How to Set Achievable Goals
And why qualitative goals are more helpful than you might think
If you want to give your brain a decent chance at meeting a goal, productivity folk wisdom insists that it had better be SMART—Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Based:
- Specific goals have a pre-defined outcome, rather than being left vague (e.g., get more sleep, not just "be healthier").
- Measurable means the goal has a quantifiable target so you know clearly when you're moving toward or away from it (e.g., "sleep eight hours per night" not just "sleep more").
- Achievable goals may be challenging, but they're not literally impossible. Setting a goal of eight uninterrupted hours of sleep per night when you're about to welcome a newborn or adopt a puppy may be not meaningfully achievable, and may leave you feeling and sleeping worse instead of better.
- Relevant goals are related to your values and purposes in life, not just goals you've heard other people adopt or think you "ought" to achieve. If you're functioning well on seven hours of sleep per night, don't waste energy setting an eight-hour sleep goal.
- Time-based goals have a deadline, rather than being thought of as open-ended bucket list or "someday" tasks. Notoriously failure-prone New Year's resolutions typically have a scope of one year, but that's too long for most goals and most people. Instead, chunks of progress can more likely be made and noticed on timescales of one to six months.
As a life coach, I’ve seen the power of SMART goals in practice. Setting a SMART goal, rather than a vague one, increases the likelihood that you’ll achieve it. “Goals” without Scope, Measure, Feasibility, Meaning, and Timescale are mentally more like dreams, hopes, or mere thoughts than approachable targets of action.
As a philosopher, though, part of me resists submitting to the SMART goal framework for every type of undertaking. What if you want to become more generous, or patient, or kind? Or if you want to experience more ease and calmness in your life? In the moral tradition reaching back to at least Aristotle, developing our virtues is the fundamental task of self-improvement, not an emergent or reductive one.
In practical terms, there’s also the problem of Goodhart’s Law: "when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” There’s a fine psychological line between setting a small SMART goal about giving away money as part of the lifelong journey toward true generosity versus obsessing over arbitrary milestones in a moral act of missing the point. The point is not to make, say, a one-time donation of $500; it’s to develop a durable character trait of generosity that persists and manifests itself over time, and the SMART goal of giving away $500 this year is merely evidence that that might be happening.
So, while you could try to shoehorn qualitative goals into the SMART goals box, it may feel a bit absurd—and also may not work. When overused, SMART goals run the risk of turning us into short-sighted, robotic, box-checking task-completers when what we want may be closer to its opposite.
Fortunately, we can reconcile the difference between SMART quantitative goals and more qualitative goals by understanding what makes a goal work psychologically, and why. Widely-beloved Stanford neuroscientist Andrew Huberman provides a thorough rundown of this science in an episode of his podcast, “The Science of Setting and Achieving Goals” (which was also synopsized in Every).
One goal circuit with multiple parts
When we talk about “goals” in the context of productivity, they typically have a specific meaning: medium- to long-term targets of effortful action, often dependent on an extensive and/or complicated chain of preceding events.
In the absence of well-formulated goals, your behavior is likely to revert to its mean—behaving thoughtlessly in accordance with pre-existing habits (whether good or bad) and in response to local environmental pressures (from your boss, coworkers, and family, again whether for better or worse).
However, in another sense, everything we do on purpose can be thought of as furthering some goal: dropping a piece of paper into the wastebasket, emptying clean dishes from the dishwasher into your kitchen cabinets, driving your car from home to the office. We just don’t think of those as “goals” per se because there is much less uncertainty about how to do these tasks, and whether they can or will ever get done. Much of the time, we pursue these implied goals implicitly, without self-consciousness and friction. Even people who struggle with heftier career and personal goals, like getting a promotion or losing weight, succeed at them.
As Huberman explains, there is only one brain circuit behind all of this goal-driven behavior, whether the particular goal at hand is large or small, and whether novel or routine. If you can learn to work with and not against your internal goal machinery, you can expect to reap significant recurring rewards.
