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Is setting “SMART” goals really the best way to live a happier and more balanced life?
In my opinion, creating plans for the next year should be exciting and allow room for flexibility, a plan of things that you want to do that will make your life happier and more balanced (because who doesn’t need more balance in their lives, particularly people with big life goals like financial independence?).
Maybe it’s a symptom of getting older, or just feeling a bit worn down by two years of pandemic, but I just don’t fancy creating a list of things I must do this year in the hope that it will make me a better person.
I think a lot of it is in the language: setting resolutions always feels like you are fighting against yourself – harnessing all of your resolve to do something you don’t actually want to do.
That’s why I like to think in terms of strategies and how I can design my life, rather than goals or resolutions.
Why the SMART goal-setting model doesn’t work for me
I’m going to go against the cliche that you should set “SMART” goals at this time of year.
The whole concept of a goal is so end-focussed, rather than looking at the systems and habits that will get you there. Not only does this not help you figure out how to achieve the goal, but if you don’t achieve it fully you may not appreciate all the progress that you made towards it.
Breaking each part of the model down:
- Specific: Circumstances and priorities change, so your “specific goal” now may not actually be what is right for you at the end of the year.
- Measurable: There’s nothing wrong with measuring progress – in fact it’s a very effective tool, but you don’t need to prescribe one target and then determine your success based on whether or not you have reached that target.
- Achievable and realistic: I’ve put these together because I don’t really understand the difference. This is such a relative concept that I don’t think it’s that helpful, particularly if you are already constraining yourself with all of the other factors. “Achievable and realistic” could be either exactly what we are doing right now, the habits we are most likely to slip back into, or a radical transformation. Stating a “realistic” goal won’t make it any more likely to happen without the support of some tools that will make it easier to happen.
- Time-bound: As many people have said, we tend to overestimate what we can do in one year and underestimate what we can do in five or ten. A year can be a conveniently packaged unit of time to measure change in, but it’s easy to lose sight of how that year fits into a longer period. If our plans for the next year are “time-bound” they will be overly focussed on what we want to achieve by the end of the year and not think about how the steps that will be taken this year support a longer-term project. As an example, you might intend to set up a business in 2022 to replace your day job, but the most likely timeframe for that might be two or three years. If you are overly focussed on what you want to achieve this year, you might miss some opportunities to plan for longer term projects, e.g. what can you do this year as phase one of the three-year profitable business project? Maybe it’s about building your network and doing some “proof of concept” projects, with setting up the business as a goal in year two?
So what can you do instead of setting SMART goals and resolutions?
Firstly, you can let go of the idea that you need to create one list now to dictate the rest of your year. Sure, if going into the new year with some intentions for next year makes you feel better about the first months of the year then there’s nothing wrong with that (and I’ll certainly be doing the same). I just mean that some ideas and plans may emerge over the course of the year and those are just as valid as what you decide to do now, if not more so.
One thing I want to do is some yoga and meditation every day. I’ve started to build the habit already and I also know that having that in place gives me more headspace and capacity to think of and follow through with other positive habits. So I’ll be prioritising that at the start of the year and will see what that leads me to.
The concept of “projects” also works for me, partly because the language excites and motivates me, but also because it places value on getting started and allows lots of room to develop and change approach as you move through it. For example, one of my projects in 2022 is to sell or donate items that I don’t love, value or need anymore. The benefits to my life are obvious (more space, more money) which is enough to motivate me, so having it on the list works as a reminder, it doesn’t need to be quantified as that would just become a yardstick to set myself up for failure.
I also try to let go of any statements that I know will make no difference to outcomes, because they are things that I will naturally be working towards anyway. As an example, one project for me is to start a YouTube channel based around one of my hobbies. Now, I know that getting to 1000 subscribers and getting 4000 watch hours is critical to getting monetised, but articulating that as a goal won’t make it any more likely that I’ll achieve that, and will just make me feel like a failure if I don’t.
By contrast, creating the plan to start the channel, adding that to my list, will make it more likely to happen. Why? Because it’s a big enough project to get me excited. It’s also a broad plan that reminds me that “done is better than perfect” and that the important thing is just to get started. As the year goes on I can measure progress in terms of subscribers etc, but that doesn’t need to be part of the 2022 goals.
Another option to build in more flexibility is to think within ranges. So, for example, rather than saying that I want to achieve a 30% savings rate, I can say I want to achieve a 25-50% savings rate. Or, that I want to improve my savings rate and I’ll just track what it is over the year.
Focussing on systems and habits
If you haven’t already read Atomic Habits (affiliate link) then I’d recommend that to build your toolbox of strategies to embed positive patterns and avoid negative ones. It’s such a rich book that I won’t waste your time by paraphrasing the key ideas here, but see this post if you are interested in my takeaways from that book, applied to my financial independence journey.
Creating more balance
By taking a more flexible approach to goal setting I’m trying to build more balance. I’d also suggest avoiding too many money-focussed goals.
If focussing on money is one of your coping strategies then balance might mean focussing on other things, like health, relationships, creative hobbies etc.
If you do create money goals then I’d suggest considering ones that help to create more balance, such as regularly putting money aside for experiences.
I speak from experience. I didn’t have a very balanced approach to money in 2021. I saved and invested too much money which meant I actually ended the year in some debt as I hadn’t put aside enough for my tax bill. I also underspent on gifts which left I ended up feeling rubbish about. So my plan for next year is to set up an account that I can put my “tax money” in every month and to also create a fun money sinking fund for experiences and presents etc, and to not have any articulated investing goals. I’ll still invest what I have left over and I’ll still track my savings rate, but by keeping this out of my goals I’m hoping to have a more balanced outlook.
I read Essentialism (affiliate link) this year and one of ideas that resonated the most with me was the reminder that priorities should be singular, i.e. the point of having a priority is that there is one thing that is more important than everything else. Of course, when you want to make positive changes to your life then there will be lots of areas calling for your time and energy – we are multifaceted beings and that’s wonderful. BUT it’s also a hugely helpful tool to have a clear idea of what needs to be your priority in terms of things you want to build or create.
For me this year it’s my health. That means I will put my time, energy and money first and foremost into health-related actions, like my daily yoga practice. I know I probably won’t do all of the other habits or things I’d like to, but I’ll be delighted (or at least content) to have been health focussed.
Of course, this isn’t to say that children and basic responsibilities won’t come first, but in a way my actions in these areas are on autopilot already. Setting a priority, for me, is a way of focussing all of my capacity for change and action on an area that will have the biggest positive impact for me.
Applying this to your own life
In my view, there are no rules, just helpful ways to maximise the odds of doing what you want to do, so please take what serves you and leave the rest.
We are people, not productivity machines.
We all need more self-care and compassion than we give ourselves, especially if we are parents.
If you are sitting down to plan next year, maybe think of it as a gift to yourself. What can you prioritise and let go of next year to make your and your family’s experience better?
Where are the quick wins?
What goes without saying (in which case, you can leave out those bits)?
What would you love to have done and how can you phrase it so you give yourself permission for it still you be a work in progress at the end of the year?
Here’s to a Happy New Year, not a SMART one!
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