Why S.M.A.R.T. goal setting for your new year’s resolutions might be dumb

Goal Setting is one of the commonly tools used in performance psychology.  As such it is frequently bastardized and butchered. funny-new-year-resolutions-rewrittenby every “guru” “motivational speaker” and  unqualified person who wants to take your money and  sell you the “secret to success”. Even people with no training in psychology write books and how to guides on this topic. A quick search of amazon found 94,741 results for “goal setting”

This article will  give you the tools to think critically about Goal setting.

Firstly goal setting  does work. It’s has been shown to increase achievement on average of about 19%. The majority of people set some sort of goal at new years and fail. If goal setting works we must ask ‘why do people not achieve?’

The truth is there is an array of catchy unfounded information about goal setting, most of it coming from “hucksters” who are not qualified a sport or performance psychologist. (by definition this is someone who should have completed 2 degrees, and an extensive accreditation process to understand the finely tuned mechanics of enhancing performance.) An analogy might be that a first aider can save your life but a doctor can cure you. It is plausible that an unqualifed person may provide some help, however  unqualified people should not be authoring books or making a living from this similarly the way you wouldn’t want a first aider teaching doctors how to treat  patients. When it comes to performance remember qualified = quality and unqualified = risk

One of the overused heuristics around goal setting is the S.M.A.R.T. model. Unfortunately there are now so many iterations in the public domain of what the S.M.A.R.T. acronym stands it has diluted the scientific underpinning. More often than not people assume that S.M.A.R.T. is all there is to goal setting, while research shows there is so much more to help you achieve.

Before we give you our top evidence based approaches to helping you set good goals first a warning. Goal setting can and does go wrong. For example setting the goal to reach the top of Everest is wrong. Many people have died doing that. The goal is to reach Everest and return home safely. Similarly Businesses should not task their employees with the goal to make more money per sale as it has been shown to lead to unethical behaviour creating false sales and over charging. In that case it is  better to set the goal of quality and repeat business.

In sport, the quest for gains in strength is an obvious areas where goal setting goes wrong. For example people attempting to gain strength in the squat to hit a set goal may not squat as deep or as technically well. And while they might achieve the desired load set in the goal they may lack the quality of movement desired for real improvement or risk injury doing so.

In summary, think critically look for evidence, if someone is helping you set goals do they actually know the science or are they regurgitating meaningless acronyms.

Here are our top tips.

  • Know the person/self. Understand the WHY of the goal. E.g. it might be too loose weight but really it could be about self-confidence or an upcoming event wedding, competition etc.
  • Thinking of the why reason enhances self-control in challenging situations e.g. when struggling with getting up early for training, thinking of the next big performance or match will motivate you to make the hard choices for commitment. Similarly when reaching for convenience food thinking of “why you are working on your nutrition strategies” will motivate you to not eat that ice-cream.
  • When faced with new or complex challenging goals it is best to think in “WHAT” terms. The research shows writing out the actions of “what you have to do” produces better results with difficult or complex goals
  • The goal must be self-chosen or agreed, and be achievable. However believing that it is easy to do is not a successful strategy. You should believe you can do it but that it will be hard. You should expect the obvious roadblocks the injuries and setbacks. And you should expect the ways to overcome them. Research shows that if you write down the goal and write down what a positive aspect of achieving it , then write down an obstacle and repeat this process 4 times. This is called mental contrasting. It helps build realism and optimism which are both necessary.
  • It is better to set goals that are framed as “get better” as opposed to “Get good or be the best” get better leaves room for failure and the opportunity to overcome setbacks and facilitates a learning attitude on the quest to your achievement. Get good hinges on level of achievement and brings unnecessary and unhelpful pressure in times of failure.
  • Use or lose Environmental triggers .. leaving the running shoes at the door removing the junk food from the cupboard. All these subtle environmental cues affect our actions and thought patterns throughout the day. We guarantee you if you took the batteries out of the remote and kept them in a drawer and kept the tv unplugged you would reduce the amount of time you would watch TV. And therefore find time of other beneficial habits like socialising with friends. Know the environment and shape it to help you.
  • Is the goal a promotion goal or a prevention goal. People think of quitting smoking as getting healthy or also as not getting unhealthy. Identify the negatives and the positive ways of describing your goal. This may also reveal if you are more of an optimist or a pessimist. Promotion goals are highly motivating prevention goals do not motivate beyond the level of achievement.

There are many other aspects to enhancing performance via goal setting. If you want to know more get in touch with us.

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Lastly one of the most obvious tells that you have an unqualified huckster  selling you goal setting is they will oversell its effectiveness by telling you silly anecdotes like the “Yale study” where the people who wrote their goals down were worth more money 10 years after graduating than those who didn’t. Unfortunately that’s not true, it won’t make you a millionaire, and that study was never done,  but in actual fact writing your goals down will help.   Just a note the unqualified “self-help gurus/hucksters” who regurgitate that story have been the likes of Brian Tracy, Zig Ziglar, and Tony Robbins.


Rubin, R. S. (2002). Will the real SMART goals please stand up. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 39(4), 26-27.