S-M-A-R-T Goals vs. Stretch Goals


In a hyper goal-oriented, productivity-driven culture, we’re always asking ourselves the same thing: what is the best way to set and achieve goals? What kinds of goals are best?

Pioneered by corporate giant General Electric, S-M-A-R-T goals have held sway since the company first began requiring its employees to outline such goals 80 years ago. Meaning specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound, the S-M-A-R-T strategy, Gary Latham, a research psychologist who helped developed the method, once said is the “difference between hoping something comes true and figuring out how to do it.”

This emphasis on setting realistic objectives and detailing specific, measurable means to reach them has deeply informed how we approach goal-setting today. Go to any management seminar or listen to any podcast about goal-setting and you’ll hear dozens of experts sing the praises of the S-M-A-R-T system. I myself find the S-M-A-R-T methodology extremely helpful for breaking up big ambitions into concrete, more manageable goals. A driven, goal-oriented person by nature, the second I have a dream I want to realize, I pull out my Passion Planner and create what’s called a “passion plan.” A visual representation of your goal, a passion plan takes a large ambition (like, say, studying for the GRE) and divides it into smaller, actionable steps with clear timelines. To return to my example of the GRE, the smaller steps might be to buy the official GRE book and learn 10 new vocabulary words every day. Each of these tasks would have a precise due date which would serve as a measure of success or failure. Such passion mapping is a direct descendant of our S-M-A-R-T culture.

passion roadmap
A passion plan example (I’m obsessed)


I’m an avid proponent of S-M-A-R-T goals so you could imagine my surprise when Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and author of “Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business” Charles Duhigg questioned their effectiveness. The problem, it seems, stems from S-M-A-R-T’s emphasis on realism. “If you’re constantly being told to focus on achievable results,” observed professor and goal-setting expert Steve Kerr, “you’re only going to think of achievable goals. You’re not going to dream big.”

Because the S-M-A-R-T system demands we develop a clear roadmap for reaching our objectives, it has the unintentional effect of discouraging our grander, more starry-eyed ambitions. The result? We may be more productive in the sense that we’re achieving our goals but we’re not realizing nearly a tenth of our potential. Imagine if the Wright brothers had been asked to break flying into realistic, achievable steps! They wouldn’t have been able to: the idea that man could soar through the skies was totally unfeasible.

Though S-M-A-R-T thinking proves useful practically in terms of getting things done, it often limits what we view as possible. That’s why we need stretch goals. Stretch goals are the antithesis of their S-M-A-R-T counterparts. Unlike S-M-A-R-T objectives which require we outline a comprehensible path on the route to our goals, stretch goals are so ambitious that they’re almost inconceivable. According to Duhigg, “numerous academic studies have examined the impact of stretch goals, and have consistently found that forcing people to commit to ambitious, seemingly out-of-reach objectives can spark outsized jumps in innovation and productivity. A 1997 study of Motorola, for instance, found the time it took engineers to develop new products fell tenfold after the company mandated stretch goals throughout the firm. A study of 3M said stretch goals helped spur such innovations as Scotch tape and Thinsulate. Stretch goals transformed Union Pacific, Texas Instruments, and public schools in Washington D.C. and Los Angeles. Surveys of people who have lost large amounts of weight or have become marathon runners later in life have found that stretch goals are often integral to their success” (Duhigg 126-127). In other words, a S-M-A-R-T goal is running 5 miles without stopping; a stretch goal is running a marathon. This is not to say that the S-M-A-R-T system is unnecessary: S-M-A-R-T thinking is vital to actually accomplishing our goals. But stretch goals push us to realize dizzying new heights of untapped potential. If S-M-A-R-T goals are sensible pragmatists; stretch goals are dreamers. Just as we need our inner realist to revise our beautiful but impractical ambitions and make them more workable, we need our inner idealist to expand what we think is possible.





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