If SMART Goals Don't Work For You, Try FAST Goals Instead

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You’re probably familiar with the concept of the SMART goal: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely. That kind of goal can get results, but it might not be the best way to get you where you want to go.

In that case, you might want to start setting FAST goals instead.

Management experts Donald Sull and Charles Sull define and explain FAST goals in the MIT Sloan Management Review:

We found that four core principles underpin effective goal systems, and we summarize these elements with the acronym FAST. [...] Goals should be embedded in frequent discussions; ambitious in scope; measured by specific metrics and milestones; and transparent for everyone in the organisation to see.

Eagle-eyed readers will notice that SMART and FAST goals share one attribute: specificity. Before you start working towards a goal, get really specific about what you want to achieve and how you’ll know when you’ve achieved it.

Here’s how the two types of goals differ. If you’re setting a FAST goal, make it ambitious rather than realistic. As Sull and Sull remind us:

The temptation to play it safe when setting goals is understandable but often misguided. Recall that employees pursuing ambitious goals significantly outperform colleagues with less challenging objectives.

In other words — and I cannot believe I’m typing this — shoot for the moon, and even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.

Once you’ve set your ambitious goal, whether it’s for yourself, your workplace, or your family, refer back to it frequently. Here’s Sull and Sull again:

Even the most finely crafted objectives will have little impact if they are filed away for 363 days of the year. To drive strategy execution, goals should serve as a framework that guides key decisions and activities throughout the year.

This ties in with something I recently read in Nir Eyal’s new book Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. Eyal suggests that after you set a goal, you should evaluate every subsequent decision on whether it moves you closer to — or further away from — your goal.

That’s not always 100 per cent realistic, of course, but since we’re already shooting for the moon, why not give it a try?

That takes care of frequent, ambitious and specific. The last word in the acronym, transparent, should be self-explanatory. Make your goals, and the reason you’re working towards those goals, clear to everyone who has a stake in helping you achieve them.

Some of you might quibble with the transparent aspect. I’m not saying that you need to share every detail of your brand-new creative project, exercise routine, or what-have-you. In fact, there is research suggesting that you’re more likely to achieve a personal goal if you keep it to yourself.

But if you’re working on a goal that involves other people’s buy-in, such as cutting back on the number of times your household orders takeout instead of prepping food at home, it’s a good idea to be transparent about the goal itself (“only ordering takeout once per week”), why you’re setting the goal (“to save money”) and how you’ll know if you’ve achieved the goal (“did we limit our takeout to once per week or not”).

It’s also a good idea to be transparent about how the people involved can help you achieve your goal — or help the whole group achieve a shared goal. That way, they’ll know whether their actions and decisions help everyone move closer to the goal in question.

If you want an hour of free time every other morning to go for a run, for example, let the other people in your household know how they can support you. If you want to set a family goal of only ordering takeout once per week, be transparent about how everyone will need to take on and/or share new responsibilities in terms of meal planning, food prep, and cleanup.

And remember that FAST goals, unlike SMART goals, are ambitious. If there are weeks when you order takeout twice, that’s still better than ordering it every single day. Same goes for any other FAST goal you set — so you might as well start setting them as quickly as possible, and see how far they can take you.


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