The Agile Approach to S.M.A.R.T. Goals

The SMART Goal Setting acronym has been around a long time.  It states goals should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely or Timeline Driven.  The Agile Approach to S.M.A.R.T. Goal Setting is an updated way of setting goals that are designed to magnetize you into action.  No *forcing* yourself required.

Agile goals are especially useful when it comes to dealing with goals that involve changing old habits. Agile SMART goals work for everyone, but are especially well-suited to creative types, rebels, people who are addicted to insight, gifted people, ADHD and other neurodiverse characters. The Agile approach to goals is what I teach clients and coaching group participants.


Agile goals vs. SMART goalsI first learned the SMART Goal acronym in 1981.  It seemed brilliant. And in fact, it is.  It works quite well much of the time. But not all the time.

S.M.A.R.T. is a useful acronym – but, it is often NOT a good fit for the most challenging and difficult goals. It’s a good start, but the conventional SMART model does not provide all the tools needed to master the art of using goals to change habits and enhance performance. There are times when an updated agile approach is what’s needed to make our goals more effective and more *user-friendly.”

“Agilizing” is a word I made up.  I took the word *agile” and made it a verb to make it easier to articulate the complex process of becoming agile – which involves getting unstuck and getting into action in a need responsive, organic way. Agile is about being flexible and adjusting to the situation at hand in a way that produces helpful results. Agilizing is the process of making something that is rigid, stuck, or not working, into something that is more flexible, customizable and adjustable.

Getting caught in the yo-yo effect is a form of procrastination. It’s also a sign that your goal is somehow turning you off. Instead of trying harder, it’s time to shift gears, stop trying to “make” yourself do it, and start  *agilizing” your goal till you are magnetized into action.

 

Agilizing a goal is the process of converting it from being rigid, stuck, or not working, into one that is more flexible, customizable and adjustable. Agilizing a goal is sifting out a clear. small, simple, first step that is capable of melting your resistance to it.

Agilizing a goal may involve:

  • Connecting with your heart’s true intention and needs behind the goal,
  • Reducing the pressure to get it right,
  • Respecting and addressing your heart’s innermost objections, and/or
  • Figuring out how to go deeper than just wanting it really badly– you need to make it compelling – worth the trouble to get started.

When someone is stuck in a yo-yo pattern — a goal is achieved, but the result doesn’t last.  The goal just keeps coming back and all too often the current state is often even worse that before you set the goal the first time. Like when you lost 5 pounds but gained back 10 pounds.  The same is true for many habit related goals such as exercising, organizing, and eating healthier – these are all goals that are highly susceptible to the yo-yo effect.

Actionable goals are usually temporary. We use them like stepping stones to solve a problem or achieve a desired outcome and then move on to new goals made possible by achieving the prior goal.

If the same goals keep coming back to haunt you – that’s a strong signal that it’s time to rethink your goal and your goal setting process from every angle. It’s time to try a whole new approach that re-focuses your attention on finding a sustainable way to meet the needs that underlie the goal you are yo-yoing with.

In this example, “losing weight” is a measurable outcome goal – but it’s one you have very little control over on a daily basis. The actual needs underlying the goal of losing weight are usually things like feeling comfortable in your body, or getting your clothes to fit again.

Stating your goal as losing weight is part of the problem.  The more we think about *losing weight* the harder it becomes to do it.  This is because our attention is trying to focus on something our brains literally can’t make happen in the moment.   Losing weight is not an action or behavior we can consciously do – it’s a complex and slow process that is invisible to the naked eye. It is a *byproduct* of lots of actions, habits, biological and emotional factors. We are not meant to be so conscious of it.

When our attention is focused on something we can’t do anything about right now, it causes stress.  When we focus attention on very small, simple doable tasks and behaviors, we are far more likely to act on them.  We can’t lose weight in 5 minutes, but we can support ourselves in making better decisions about what to eat for breakfast, or what to snack on.

Why We Need Agile Goals

Goals in the conventional SMART model are often used more like a pass/fail test than as tools to help you accomplish the desired outcomes. Agile goals are designed to support us in getting into action rather than making us feel inadequate or overwhelmed.

