TIB #12: Goals are better when they’re LOFTY

Few things annoyed me more in the corporate world than the yearly “personal development plan” ceremony evaluating the SMART goals you set a year ago. 

That period of soul-sucking bureaucratic hoop-jumping to prove your worth to the company. If done correctly, appreciation is yours in the form of more money. The joys of which last exactly until the next paycheck. After that, it is taken for granted and the cycle starts all over again.

While SMART goals are often an ineffective tool for true personal development in the workplace, it is a downright broken way to define life goals. Hence: LOFTY goals.

History of SMART goals

According to Wikipedia: The November 1981 issue of “Management Review” contained an article with the title “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives”. The article discussed the importance and difficulty of setting management objectives.

Ideally speaking, each corporate, department, and section objective should be:

> Specific – target a specific area for improvement.
> Measurable – quantify or at least suggest an indicator of progress.
> Achievable – Attainable and not impossible to achieve.
> Realistic – state what results can realistically be achieved, given available resources.
> Time-related – specify when the result(s) can be achieved.

Notice that these criteria don’t say that all objectives must be quantified on all levels of management. In certain situations, it is not realistic to attempt quantification, particularly in staff middle-management positions.

— George T. Doran

Over the years, the letters have meant different things in different situations to make them more fitting.

Three problems with SMART goals

The problem is that SMART goals are used in a manner they were not intended. More specifically, three issues make them unsuitable for use as an aid in personal or professional development. 

Unfitting to be used for individual goals

The original article states this very clearly: 

Ideally speaking, each corporate, department, and section objective should be: (SMART).

That is because corporate, department, and section objectives benefit from having short-term goals, often in a financial context. It is beneficial to attempt to describe clear, unambiguous goals to make sure work is done efficiently and effectively.

SMART is used too strictly

In the article, Doran writes : “It should also be understood that the suggested acronym doesn’t mean that every objective written will have all five criteria.”. 

Forcing (personal and professional) goals to adhere to all letters all the time, squeezes out any flexibility that is required to deal with today’s fast-changing world. 

Setting SMART goals 12 or even 6 months in advance can feel like pure wizardry sometimes. Especially in businesses where the average expiration date of the C-level suite would not exceed the 12-month mark because the investment company owning the business wants a (relatively) short-term return on their investment.

SMART as a way to reduce verbal confusion

The original reason for coming up with SMART goals is to reduce confusion around setting management objectives. 

Managers are confused by all the verbal from seminars, books, magazines, consultants, and so on. Let me suggest, therefore, that when it comes to writing effective objectives, corporate officers, managers, and supervisors just have to think of the acronym SMART.”

Yet HR departments the world over ask their employees to come up with SMART goals, as a way to “help” them in their professional growth. 

Worse still: outside of the office, it is still a widespread belief that setting SMART goals is a great way to achieve personal goals in life. It is not. 

The difference between work goals and life goals

Even though goals shape the present, not the future, the rewards for achieving (smart) goals at work are extrinsic and delayed. It is mostly about money, perks, and status.

While more money is surely welcome, being fulfilled is a much more sustainable way to enjoy work. We all want to do meaningful work if we have a choice. 

Unfortunately, fulfillment only works in the present. It cannot be handed out retroactively. It is therefore impossible to have SMART goals with fulfillment as the reward. 

Additionally, although presented as personal development goals, they are a way to make sure your work efforts are in line with the company goals. 

The rewards for achieving personal goals outside of work are often intrinsic: do work you love, find a partner, be healthier, buy your first home, save money for travelling, and be of value to others in one way or another.

SMART goals at work are a way to create a pass/fail outcome regarding your efforts, with delayed gratification as a result. Applying the same approach to life goals is not just unhelpful, but counterproductive.

Example: The SMART way to find a life partner

Say, your goal is to find a life partner. What would that look like as a SMART goal?

Specific: I will find myself one whole female as my partner for life. She will love me for all that I am. And I will love her for all that she is. We will love and respect each other, preferably until death do us part.

Measurable: She will be 5 ft, 5 inches, and weigh 130lbs. She will have shoulder-length natural blond, straight hair. Her shoe size will be 6 US or 38 EU.

Achievable: If Tinder is anything to go by, there is plenty of choice within 20 miles, so I feel this is an achievable goal without having to travel too far.

Realistic: Like I said, judging by the availability of single women in my area according to Tinder, this should be realistically achievable.

Time-bound: She should be mine by December 31st of this year.

Too bad if you fall head over heels for your 6 feet tall, 200 lbs, short-haired princess on January 1st. You think she is gorgeous, and it is mutual. You two complete each other in ways you could never imagine. But alas, that was not the goal, so you have to break it up.

