Why S.M.A.R.T. goals don’t work

And why you edit yourself on social media.

Zilla builds her fake holiday

Do you filter, crop or just plain exclude photos from Facebook to because you only want to share the good ones?

When you do this, you’re sharing what Psychologists call your ‘Aspirational Self’. In 2014, Dutch student Zilla Van Den Born went as far as using Photoshop and Facebook to falsify a five-week holiday to South East Asia, demonstrating the extent to which your identity can be ‘branded’ online.

Your Aspirational Self is what comes out when you daydream about being richer, thinner, or even just happier. In the age of social media, these images are often easier to see than ‘real life’.

Psychologically, the Aspirational Self sits next to another idea called the Actual Self. The Actual Self is who you believe you are behind the images.

While your Aspirational Self is a happy go lucky glamourpuss, full of passion, smiles and ‘joie de vivre’, your Actual Self often includes fatigue, uncertainty, and even failure.

Simply put, the Aspirational Self is who you’d like to be. The Actual Self is who you think you are.

You will buy products, make decisions, and even feel happy based on how closely your Actual Self aligns with your Aspirational Self.

According to West and Anderson, “we are often acutely conscious of how far our actual selves fall short of our aspirational selves”.

This awareness drives a lot of your behavior, and is the basis for a slew of advertising you see every day. It underpins where you spend a large portion of your money and time. It is the foundation of all your goals.

You will often spend your whole life trying to bridge the gap between who you want to be, and who you believe you are. You will buy products, make decisions, and even feel happy based on how closely your Actual Self aligns with your Aspirational Self.

The minions take a short break before fetching another cocktail

Have you ever been driving home, and passed a picture of a beautiful beach draped in a slogan inviting you to come visit? For a second you daydreamed about sitting on that beach sipping Pina Coladas, surrounded by a small team of minions whose sole purpose was to make you happy. You’re probably thinking of it right now (I know I am).

Then you looked back at the traffic jam in front of you and cursed the Rav4 who just cut you off, while trying to scratch that itch on your left foot without stalling the car. You arrived home to see pictures on Instagram, shared by people enjoying their holiday right now.

Those images are appealing to the gap between your Aspirational Self, sitting carefree on a tropical island, and your Actual Self, stuck in traffic on the way home from work.

Join me! Sun and pineapples for days!

The travel company is hoping you’ll try and get closer to your aspirational, carefree self by purchasing a holiday.

If this gap causes us so much discontent, then bridging that gap should make us happier. Yet research shows these goals, even if you reach them, often fail to have the long term effects you want. Why?

Typically, we tend to set destination goals, also known as S.M.A.R.T goals, because they’re easy to see, and they represent things our Aspirational Self might do. While these goals are S.M.A.R.T, they are also “big, time-boxed, and un-fun”. Not only that, they focus on changing what we do before looking at who we are.

Behind the why, driving the why, is a who.

If you’re like most consumers, you’ve been trained to think your Aspirational Self is a destination — a number of pounds you’ve lost, packs of cigarettes not smoked, days spent with family. Instagram is full of people sharing how close they’re getting to their Aspirational Selves.

In his famous TED Talk, Simon Sinek tells us to “start with why”. But behind the why, driving the why, is a who.

Despite this, most of our goals begin with a tangible what. See if any of this sounds familiar:

  • I’m going to lose 10 pounds in a month by cutting carbs
  • I’m going to run a marathon by training every Monday at 6 am
  • I’m will holiday with my family at least once a year, starting this year
  • I’m going to get promoted in October by taking on extra projects

How often have you achieved one of these goals, and then raised the bar? What about achieving one of these goals, only to find out it didn’t make you happy?

Reaching achievements is satisfying, and provides a tangible framework to measure progress. As humans, we are designed to respond to what we can see and touch. This can have a real impact on what we do going forward.

But unless you align your achievements with who you are, your behavior won’t be sustainable.

Have you ever dumped the diet or quit the gym because your goals of avoiding sugar and daily running are hard work and no fun?

Health Coach Chelsey Benzel sees this a lot. “I get a lot of clients who want to lose weight. I take a step back and ask how they imagine themselves feeling once they’ve lost the weight. That’s the missing link for so many people. As you start to bring about more of the feelings you’re striving for, you realize that it was never about losing weight, for example, but about how you imagined yourself to feel when you ‘got there”.

Have you ever run up enough debt to purchase a small island, only to find your Aspirational Self pushing you to do more?

“Sure that BBQ is nice” says the Aspirational Self “but you really need the Ten-Burner-Patty-Scorcher-5000.” You upgrade the BBQ. “Come to Mexico again!” cries the Aspirational Self. “Don’t miss out!”.

Truck BBQ. Your argument is invalid.

“You’ll never complete these journeys, and that’s the point.”

— Nir Eyal

Before you set your goals, back up. Lay a foundation. Cut out the noise and ask yourself who your Aspirational Self really is.

Several tools are available to help you do this, including unplugging, meditating, even simply going for a walk (without your phone). The key is to ignore external influences and listen.

Try it right now. Close your eyes and think about a goal you’re chasing. How will you feel about yourself when you get there? To be clear, not how will you feel about achieving that goal. How will you feel about yourself? Will you feel beautiful? Strong? Secure? Who is the person underneath all those S.M.A.R.T. goals?

Then, try setting goals that focus on a who that makes you feel good, rather than a what you think will help you reach your ‘happiness destination’.

  • I appreciate healthy food
  • I will develop an active lifestyle
  • I feel comfortable taking time off
  • I will get the most out of my job
  • I am comfortable saying no, even if I miss out on something cool

“You’ll never complete these journeys” explains behaviorist Nir Eyal, “and that’s the point. It’s only through consistent practice that you will fulfill your potential”. As this practice gains strength, the gap between who you are, and who you want to be, becomes smaller.

Photo credit: Holly Mandarich

For your entire life, your Aspirational Self has been trained to look at happiness as something you acquire. It wants more money, less fat, more muscle, more time with family, less…you get the picture. Instead, before you set goals, think about what your Aspirational Self really wants.

“When we nurture who we are and how we want to feel, it takes the pressure off reaching some elusive goal and allows us to start creating the life we want to live, right now.

— Chelsey Benzel

Do you want more money, with all the boring stressful work that goes with it, or do you want to enjoy creating wealth?

Do you want to lose weight if it means giving up sweets, or do you want to value your body?

Do you want to spend more time with your family, while being stressed about missing work? Or do you want to feel more comfortable with taking time off?

The beauty of being an individual is that your goals are unique to you.

Cut out the noise and listen to what you really want. Who are you?

Get curious. Enjoy the process. The only way we can enjoy the destination is by trusting the journey.

Loves making the world a better place and snacks.

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