Inadvertently, conventional goals often make people feel pressured to achieve the goal as stated.  If you miss a milestone or deadline, you feel like you did something *bad.* Using goals to *drive* behavior (instead of to facilitate meeting the intention behind the goal) has many negative side effects – unintended consequences that increase stress, overwhelm and impair our overall health.

The agile approach to SMART goals invites you to respect and accept yourself as you are right now – even though you may not *like* it – and set interim short term goals that fit you now and can easily change as you grow.  Wanting to change something in your life does NOT require that you fight yourself. It’s far more effective to respect yourself as you are even though you know you will grow.

The agile approach to SMART goals is especially well-suited for people who are different. The temporary nature of agile goals fits the frequently changing, improvisational lifestyle most creative, growth-oriented people need and thrive on.

The *agile* approach to SMART goals offers tools for:

  • Clarifying multiple needs and outcomes and connecting them to simple, small behaviors
  • Breaking down big overwhelming goals into smaller, easier interim goals
  • Troubleshooting what isn’t working
  • Learning from what is working
  • Figuring out how to get started more easily
  • Reducing the risk of harmful unintended consequences
  • Figuring out *enabling* goals
  • Clarifying the standards for success and expanding the definition of success to include a wider range of acceptable, especially when you are in a learning mode.
  • Monitoring your progress in a way that encourages continued progress and emphasizes recovering from setbacks over fearing and avoiding them (self-coaching and self-leading.)

 

Imagine.

How different life might be if your goals
supported you in BOTH getting things done AND in
cultivating a healthier, more accepting and self-respecting relationship with yourself?

 

Feeling productive, confident and respectful of yourself  should not be the  “prize you earn” for accomplishing everything on your goal list. In face, the opposite is true.

Positive feelings about yourself are the fuel that enables you to figure out what really needs to be accomplished and be flexible about how you accomplish your goals. 
Enjoying life in all its messy unpredictability is what gives you the drive to wake up every day, make meaning out of your messes, and go for what you want out of life even when progress is slow.

Why do Goals so Frequently Trigger Procrastination?

Goals and expectations play a significant role in shaping our performance.  Often, the way we frame our goals triggers procrastination instead of action.  Chronic Procrastination is a form of feedback.  It’s your innermost self letting you know that your goal needs agilizing. By definition, if you are procrastinating, you don’t feel inspired to get started. That means your goal is not yet agile or SMART enough.  A goal has been agilized enough when you feel ready, willing and inspired to get into action and take steps toward the goal – no matter how tiny those steps may be, each one feels worth the trouble because you have so clearly and powerfully built an irresistible cost-benefit case that makes it feel almost impossible NOT to take a step.

Agile Approach to SMART Goals

Below is a printable poster of the original model I used to update the SMART Goal acronym and incorporate Agile concepts.  A more streamlined version of the model and process is being developed for the upcoming e-Book with a new look and feel, but the content is still valid.

AGILE-SMART-Goals-Qualities-EXPO-VERSION

 

Hope it helps you think about your goals in a whole new way.

S  Small, simple, specific and sustainable

Agile goals fit your lifestyle and are small enough to integrate into your life without overwhelming you or your resources. They hit the sweet spot of feeling both challenging and doable. They incorporate the need to take time to become *ready* to act, and take into account the natural cycles of fluctuating motivation.

M  Meaningful, memorable, and magnetic

Agile goals are designed to connect small seemingly insignificant actions to meaningful, big picture emergent outcome goals such as “Improve my health” or “make more money.”   In this way, even the most trivial of daily actions and habits become easier to act on.  Agile goals connect even the tiniest of actions, including taking some time to think, to highly valuable and significant outcomes.  Agile goals are stated briefly and simple enough to remember. You can visualize yourself doing each tiny step and you could even capture it with a video if you wanted to.