Completely absurd of course. 

Goals describe a future state to influence our present-day behavior, but describing our future in SMART terms, makes no sense. 

The reason that SMART does not work for personal goals or growth is that growth is not linear. Growth is fickle. Personal growth means you move away from where you are now without knowing exactly where you are going. 

You may have a sense of direction, possibly even a passionate desire for a very specific outcome. But we have very little control over where we end up. Besides, we hardly know what makes us happy anyway. 

We wander. A lot. But that does not mean we are lost.

SMART goals keep the wander on a leash. The further the SMART goals are set in the future, the shorter the leash. Some people become unhappy because they feel confined by a SMART goal. Others can’t help themselves and have to wander. But do so with guilt or stress, knowing that they deviate from that SMART goal. 

That is not to say you should not have any goals at all. They should just not be SMART goals. Use LOFTY goals instead.

Introducing OMG and LOFTY for life goals

For personal direction and growth, come up with your OMG and make it L.O.F.T.Y. The idea is to come up with your One Major Goal, or OMG. It can (and probably will) aspects that look like sub-goals.

Your OMG is the one goal to keep you moving in the right direction, without having to predict the future. Making it LOFTY helps you make decisions today, to move towards your desired future.

Define your OMG with these criteria:

  • Limitless – dream big, free from the (self) imposed shackles of limiting beliefs.
  • Obscure– The bigger you dream into the future, the less detail you can predict.
  • Feelable – Can you feel the excitement as you dream this up? Use “Hell yeah or no” as your guide
  • Transformative – How does this make you a different person? What untapped potential will you unleash onto the world?
  • Yours – Most importantly: this should be YOUR goal. Do not try to impress anybody else.

Let’s dive into those criteria a bit deeper.

Limitless

Your dream goal should have no boundaries. Be free of the limits you or your surroundings impose on you. Ask a group of 5-year-olds who is the best singer, and all hands go up. My 5-year-old sings his heart out while dancing like a madman. Ask the same question to a group of 15-year-olds however, and no hands go up. Let go of that limit, no one is looking. Dig up that childhood dream again.

Dig deep, what is buried inside you and needs to come out? What would you love to explore, experience, learn, fix or figure out? 

Don’t be ashamed to dream of a lavish millionaire lifestyle, with expensive cars and a private tropical island.

Don’t be ashamed of dreaming about helping millions of people be happier.

These are your dream goals, not commitments.

Obscure

Make your goals obscure. The bigger you think, the less detail your goal can contain. Sure, dream up as many embellishments as you want. They can help explore what aspects of the dream make it Feelable for you. Details are ok, but not a requirement. In many cases, more obscure is better.

If you find yourself describing a detailed goal in the near future, consider dreaming further into the future.

Feelable

Can you feel it? In your gut? Do you get excited about it? A good LOFTY goal, is feelable. “Hell yeah or no” is a solid indicator if your goal is feelable

Consider adding a song as part of your goal. While it can be hard to describe a feeling accurately, specific songs can instantly recall the feeling you have in mind, especially if it is an elated feeling you have experienced before.

Transformative

This one is especially important if you are feeling stuck right now. If you feel like the trajectory you are on, does not get you nearly to where you want to be. No matter how limitless or obscure your goal may be, you know the feeling when you are on the wrong track.

How would you be different as a person? Would you be in better shape, happier, and more confident? Your goal should make you feel good about being you. And if you do that, you can spread that goodness in the world around you.

Yours

This one is the most important of all. If there is one thing to take away from this: Make sure that your goals are truly yours. Figure out who are you trying to impress. Your parents, your friends, your boss, your co-workers, or that beautiful boy or girl you have a massive crush on? If you said “yes” to any of these: it is not your goal.

It does not mean you have to completely turn everything around and burn all the bridges. But at the end of the day, the end of the road, you are responsible for living your life. Therefore, make sure you make your own goals. Your goals do not have to be approved by a manager. You do not need permission from anybody to have these ideas.

Now what?

LOFTY goals can take many different forms. But the most important thing to remember is that you want to have easy access to your goal for future reference. Not to create a pass/fail judgment but to have a reference when making decisions in your life to be in line with that LOFTY goal. 

Although the most common way to describe a goal is to use words. But, for some pictures or music may work just as well if not better. 

For now, though, remember your goal is for you. You do not need to stick to a particular format. You do not need permission. In the next post, I will describe a few possible forms in more detail.

You know what would be awesome? If you share your LOFTY goal in the comments! It would make me very happy to see if this helps you in some way. Don’t hold back, let it rip!