What to do when you DON’T need a SMART Goal

Originally published at by Nutcracker Collective on the 10th January 2021Photo by Estée Janssens on Unsplash

Guest blog for Nutcracker Collective 2021 goal setting programme

At this time of year, setting goals for the New Year is a process many of us undertake. A lot of goal setting experts will teach you about SMART goals. SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timebound (Doran, 1981). It is true that a lot of goals benefit from being more specifically measured. For example, if you want to lose weight you might measure calories or if you want to write a book you might commit to writing a certain number of words a day. As long as the way you measure a goal is within your control this can be a great system (Latham & Locke, 1991).

However, sometimes focusing on measuring a goal can seem artificial and counterproductive to making progress. Arbitrarily quantifying behaviour, tracking and setting targets can sometimes become a distraction and can feel constrained. Research shows that in some circumstances an increase in extrinsic measurement of a goal using targets and reward systems can lead to a decrease in intrinsic motivation to work towards that goal. This is referred to as the crowding-out conjecture (Frey and Jergen, 2001).

Qualitative Goals

In 2020, I experimented with setting some more qualitative goals alongside more traditional ones. One career related goal that I had going into 2020 was to increase my visibility as an academic expert in my field. I wanted to do this so that my work can have more impact and reach a wider audience. I considered several ways to quantify this including counting my social media followers and the number of citations on my papers, but none of these felt right. From previous experience I had found that attempting to quantify my reach in this way lead to micro behaviours which are short-term and insincere. 

I experimented with different wording of my goal and eventually settled on setting a goal to build my academic reputation. I chose ‘build’ over other verbs such as ‘create’ or ‘increase’ because it symbolised for me laying a clearer foundation for my reputation and therefore behaviours that would consolidate work I had already done in the last 10 years. It also represented creating a framework for new projects to move forward with throughout the year. One of the key purposes of goals is to direct activity toward the goal and away from activities unrelated to the goal(Latham & Locke, 1991) and in this way, the goal served as a grounding to me on what was important and helped me decide what to say yes to and say no to as the year progressed. 

Sitting here in January 2021, how do I know if I achieved this goal of building my reputation? The answer is that I can ‘feel’ the progress that I have made. I can observe that the number of opportunities which have come my way has increased from last year – which means that people know who I am and what I do more than they did last year. I can also reflect that I have a much clearer sense now of which of those opportunities I should prioritise, and I feel more comfortable saying ‘no’. This is not because I have become more assertive at refusing requests, it is because I feel more confident in the choices that I make – knowing what will help me make progress on this goal and what will not. All of this shows me, in a qualitative way that I made significant progress on that goal. 

So if you want to set some more qualitative goals in 2021:

  • Give careful consideration of phrasing and meaning. Pay attention to the choice of verb you use to articulate your goal. It might be helpful to practice some visualisation, think about what would achieving this goal look or feel like for me.
  • Adopt a proactive and action orientated approach – not every goal needs a quantitative measurement, but making progress in a focused direction requires an action plan. This may not be a linear journey but taking steps to make progress is key. 
  • Review your goal progress. Qualitative goals require regular review, and this review will look different to how we track measurable goals. Reflections might be more emotional and might require a deeper critique of our values.

Support Going Forward

If you are interested exploring with us a more values centred approach to goal setting in 2021, and a safe space to work on your goals where successes and failures are part of the process, you might consider joining our 2021 Goal Setting Programme and Community by:


  • 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
  • Frey, B. S. & Jergen, R. (2001) Motivation Crowding Theory. Journal of Economic Surveys. Vol 15(5): 589-611 
  • Latham, G. P. & Locke, E. A. (1991). Self regulation through goal setting. Organizational behavior and Human Decision Processes. Vol 50(2) 212-247
  • Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1990). A theory of goal setting and task performance. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall
  • Photo by Estée Janssens on Unsplash

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