5 alternatives to try when traditional goal-setting methods don’t work

Productivity gurus will tell you that there is one effective way to set your goals. Don’t believe them.

5 alternatives to try when traditional goal-setting methods don’t work
[Photo: Flickr user Nico Jensen]

Goal setting seems like a simple concept. You think about what you want to achieve, when you want to do it by, and how you’ll get to your desired outcome. But try to put these three steps into practice, and you’ll see just how messy it can get. Life happens, other priorities come up, and sometimes, the amount of diligence and hard work doesn’t seem to move you any closer to your target.


Just like almost everything else in life, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to goal setting. Some of the most commonly cited “hacks” and “techniques” might work great for some but do absolutely nothing for you.

So if you struggle with the common goal-setting methods, don’t despair. Try these alternatives instead.

Instead of: Setting S.M.A.R.T goals

Try: Asking yourself, “Did I do my best?”

Goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely (aka SMART), many experts will tell you. And there’s nothing wrong with this approach, until of course, it doesn’t work for you. Maybe you struggle to figure out how much time to allocate, or you don’t know the line between ambitious and delusional, and as a result, you struggle to make progress month after month.


Instead of the S.M.A.R.T methodology, simply ask yourself, “Did I do my best today?” According to freelance writer and Fast Company contributor Daniel Dowling, this “vague” method completely transformed his mind-set and productivity. By asking himself this question each night, he was forced to confront how much effort he really gave day. If he “frittered away most of the day,” he’d always examine why, and make changes so that he doesn’t make the same mistake the next day. He wrote, “Without asking myself if I’d done my best each day, I’d either have wallowed in self-reproach or failed to reflect on my performance at all. Instead, I’d turned self-criticism into a self-improvement habit.”

Related: How to turn your biggest goals into monthly, weekly, and daily to-dos 

Instead of: Beginning with the end in mind

Try: Starting some goals in the middle of the process

Most goal-setting methods rest on the assumption that goals are sequential. There is a clear end point, and you work backwards to figure out how to get there. But as Scott Young, author of How to Change a Habit, told Stephanie Vozza, sometimes you lack the big-picture understanding to make that judgment. Young gave the example of starting a business. He said, “You may not be sure what you’ll be doing in six months. You could set a goal, and then two months in, realize there’s no way you’re going to meet it. Then you feel like you failed.” In this instance, Young recommends committing to a certain amount of effort, and then setting a reasonable goal once you have a better idea of what it would take.


Instead of: Focusing on changing your habits

Try: Adopting a mantra

Working toward a goal often involves changing your habits. This is a very hard thing to do. Because of the struggle, many of us get discouraged and give up altogether when we consistently fall short.

If this sounds like you, you might want to try adopting a “mantra” rather than a resolution. Entrepreneur Reshma Chamberlin tried this approach when she found herself stretched too thin, and decided that she needed a yearly “anchor” on which to center her efforts. Chamberlin told Fast Company contributor Jenna Abdou, “It’s not a single objective, like go to the gym every day. Your mantra is a conscious choice to take control of your life.” In 2017, her mantra was, “Ask and you shall receive.” This motto drove her to ask for what she deserved in situations where she might have previously hesitated, and ended up sparking several fruitful opportunities.

Instead of: Setting yearlong goals

Try: Setting 90-day goals

You’re probably used to setting goals in January with the aim of achieving it by December. But it can be smarter to set goals within a smaller time frame, particularly when you’re operating in a constantly changing environment (for example, a startup). As productivity expert Laura Vanderkam previously wrote for Fast Company, this time frame lets you reset quickly and also makes you less likely to stretch yourself thin. “Giving yourself 90 days means you can focus on a few at a time, knowing that there’s another 90-day period coming up soon,” Vanderkam said. 


Instead of: Trying to fix a problem

Try: Optimize on what’s already right in your life

The problem with resolutions is that they often point to something that’s wrong or missing. Mathematician and entrepreneur Spencer Greenberg told Fast Company‘s Elizabeth Segran that rather than setting goals, you should always be “on the lookout for ways to make your life better, then act on that instinct.”

Adopting this approach encourages self-compassion, which fosters self-esteem and in turn encourages positive actions. In addition, it also encourages you to think about how you can make small, day-to-day experiences better. “It is the antithesis to business as usual, which is often just inertia disguised as tradition,” he told Segran. “Once you start, it begins to feel like a game. It’s addictive to be on the lookout for ways you can improve your life–whether it is your productivity at work, your romantic relationships, your hobbies–then watch yourself get better at the task the next time around.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Spencer Greenberg as “Stephen Greenberg.” This article has been updated. 


About the author

Anisa is a freelance writer and editor who covers the intersection of work and life, personal development, money, and entrepreneurship. Previously, she was the assistant editor for Fast Company's Work Life section and the co-host of Secrets Of The Most Productive people podcast.


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