Varied Goals: Not SMART, but Still Effective

I set a different kind of goal for myself this month, and it was pretty unconventional. It made me think of how we set goals, and more importantly, what kind of goals we’re encouraged to set. I’ll tell you about that goal a bit later on, but let’s start with the stuff you probably already know:

If you’re at all familiar with planning and motivation, you probably know that it’s a good idea to set goals for yourself. If you’re up on the latest trends, you probably know that you should set SMART goals. That stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. Basically, it means you should make goals that are challenging yet possible, as specific as can be, and with a deadline. “Get 10 accepted answers on Stack Overflow before my performance review in November” is a SMART goal (I’m at two so far).

That’s all well and good, but today I want to talk about a different kind of goal. It doesn’t have a fancy acronym, but for short I like to call them Varied goals (the name will start to make sense soon). As you are about to learn, Varied goals are not at all SMART goals:

  • Varied goals are intentionally vague.
  • Varied goals are not easy to measure.
  • Varied goals are never meant to be fully accomplished.
  • Varied goals are extremely idealistic.
  • Varied goals don’t have a specific deadline.

…but that doesn’t mean they’re not useful.

Varied goals are all about fine-grained motivation.

We’ll get to what Varied goals are all about in a moment, but first let’s look at an example of where SMART goals fall short:

Suppose I want to get better at soccer. It might help me to set a few SMART goals like “make a really solid pass every shift” or “score a goal in the next five games”. These goals give me specific tasks to fulfill that will help me improve important soccer skills. However, they’re pretty course-grained goals, don’t you think? Every game I’ll probably perform dozens of other actions that don’t impact those goals at all. What is pushing me in those cases? None of my goals apply, and my general desire to get better at soccer is far too general and not particularly inspiring. The idea of Varied goals is to fill that gap.

A Varied goal would be something like “Run harder than last shift”. This is something I can try really hard to do every shift, even though it doesn’t really satisfy any conditions for SMART. If I run into an unexpected soccer-circumstance and don’t really know what I should be doing, I can revert to my Varied goal; running harder is probably a good idea in a lot of situations, so this is something I can depend on. Best of all, it’s quite inspirational. When I’m running to get back to help defend my team’s net, I can think “Remember how fast I did this last shift? I’m going to be even faster right now”.

More formally:

  • Varied goals are meant to complement SMART goals, not replace them.
  • Varied goals are meant to be striven for, not attained.
  • Varied goals favour what’s possible over what’s practical.
  • Varied goals should be applicable to many general situations.
  • Varied goals should be inspirational. Something that really fires you up.

Now, about the name.

I call them Varied goals because it’s very important to keep variety in mind. For starters, as mentioned above, Varied goals should apply to a variety of situations. But even more importantly, it’s a reminder that you should maintain a variety of goals — some Varied, even more SMART.

Back to our soccer example: running harder than my previous shift will apply to a lot of situations, and it will complement a lot of SMART goals very well. How am I going to get that first goal in the next few games? Maybe by outrunning a defenseman when I have the ball, or sprinting up the field so that I’m open when my teammate is looking for someone to pass to.

So, what’s my Varied goal for this month?

Be unstoppable.

That’s it. I have it starred and highlighted at the top of my todo-list, which I check several times a day. It’s a frequent reminder that for this month, every instant of every day, I want to be unstoppable. Am I going to let that IE6 bug slow me down? Not a chance. Am I going to get overwhelmed when my already-overbooked schedule fills up even more? Definitely not. After a long day, when I have to decide whether I should sit on the couch and watch TV or go to my desk and pump out an epic blog post, what’s it going to be? I’ll give you a hint: it’s barely even a choice.

I suspect this sounds a bit crazy, but it’s just what I need right now. I’ve been early on all my deliverables at work so far this month. I’m a wedding-planning machine. I’m out of a so-so slump in softball, and I’m finally getting better at soccer. I wrote this post six (!) days early. Obviously I can’t attribute all of this to a bland, over-arching statement, but I feel it does really drive a lot of small victories that are helping me accomplish my SMART goals more effectively.

Does any of this resonate with you?

I’d love to hear some reactions to this. Are Varied goals something that could help you, or is all this wishy-washy idealism stuff total nonsense to you? I’m still very much figuring this out as I go, and your opinion means a lot.