SMART goals are not so smart: make a PACT instead

A system without a goal is like a marathon without a finish line. But a system with a bad goal will result in a bad outcome. Traditional goal-setting methods use the SMART framework. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely. Sounds great for small, short-term goals, but not so much for ambitious, long-term ones. If you have one or several ambitious goals—such as learning how to code, studying a new language, writing a book, growing a newsletter, becoming a designer—you may want to consider making a PACT as an alternative to SMART goals.

Alternative to SMART goals

The classic approach to goal setting

First, let’s define what SMART means. The acronym was coined by George T. Doran in the November 1981 issue of Management Review.

  • Specific. Your goal should be well defined, clear, and unambiguous.
  • Measurable. You can easily measure your progress towards the accomplishment of the goal.
  • Achievable. The goal should seem attainable and not impossible to achieve.
  • Relevant. The goal should be aligned with your current priorities.
  • Timely. Your goal should have a clearly defined timeline, including a starting date and a target end date.

So what’s wrong with SMART goals? Let’s pick an example. Let’s say you want to learn how to code. It wouldn’t fit with the SMART framework of goal setting. How can you know how long this is going to take? What if you feel like it’s not achievable? What if it’s not relevant to what you’re doing right now, but instead you want to do this because you’re planning on changing careers or want to be able to work on a side project? Does this mean that learning to code is not a good goal to have in life?

alternative to SMART goals

Replace your SMART goal with a PACT

Instead of SMART goals, which don’t encourage ambitious, long-term endeavours, I prefer to make a PACT with myself. While a SMART goal focuses on the outcome, the PACT approach focuses on the output. It’s about continuous growth rather than the pursuit of a well-defined achievement. Which makes it a great alternative to SMART goals.

PACT stands for Purposeful, Actionable, Continuous, and Trackable—the four factors that make for great goals:

  • Purposeful. Your goal should be meaningful to your long-term purpose in life, not just relevant to you right now. It will be much harder to stick to your goal if you don’t actually care. When a goal is aligned with your passions and your objectives in life, you are feeling much more motivated. (many tasks don’t feel purposeful but need to be done in order to achieve a meaningful long-term goal, and that’s fine—they are tasks, not goals)
  • Actionable. A good goal is based on outputs you can control. Your goal should be actionable and controllable. It’s all about shifting your mindset from distant outcomes in the future to present outputs you can control and that are within your reach, taking action today rather than overplanning for tomorrow.
  • Continuous. It’s important that the actions you take towards your goal are simple and repeatable. So many goals are not achieved because of what’s called choice paralysis. That’s when there are so many options that you end up spending more time doing research than actually doing stuff that will make you progress towards your goal. The good thing about continuous goals is their flexibility. What you need to do is get started, and as you learn more, you can adapt your approach. It’s about continuous improvement rather than reaching a supposed end goal.
  • Trackable. Not measurable. Stats can be overrated and don’t apply to lots of different types of goals. I’m a big fan of the “yes” or “no” approach to goal tracking, similar to the GitHub tracker. Have you done the thing or not? Have you coded today? Have you called three potential customers? Have you published your weekly blog post? Yes or no? This makes your progress very easy to track.
PACT in action on the GitHub graph
Tracking a PACT of coding everyday on GitHub

Let’s say your goal is to grow your newsletter. Here are two versions of the same goal:

SMART version of a goal: “Get 5,000 subscribers in 25 weeks.”

PACT version of a goal: “Publish 25 newsletters over the next 25 weeks.”

As you can see, the first version measures success based on metrics that are largely out of your direct control, whereas the second version puts the emphasis on purposeful, actionable, continuous, and trackable progress.

That’s it. PACT won’t work for goals such as washing the dishes, but it will work for long-term, ambitious goals.

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