Four brain structures work together (or against each other) when you attempt to pursue any goal. Your evolutionarily ancient amygdala scans and instantaneously assesses potential rewards and threats, while another ancient part (the basal ganglia) serves up a kind of “go!” or “no go!” motor control signal to your body.
More evolutionarily recent, “higher” brain areas add self-directedness and flexibility to this inner mix. The bilateral prefrontal cortex, which takes over 20 years to fully develop, facilitates the “executive” functions, like planning and overriding habits in order to fulfill a plan. Last but not least, the orbitofrontal cortex allows you to understand the relationship between actual or possible behaviors you take now, and what will happen later as a result. The ability to do “if X, then y” thinking helps us refine and update plans, rather than having to do costly trial and error each time.
Why goals (sometimes) work
You are not a narrowly rational, straightforwardly goal-directed autonomous agent. Instead, these biological aspects of human cognition are duking it out to get control of your actions.
A vague quantitative goal like “make more money” doesn’t ordinarily stand much of a chance against an anxious person’s lower brain shouting “Threat! No go! No go!” each time they nervously consider asking their boss for a raise. When you do things like specify exactly how much more money you want, and for what meaningful purpose, and how exactly to take an incremental step towards getting more money, you give the planning parts of your brain a better shot at approaching the task while simultaneously assuaging the threat-noticing and inhibitory parts.
By contrast, qualitative goals are potentially up against a lot on each of those four brain structure-based fronts. The rewards of becoming patient, kind, generous, or calm may be minor, diffuse, and uncertain. On the other hand, the various costs and stresses of change (financial, social, identity crisis, etc.) may be clear up front, threatening our motivation before we even get started on the goal.
Since qualitative goals like these usually come to people’s attention later in life as they mature, competing behaviors are already enshrined as habits. Being not especially patient, kind, or generous is an ongoing act of omission, and looks rather mundane—like reflexively declining to give to all charities, always splitting the check rather than sometimes picking up the whole thing, switching lanes to avoid even a momentary slowdown in traffic, or not thanking someone in your life for something they’ve repeatedly done for you. Habitual choices like these aren’t dramatic or even “wrong” per se, but they can add up to an unsatisfying, less than fully virtuous pattern.
In the face of your comfortable pre-existing habits and both unclear and uncertain benefits to change, it may never even occur to you, in executive planning mode, to formulate and execute a plan for improving qualitatively. As the old saying goes, failing to plan is the same as planning to fail.
As more time passes, some of your specific goals get tackled and, hopefully, achieved. You get the new job, move to the new apartment, and start waking up an hour earlier. But those lofty qualitative aspirations, which may be even more meaningful and important than the other goals, sadly go unnoticed and unpursued.
Being on one’s deathbed has a way of bringing qualitative values into focus, and the dying commonly realize the true value of being forgiving, adventurous, good-humored, mindful, intuitive, and humble. But these revelations are too little and much too late.
You’ve still got time to turn these qualitative pursuits around. I invite you to reject the implied dichotomy between regular (i.e., poorly formulated) goals and SMART (i.e., good) goals. Instead, there are many shades of gray along the spectrum between goals that are unlikely to be successful and those that are maximally likely to succeed. There are a variety of levers you can pull to increase your odds of taking valuable action, given everything we know about how motivation and behavior work. But these levers may not all be available every time, and you don’t have to pull all of them, either.
Although a goal may have a qualitative nature as its essence, there must be a facet of it that can be made more specific and therefore actionable. Even if no one act of patience, kindness, or generosity is necessary in order to become a better person on these dimensions, you can take the time to identify the best frontiers for new action for right now.
Is there one way in which you rarely demonstrate patience, like fidgeting and groaning and doom-scrolling while you wait in the grocery checkout line? Start there. Do you have a sick friend or one with a birthday coming up? Take out your credit card and send a small gift, even if you haven’t done that in the past. Imagine thanking a bus driver or cashier, even if it doesn’t feel natural. Your habits are defaults, but not insurmountable. Thinking in specific terms gives your executive planning a chance to kick in, moving action closer in line with your true values.