A  Aims for the agile zone

The agile zone is about establishing a full spectrum of expectations that range from a bare minimum, to good enough, to a challenging target of “ideal.”  In the agile zone, standards are clarified and flexible enough to address the normal fluctuations of available time energy and other resources. Functioning in the agile zone includes shooting for ideals but also acknowledging the value of the full spectrum of good enough. Many things are worth doing imperfectly — While you are learning something new, your attempts may be clumsy, but they are still worthy of acknowledgement. Agile zone goals support optimal functioning because they encourage you to keep trying even when you aren’t getting it right yet. Goals that aim for the agile zone are attractive and motivating because they anticipate and allow for the inevitable setbacks, mistakes and even failures that are part of the process of achieving any goal.  Instead of agonizing over setbacks and obstacles, setbacks become fuel for learning, creative iteration, and personal growth.  Instead of spending a lot of energy trying to make things turn out a certain way, we spend more time creatively adapting tasks to fit the resources we have available and give ourselves credit for making an effort – even if we drop the ball, at least we tried to catch it.  We trust that if we just keep working on catching it, eventually we will.  Mistakes are a natural part of the process.

R   Relevant to emergent outcome goals and to satisfying multiple needs simultaneously (e.g. sensory, emotional, mental, creative, practical and functional needs)

Agile goals become increasingly meaningful and magnetic to us when we are clear about how they enable us to meet multiple needs simultaneously with one activity. Designing agile goals involves learning how to integrate needs so that you can accomplish more while actually doing less.  Agile goals resolve conflicts between competing needs and values.  For example, eating high quality, delicious nutritional food on a low budget is challenging.  But that doesn’t mean we should completely sacrifice good tasting, good-for-you food to save money.  You don’t have to choose between eating crap food all the time and saving money.  Agile goals are creatively designed to meet long term needs at the same time our short-term needs are also also being satisfied.  It requires a bit more creative problem-solving, but it is possible to learn how to integrate multiple needs into one goal.

T   Tweakable

Agile goals are easy to modify as needs change. Agile goals are open-ended enough  that you could meet them in a number of ways.  Rather than defining success in a narrow way, they offer targets that guide you in designing and improvising your way to achieving the intentions of your goals. Agile goals allow you to easily tweak them on the fly, as needed, when available resources change (such as time, attention, energy and money).

Tweakable agile goals are designed so that any part of the goal can be adapted, as needed, to meet the current conditions.  The way the goal is stated ensures that that there is more than one way to *succeed* in making progress on your goal.

 


Agile SMART Goals Compared to Conventional SMART Goals


Below is an example of an Conventional emergent outcome goal.

I want to lose 5 pounds in 2 months. 

Conventional Sub-Goals for achieving this outcome might look like this:

  • I will cook my own meals at least 3 times a week to save money on eating in restaurants and to eat healthier.
  • I will weigh, measure and write down everything I eat.
  • I will plan my meals for the week and make a detailed shopping list to ensure I have all the ingredients I need to make each meal.

Below is an example of an Agile emergent outcome goal.  It is long term focused and there is no “deadline”.  It can be achieved by integrating small daily habits that add up to achieving the outcome.

 Learn to enjoy the process of cooking highly nutritious whole foods by designing small changes into the way I cook so that cooking healthy feels easy, creative and spontaneous.

The Agile SMART goal process helps me connect my intention to change my attitude toward cooking to several other emotional, functional and health needs as well. The agile goal meets my emotional and cognitive needs for challenge, learning, and mastery development as well my physical needs to enjoy the taste, texture and even visual aspects of the food I eat.  In addition, my functional need to limit the time I spend cooking and have it take up roughly the same time as fast food must be met.  Design is about figuring out solutions and strategies to ensure all ALL my needs are met by the same goal.

Example of smaller goals that fit with my Agile outcome goal:

  • I will discover simple, versatile tools to cook with and only keep the ones that meet multiple needs: my sensory needs for pleasing color, look and feel, AND my functional needs for solutions that are easy to use, clean, store in my small kitchen with limited storage.
    (e.g. a great multi-purpose knife that fits my hand, feels good when using it, fits my color scheme, and makes it kinda fun to build my mastery of knife skills and experiment with new ways to cut up vegetables, etc.)
  • I will learn about and experiment with one or 2 new flavors or fresh ingredients each month. I  want to learn more about whole foods and seasonings that make eating and cooking more of a creative adventure I look forward to rather than a chore I resist.
  • I will design or discover 2 – 3  go to “template” recipes for dinner that include only 3 – 5 healthy ingredients  – are easy to remember, easy to adapt to whatever ingredients I have on hand, and easy to prepare even when I get home tired at night.
  • I will figure out a core set of healthy ingredients to keep stocked in my pantry, fridge and freezer so that I can improvise quick, convenient,  healthy meals anytime I don’t have much time to prepare food.

