Be Smart About Your SMART Goals (And When Not to Use Them)

Have you ever come this close to a goal, only to miss it by a hair? Sure, if it’s baseball, you may have lost the game, but in many cases, there is accomplishment buried inside a failure. Setting the right type of goal can mean the difference between walking away with a feeling of accomplishment or of failure.

Smart Goals vs. Aspirational Goals

I’ve found two types of goals helpful as I navigate the ins and outs of achievement and motivation: SMART goals and aspirational goals.

I love acronyms, so SMART goals resonated with me right off the bat: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-based. SMART goals are beloved everywhere from athletics to the C-Suite.

Open or aspirational goals, on the other hand, are often dismissed as too vague or open-ended. Aspirational goals focus on optimal performance and honing skills rather than a specific outcome. “I want to run as far as I can in 20 minutes,” is an aspirational goal. In contrast, “I want to run four miles in 20 minutes,” is a SMART goal.

When to Use Each Type of Goal

I find SMART goals helpful when I’ve already mastered a task and am pushing myself to go above and beyond. For example, take my hobby of playing the French horn. I’ve been playing for years, so I know my strengths and weaknesses. My tone is good and my slurs are pretty smooth. However, my high range could use some work.

So I set a goal for myself: playing five perfect high Cs at a rate of one note every four seconds. It’s specific, measurable, attainable, pretty realistic, and time-based. I’ll know for sure if I hit my goal or not. Either I will or I won’t. And if I don’t make it, I’ll try again and keep going until that goal is perfectly met.

On the other hand, I’m pretty new to weight lifting. I’m not sure what my capacity is for heavy lifts. I’ve found open-ended goals more motivating in this scenario.

How much weight can I deadlift one time? How many times can I swing a kettlebell in one minute? With this type of open-ended goal, I’m pushing myself to see how far I can go. It reduces the pressure of meeting a metric that may or may not be right for the circumstances.

I can feel proud that I completed a deadlift of my body weight or swung that kettlebell 10 times. That’s much better than feeling like I failed because I missed that lift by a pound or only did eight kettlebell swings.

Goals at Work

A few quarters ago, I set a SMART goal for myself. I wanted to parse, collect, and systematize 150 small bundles of information over the course of three months. Little did I know that finding the data would prove challenging and that 150 was a huge number when each project took a significant amount of time. I felt dejected when I realized I’d only accomplished a fraction of my goal.

Imagine how much more motivating it would have been to say, “I wonder how much information I can gather throughout the quarter?” I could have walked away from the project feeling proud of how much I’d done, rather than like I missed the mark, even with the same outcome.


In short, Use SMART goals when you’ve already mastered something and are looking to take it to the next level. Aspirational goals are perfect when just starting out on a project or endeavor when you want to see how well you can do and gain some perspective on what your next goals might be. I think you’ll see the difference in your motivation and results when you set the right kind of goal for each situation. Happy goal-setting!

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