How SMART Goals Sabotage Success (and the Brain Science of What Works)

Most of us were taught to measure success by ticking off boxes on a to-do list or hitting predetermined milestones. It’s easy to fall into the trap of what is called the Performance Mindset.

We’re inundated with the notion that setting SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-Bound) goals and striving for peak performance is the golden ticket to success. This is the familiar way each of us evaluates whether we’re “doing a good job” in every aspect of life, whether it’s work, health, or even parenting.

But just because performance-based approaches are predominant doesn’t mean they work. They often lead us down a treacherous path of rigid expectations and narrow definitions of success. Real life is anything but linear. When our definition of success fails to adapt, we feel defeated and demoralized.

Picture this: you set a SMART goal to lose weight, and you work tirelessly towards it by limiting portions and exercising, but somewhere along the way, things start to unravel. Life throws curveballs, circumstances change, and suddenly, that rigid goal you set feels like a roadblock: all progress stops.

So why do SMART goals so often backfire?

The answer lies in the intricate workings of a brain area called the habenula—a small yet mighty structure that serves as a “motivation kill switch.” When we experience failure, whether it’s falling short of a goal at work or missing a milestone in our personal lives, the habenula is activated from the feelings of disappointment and disillusionment and shuts down our drive to try again.

This produces a “scorched earth” effect, born from decades of misusing SMART goals, which breeds cynicism and resignation, leaving us trapped in a cycle of defeat.

Our brains are wired to be twice as sensitive to loss than they are to gain. This makes any hint of failure a potent force in our lives—a phenomenon known as loss aversion. As a result, I posit that mitigating notions of personal failure proves to be a more potent force for success than chasing perfect performance.

SMART goals narrowly define success such that, let’s say, only one percent of the time, they work out exactly as predicted. To the brain, this means that the other 99 percent of the time, we are falling short, i.e. failing. It’s a vicious cycle that leaves us increasingly feeling disheartened and disillusioned.

Maya’s Story: The Human Cost

Early in my book, Unstoppable Brain, I share the story of Maya, an über-talented gymnast with endless determination to push her limits. Somersaults and cartwheels in the backyard inspired lessons, camps, and eventually, victory in nearly every event of her first meet. But it wasn’t enough. Her parents expected Olympic-caliber performances. Her coaches lorded over the team with SMART goal-based diet regimens that clashed with her natural body changes. She began “rebellion” binge eating and dropped in the sport’s rankings but pushed on, a slave to unrelenting pressure, and became a performing version of her true self.

That behavior was a conduit to physical maladies and mental health struggles that triggered self-loathing, suicidality, and major depressive disorder. Sadly, her story is all too common. But there is hope and a better way.

Choose Iteration Instead

Iteration is the antidote to the performance mindset’s toxic grip. Instead of fixating on rigid goals, I have discovered the Iterative Mindset, a research-backed antidote to performative goals that encourages us to embrace failure as a natural part of the learning process. It’s about reframing setbacks as opportunities for growth rather than reasons to throw in the towel.

Our research on thousands of people has shown that adopting an Iterative Mindset is the key driver of sustained habit change. By treating setbacks as valuable data for each iteration, we shift our focus from perfection to progress.

To fully embrace the transformative potential of iteration, we must remember that change doesn’t happen in straight lines; it unfolds in squiggly lines and cycles of experimentation and adaptation. It is critical to praise effort, creativity, and problem-solving over narrow results, modeling healthy responses to setbacks.

In a world of constant change, rigid SMART goals are nothing short of motivation killers. Through iteration, we align with the brain instead of against it by triggering the habenula. By iterating our way to success, we never fail.

This article was written by Kyra Bobinet, MD, MPH, has passionately pursued and studied the truth about behavior change for nearly three decades as a physician, public health leader, healthcare executive, and behavioral expert. An award-winning health innovator and thought leader, Dr. Bobinet has an MD from UCSF School of Medicine and an MPH from Harvard University.

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