 


Can you feel the difference between the agile goals and the conventional goals?

Which kind of goals are more likely to captivate your interest and inspire you into action?


If you were born to agilize, chances are the conventional approach SMART goals will not inspire you to easily achieve long-term success. You might make a change for a couple weeks then find yourself inexplicably just stopping.  Not achieving your goal feels bad enough, but it is not a benign fleeting kind of pain.  The dark side of repeatedly using goal setting strategies that don’t fit you is that the stress actively and cumulatively does HARM to your self-image and to your emotional, mental and physical well-being.

The stress of repeatedly feeling like a failure actually harms your overall health and well-being so that it progressively becomes HARDER to achieve the outcome goals you deeply desire. 

Repeated lack of success has many undesirable side effects and consequences, such as making you feel inadequate, defective or like a failure.  It can lead to anxiety, depression, and set you up for chronic feelings of overwhelmchronic disorganization, clutterchronic procrastination and resisting your own goals.

Outliers who are growth-oriented, creative, non-linear, intuitive thinkers and who love to learn and explore more than the average person does, need goals that are adaptable, flexible and agile.  The agile way of goal setting accepts you as you are.    Rather than relying on self-control, the agile approach encourages self-understanding and self-leadership to design goals in a way that nurtures your spirit and organically inspires you to achieve beyond what you can even imagine right now.   Using control tactics is not *required* to inspire yourself to do things that are good for you – there are other ways!   

As you learn and evolve, your needs, interests, and resources change more frequently than the average person’s.The agile approach to S.M.A.R.T goal setting works with your natural adaptability and cultivates it into a strength.

Agile goals respect and accommodate your drive to learn and grow. The goals you tried on and let go of are your stepping stones to wisdom.  All the course corrections you make along the way as you learn are the ingredients needed to develop good judgement and reasoning skills.  Agile goals are designed to change as you learn – without the drama of feeling like you failed to achieve yet another goal.

9 thoughts on “The Agile Approach to S.M.A.R.T. Goals

  1. I think this article is highly interesting.
    I also used to have hard time with SMART goals; I learned through many years that my tools should have 2 crucial characteristics: structure + flexibility; but I couldn’t see any alternative for SMART approach.
    SMART is well structured, but flexibility is missing, and it’s that which may allow you to evolve.

  2. This is a great article about doing what it takes to achieve your goals. It focuses on the positive aspects of changing behaviors to reach your goals. By agilizing the goal, I make it work for me and it’s a good thing! It makes me feel so much better toward myself that I want to keep it going.

    • Thanks so much Kathy! I’m so thrilled to hear that you are putting AgiliZen into action and getting results! You so deserve to feel good about yourself. You truly are worthy just the way you are. Leading yourself into change through self-coaching is a lifelong journey in discovering and expanding your agile zone. Thanks for your feedback!

  3. Great article! I LOVE this line: “Procrastination is a form of feedback.” I never thought of it this way, and it makes so much sense! In everything you write, there’s always at least one idea that makes me say that. That wasn’t all I got from the article, of course. The whole article was an excellent reinforcement for me after the coaching session on Agile Goal-setting, and a good introduction for people who aren’t familiar with agilizing.

    • Thank you so much for the insights and feedback! I’m so glad the article helped reinforce the concepts I shared in our coaching session. I love hearing what lines resonate for you. That
      helps me decide what concepts are “book-worthy”. Hugz, A.

  4. I have experience liberation like never before,I am completely stumped by this discovery.Bless you , bless you ,bless you

  5. This is beautiful, Ariane! Thank you …
    “SMART” has always sounded like it ‘should’ ‘make sense’, but I’ve never been able to successfully implement the whole thing – know I not only know Why, but What to do differently!

  6. Here’s a comment from Linked in / Janet Barclay

    “Very inspiring, Ariane! I often mention SMART goals when I speak (which isn’t often anymore) but next time I think I’ll mention your take on the subject as well – with credit of course!”

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