• Akila Venkatesh

A smarter, more empowered approach to S.M.A.R.T goals

Why Actionable and Risky goals are more effective (and inspiring) than Achievable and Realistic ones.

For many people, such as myself, the start of September is a time to evaluate priorities and set new goals both for myself and with my family. However, to be frank, and in my humble opinion, traditional 'SMART' goal setting can often be a dry and uninspiring process. This post describes what I have conceived and adopted as a more empowering approach to goal setting and is part of Evaluating; the 8th challenge from the In Good Hands weekly E.M.P.O.W.E.R.E.D. challenge.

Traditionally, SMART goals involve setting Specific, Measurable, Achieveable, Realistic and Time-Bound goals. A more empowered approach to goal setting changes the acronym to Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Risky and Time-Bound. This article will take a look at these two new elements to SMART goals (for the other elements, Google is your friend. ;) )


Actionable takes the original concept of 'achievable' a step further. It makes it more concrete. Let's be real: you already intuitively know whether something is achievable or not, even if the chances are slim, so giving it prime real estate when writing out your SMART goal won't really do much more for you . For example, let's say your goal is to write and publish a book. When writing out your SMART goal using the original framework, you wouldn't get much return on investment from the 'achieveable' category because you would simply place a checkmark or write 'yes' in our notebook, confirming what you already know. Perhaps you could reflect on the degree to which this goal is achieveable by giving it a chance of success as a percentage, but again, this is subjective and doesn't offer any additional, practical guidance. Instead, writing something 'Actionable', would offer much more mileage. In the example above, you could list 3 steps that could be taken tomorrow to take action on your goal. You could also write the 10 most important actions to take over the next month. With this framework, you are pushed to take next steps, instead of just reaffirming that the goal is achieveable (or if it's not achieveable, then you wouldn't continue with the rest of the SMART goal anyway).


Browse the self-help aisles of any bookstore, or watch a handful of Ted Talks on the topic of personal growth, and you'll see a theme emerge: that failure and risk-taking is a requirement for growth, and growth is the foundation to meaningul goals and a meaningful life. The word 'realistic' can imply permission to stay in one's comfort zone and discourage big dreams. It is also subject to our own insecurities, inferiority complexes, and biases, such as imposter syndrome and learned helplessness. If you think something is realistic, chances are, it is also achievable and you'll reach your goal without much bravery. When we stay in our comfort zone, we also tend to avoid feedback or receiving constructive criticism.

The term 'realistic' is also subjective and can hold many systemic prejudices. Historically, it wasn't 'realistic' for BIPOC or women to hold leadership positions. If we want to transcend barriers to justice, create change and societal transformation, we must train ourselves and our children to not settle for what is 'realistic'. We must take risks instead and foster belief in possibility. Sure, being realistic can be useful when we want to guide young people to set goals that they can see through to the end. The idea of 'realistic' goals is not all bad. It's just not the paradigm that fuels empowerement, inspiration and lights a fire in us. Risky goals need not be harmful or dangerous. They should be challenging and make us slightly uncomfortable. Deep down, when we set a risky goal, we know intuitively that it will stretch us to our edges in the ways we need it to. It will help us eliminate our excuses which allow us to stay small. For example, a risky personal health goal for me is to abstain from eating all forms of sugar (including bread), 6 days a week. While this may not be risky for some, it is for me. I feel reluctant, mournful and have many excuses why not to pursue this goal. It's easy to justify foregoing this goal by saying "well, I should just enjoy life instead of placing so many rules on myself", which is what Gretchen Rubin calls 'loophole spotting'. My excuses are a sign that this goal involves the risk of giving up some pleasures and pushing through temptation and a goal that I should pursue. Notably, the thought of conquering this goal also evokes feelings of empowerment. How great it would be to not be at the mercy of my sugar cravings, and to be able to fuel my body with with healthier foods.

One caveat is to be sensitive during challenging/uncertain times, particularly when encouraging risk-taking with children. Sometimes, we just need to let children stay where it feels most secure and comfortable, particularly when there are uncertainties in the world, as is currently the case with the back-to-school climate of COVID-19. A risky goal related to school achievement may not be the right fit at this time, but a risky goal in a completely different realm (non-school related) can actually bolster motivation and confidence, which may help your child better face the challenges in school, as a byproduct. If you talk to your child about their dreams and exciting things they want to pursue, you'd be surprised at all they come up with. Furthermore, when you, as a parent, put your risky goals on display, your children will feel motivated as well, and as a family, you can all pursue your goals together.

I'd love to know in the comments below:

1) What is one SMART goal you have for yourself or your child?

2) Describe a time you took a risk, possibly failed, and grew as a result. What did you learn from the experience?

#goalsetting #SMARTgoals #parenting #backtoschool #takeaction

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© 2020 by Akila Venkatesh

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