm. I will pack my gym bag the night before, and take it with me to work, and get changed at the office before leaving.
I will block out my calendar from 5.45pm and put my phone on Do Not Disturb so I won’t be interrupted while I pack up for the day, get changed, and prepare to leave.
My family knows that I am going to be home at 8pm on those nights, and I have made arrangements for dinner – so that nothing is unknown or left to the last minute.
I will follow the plan my trainer has written for me, and we will review every 3 weeks. I will record the weight selection, rep ranges, and number of sets, and I will measure myself weekly, so I know how I am progressing towards my monthly milestones.
I will treat this time as sacred, unchanging, and as if it were an unbreakable appointment with the most important person in the world – because it is.
Get your client to hand-write out a commitment like the above.
Get them to sign + date it, and carry a copy of it with them wherever they will go, or at least are reminded of it regularly. Such as in their pocket, their wallet, on the fridge door.
This works exceptionally well, due to the Commitment + Consistency Bias.
I discuss this influential hack at length in my Weapons of Influence course.
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- SMART goals are dumb when they’re on their own, and can’t be broken down
- Not only is it important to break down the goals into measurable chunks, they should correspond with smaller timeframes
- Not all goal timeframes are created equal, and you need to factor that in when creating smaller milestones – especially with things like weight loss or hypertrophy
- SMART goals are still dumb if they don’t come with a procedure that supports them
- A procedure will clearly define all of the steps around the method to achieving the goal, and will take care of anything that could interfere with its success.