Measuring and planning qualitative change is harder than choosing a specific next action. I wouldn’t suggest giving yourself a weekly 1 to 10-type score on these dimensions, hoping to plot the improvement in a spreadsheet. You may still have no idea of the timeline for when you will count as a “patient” or “generous” person. But that’s OK. The qualitative goal is now SMART-ish, more relevant, and specifically actionable than before. It doesn’t have to be as structured as planning a job search or fitness regimen.
In fact, even just having had a conversation along these lines with a friend or coach, or with yourself in your journal, can help you see your existing habits and circumstances with fresh eyes. Since you can’t reliably change something that you don’t even notice in the first place, the messy process of qualitative improvement must start here.
Once you get started, qualitative goal pursuit is an iterative process. Maybe you keep forgetting to say thanks in the moment, but you remember later and send a thank-you note after the fact. Even if you blow it at exercising patience in line, another opportunity for patience will surely crop up, and you’ll be a little more likely to follow through every time you flex the metaphorical patience muscle even when you can’t quite finish all the reps.
As your self-concept shifts to incorporate a new positive trait, having that new identity gives the behavioral process additional momentum. As behavioral expert and author of Atomic Habits James Clear puts it, “To change your behavior for good, you need to start believing new things about yourself. You need to build identity-based habits.” At first it’s necessary to prove that you even have that identity, via small actions. But then you get to take it more as a given—because it is more of a given. Identity-based habits, according to Clear, are robust and meaningful. SMART-ifying goals is not done for its own sake, to rack up a long list of isolated mini-achievements. Instead, SMART-ificiation is a tool for building a better identity over time.
In addition to making goals more psychologically approachable and achievable as per the neuroscience of action, the SMART framework makes goals less subject to self-delusion. If you truly intend to get a new job or a raise of $5,000 by the end of the year, or to lose 10 pounds, it is relatively difficult to lie to yourself about that. You just look at your pay stub or at the scale, and know whether you’ve succeeded or not.
Qualitative goals aren’t like that. It’s pretty easy to imagine someone developing non-reality-based beliefs that they are becoming more generous, patient, or kind. Confirmation bias is real—if you’re committed to finding evidence for something, you almost certainly can. Is every qualitative self-improvement task therefore doomed?
Not necessarily. In my years of coaching some of the most thoughtful people imaginable, I’ve noticed time and time again that they are at least as likely to underestimate their qualitative progress as to overestimate it. In addition to their confirmation bias, humans also have a negativity bias. They remember problems and failures much more readily and vividly than successes: moments when they could have been generous with time or money but declined, when they lost their patience instead of enduring, even small instances of being curt or rude to others.
What’s going on here? My coaching clients know about the human tendency for self-delusion, and at first they fear that they’ll fall into the old confirmation bias trap. This scares them, because their desire to improve in hard-to-measure ways is genuine. There’s an important philosophical difference between being a better person and feeling like one. If these diverge, then (erroneously) feeling like a better person can in fact prevent you from becoming one.
But, in contrast to their concern about confirmation bias, these conscientious goal-setters discount how easy it is to forget small wins. My job as a philosophical life coach is not to fabricate fake successes for clients to celebrate in a wormhole of self-delusion, but merely to invite clients to notice and celebrate real successes, however small. For someone who’s impatient, one instance of calm checkout line behavior or traffic-sitting counts as a win. Hoping to have a higher standard later doesn’t invalidate having a more realistic standard now.
Noticing small successes, like instances of nascent generosity and patience, doesn’t breed complacency or make people less likely to keep going toward their qualitative goals. Instead, as Huberman points out, the dopamine our brain receives from noticing progress serves as a biochemical precursor to the adrenaline that keeps us engaged and motivated. Energy spent moving toward goals doesn’t deplete it in a zero-sum fashion, like the gas in your car’s tank running dry as you get towards your destination. On the contrary, you can fill your own tank just by noticing progress. Energy spent effectively pursuing goals serves as a renewable psychological resource to fuel you through life’s pursuits, whether neat and discrete or self-consciously messy in an all-too-human way.
Pamela J. Hobart is a philosopher-coach practicing in Austin, Texas. Follow her on Twitter.