SMART Goals Are Not Suitable For Remarkable Changes

Summary: SMART goals became a standard in many areas. They are a great method to avoid ambiguity and irrelevance but come to their limit in case of change – private or corporate. Clear communication of the underlying feeling is missing. I share 3 strategies to get to the bottom of your emotional intention for your goal.

Hello there! How are you doing with your New Year’s resolutions? Are you still on it? If not, you are probably not the only one and maybe it is because you used SMART goals.

Formulating goals in the SMART format – specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound – is extremely popular. It’s a standard in many areas like product management and personal development. SMART goals are a great help to avoid ambiguity and irrelevance. However, when you are looking for making changes or alternating a habit they are not that suitable.

Why are SMART goals not suitable for changes?

SMART goals have the underlying assumption that they are worthwhile. They are presuming an emotion, but don’t create it in general.

In one of my favorite reads from 2021 Switch, Chip and Dan Heath explain that life-changing goals need to address the rational and the emotional side of you. Because knowing something is often not enough to cause change. Knowing for example that sugar isn’t healthy is most likely not stopping you from eating chocolate. However, SMART goals are often only addressing the rational part. They lack clear communication about the underlying feeling, the intention. In addition, regarding corporate changes, the emotional side is often neglected completely.

How can I add an emotional side to my SMART goal?

Chip and Dan Heath are calling this part Motivating the Elephant in contrast to Direct the Rider for the rational side. There are several ways to motivate the elephant, but the most important one is to find the feeling. Of course, this is often easier said than done. Especially, when you need to motivate many people in a company.

I would like to share 3 strategies for you to find the feeling.

Create a crisis or moment of shock

People tend to avoid moving or changing behaviors as long as old behaviors fulfilled the job in the past. Motivation appears in a crisis or moment of shock. Then, there is no other way than to change one’s behavior.

But be aware, the underlying emotion when using this technique is often fear, shame, or anger, which often only leads to short-term motivation and actions.

Better is to think about how you can trigger pure joy and astonishment with a moment of shock, which leads to my second suggestion.

See and feel the consequences of your actions

Thinking about your change, is it possible to make you see and feel the consequences of your actions? A theoretical analysis or numbers in a slide deck usually do not lead to an increase in motivation for change. Be creative! For example, in case you want to save money, is there a way to pile up products you wasted money on?


Visualization is my favorite strategy. I imagine myself reaching the goal and going deeply into the emotion. Not only once, but multiple times and every time I struggle. I also use visualization during my end-of-year ritual when I start creating an outlook for the new year.

Focusing on positive emotions like joy, inner peace and pride is one big advantage of visualization. They open our minds and boost our creativity on how to achieve our goals.

What else can I do?

Still, stuck although you set a goal and linked it with a for you meaningful emotion – with your intention? Try out mental contrasting to go to the next step.

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Nadine Oldorf
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