SMART goals are so 2019 - do this instead

Jul 21, 2021

SMART goals: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Google “Goal Setting” and this is the first thing that comes up. It is the standard for how everyone from your boss to your personal trainer will tell you to plan for the next great thing.

SMART goals reinforce the mindset that success is in the destination, not the journey. They ask you to limit your dreams to a specific, quantifiable target in the future.

The problem is, we live in an uncertain world — no one really knows what will happen tomorrow, next week, next month. The last year-ish has proven this to be true more than ever, but really…hasn’t it always been the case?

A year ago, would you have predicted where you are today? Do you believe the same things? Do you have the same goals, the same problems? Do you spend your time with the same people?

Most business strategists and self-help gurus promote the idea of big goals, strategic plans, and long-term thinking. The thing is, those plans and goals aren’t going to help you when things change and you have to adjust quickly.

In order to survive (and dare I say thrive) you need to plan for the unplannable, make yourself antifragile.

“Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder

Instead of using static SMART goals to plan for a scenario that might be irrelevant in six months (or even tomorrow), use these strategies to become antifragile.

Know your baseline

Take a moment to get clear on where you are now, who you are, and what you value. What are your strengths and weaknesses? This is your starting place around which everything should be organized, at least for now. Don’t get stuck on letting these things define you. The person you are today most likely won’t be who you are next year. Relevancy is iterative.

Develop a flexible framework

How do you decide what you’re going to focus on next? What you’re going to eat for dinner? Where you’re going to live next year? Planning out possible future scenarios in detail is a waste of your time because most of those plans will never happen. If they do happen, the plan you made will be stale once you get there and you’ll have to re-do it anyway.

Create flexible systems with criteria you can use to help you plan your work and life instead of long-term plans. Then you can use those criteria to be nimble about your decisions.

Look back to look forward

Goals and plans are only as good as the systems you’ve built to revisit them and adjust accordingly. The person making that 5-year plan today is not the same person who is going to be living that plan in 5 years. Create a system for checking in on your structures regularly. Get a new baseline and update that framework so that it is always reflective of your circumstances and context at the time.

Build in redundancy

Flying by the seat of your pants is great…until it isn’t. 2020 re-taught us lessons that our grandparents have always known about being prepared for disaster. What would happen if you lost your job? If your business lost its biggest client? Building in redundancy wherever you can will serve you in the long run. This can take some investment upfront, so use your tools above to identify crucial areas to focus on first.

Set goals for the journey, not the destination

Setting goals should be an exercise in defining what success looks like overall, not limiting yourself to that definition of success at a specific moment in the future.

Let’s face it, things change. In reality, that is the only thing you can be certain of. So why build goals with deadlines and numbers that don’t actually push you toward what is the best thing for you in this moment?

Instead, build meaningful goals that will help you now instead of forecasting the next best thing.

Here’s how to do that:

1. Quality instead of quantity

Often we don’t know exactly what we want to strive for until we go through a process of defining it. Using qualitative goals allows you to have something to aim for while honoring the fact that you’re not going to be the same person or business next month or next year.

If you make $18K in a month and work 35 hours, does that mean you failed? If you launch 1 new product and take on 4 new clients, did that also diversify your income? If you lose 50 lbs. but still feel like crap, have you achieved your goal? Give yourself the flexibility to aim higher but not be confined by numbers for the sake of numbers.

2. Ambitious but ambiguous

Achievable is great but seriously aim for the stars. Don’t limit yourself to what you think is possible at this moment, because it is only a moment. Circumstances change constantly. Make that ambitious (qualitative) goal, map out a few ways you could get there, and then explore until you find the right path. Chances are you’ll find other options along the way that you never even thought of, that end up getting you where you want to go.

3. Relevant…now

Make sure your goals are relevant to who you are and where you’re at now. While keeping in mind that who you are today is not where you’ll be tomorrow. Relevancy is iterative. You should always have a north star and orient around it, but that north star might move in the sky over time. What’s relevant to you in your 20s will likely be irrelevant in your 40s. Your “why” will change as your life does.

4. Timelines, not deadlines

The truth is, most of us set SMART goals, whether for our work or life, and then put them on a shelf where we revisit them at new year’s or our annual review, and a) feel guilty about our lack of progress, b) see that we’ve blown them out of the water, or c) find that they’re no longer relevant.

Reinforce your qualitative goals with quantitative timelines (AKA, actual dates). Do this in short cycles so that you have time to see progress and then adjust as things change because they will. You don’t have to plan out the next five years of your life right now, just get clear on what you think you want that to look like and what progress looks like at this moment.

We all have our list — “What I learned in 2020…”

Truth is, most of that is already forgotten.

If you take one thing away from the dumpster fire that was last 18 months, let it be that you need to live your life now, not wait for your “five-year plan” to manifest. The future is always uncertain, use that to your advantage instead of letting it destroy you.

This is a post from a member of the Freelancers Union community. If you’re interested in sharing your expertise, your story, or some advice you think will help a fellow freelancer out, feel free to send us your blog post.

Sarah Duran

I'm a freelance project manager, 6-figure freelancer, & solopreneur coach. My expertise in curriculum design, facilitation, & coaching gives solopreneurs the support to get what they need.