Wise Goals

by Mike Clayton  - September 4, 2012

SMART Goals are everywhere. Every organisation has its own framework – mostly familiar; occasionally innovative.

Trainers and speakers (like me) get competitive. I only had to hear that one trainer offered SMARTER Goals to be off and running. In my book Brilliant Time Management, I put forward the acme: SMARTEST Goals. ‘Beat that!’ I thought.

  • Specific
  • Meaningful
  • Action-oriented
  • Responsible
  • Towards
  • Exciting
  • Supported
  • Time-bound

That was pretty smart: but hardly wise.

Reflecting on the wisdom of goal setting, I know that it has a valuable part to play in personal development, professional performance and achieving success in your endeavours. So what are the criteria for a goal to be wise?

Notice, I haven’t capitalised the word wise. It is great fun creating acronyms. I have no doubt that, with my trusty thesaurus and synonym dictionary, I could do it again, thanks to the breadth and flexibility of the English language, but that is little more than smart. What are the ideas that matter?

Here are my six suggestions. You may have your own. Please add them to the comments.


First, I think that for a goal to be wise, it must make a difference: a difference that matters, a valuable contribution to your or others’ well-being. And that difference must be sustainable in some way. Long-term thinking is an important part of wisdom. Ephemeral achievements rarely create more than point-scoring success.

Unintended Consequences

Goals create change and change can have unintended consequences. So my next criterion for wise goals is that you must first work hard to understand the possible consequences of your actions – both in achieving your goal and also the results of achieving it. You can never eliminate the truly un-knowable, but you can invest the effort to turn as much of the unknown risk into known risk.

Conscious Choice

It would be absurd to suggest that wise goals create no known risk – as absurd as to suggest that you should always take risks. What you must do is to assess how much risk is appropriate – what are the possible costs and are you prepared to pay them? More important still – you almost certainly will not bear the whole cost of any unfavourable consequence: what about the people who will?

Bystanders and Participants

Other people will become involved in your efforts to create your goal, to a small or large extent. It is not that you are required to not be selfish: it’s a perfectly reasonable choice to do something for yourself. Rather, it is that, even when you do act for yourself, it is possible to choose ways that include a measure of generosity.

Staying Alert and Available

Goals take focus to deliver and we can soon find ourselves more on a railway track that on a flight path. With few alternatives, it is easy to get into an ‘I’ve started so I will finish’ mindset. But if your goals are worthwhile, they may also take a period of time to deliver. What if things change? What if you change? What if new experiences and opportunities come along? A wise goal is one that allows for modification, change or replacement. Stay available to outside influences.


How many people do you know who are living their life as if for someone else? What goals do they set? Perhaps they set the goals they think they ought to set. Perhaps they set the goals they think others would think they ought to set. Where do your goals really come from? Are they authentically what you want? If they are not, then neither are they wise.

Smarter is Good

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  1. Hi Mike

    Thoughtful piece, reminded me of the “ecology” element of NLP decision making, looking at all the wider consequences of a decision. That led me to wonder whether the PESTLE tool for analysing the external environment could be useful in wise decision making:

    Political – this could be politics with a small “p”, considering the conflicts or concerns that could be caused by, or hinder achievement of, the goal
    Economic – a wise decision may not be one that maximises ecconomic return, but if it will lose your business money or lead you into debt it may not be wise
    Social – what impact will this goal have on the individuals and communities affected?
    Technological – how can we make ethical use of technology to meet the goal?
    Legal – is the goal legal? If the law would constrain an otherwise wise goal, is there even a case to be made for changing the law!
    Environmental – as human beings we are not wired to naturally take on board the extent of the environmental stresses affecting our planet. It is therefore a wise move to look searchingly at the short and longer term environmental impact of our decision.

    As an example of this approach, consider the British government’s recent proposal to try and stimulate the economy by relaxing the planning rules on house extensions. This might prove an effective way to stimulate some economic growth, but would it be a wise move? I wonder if they have thought through the social aspects for example, residential development without a planning process could increase disputes between neighbours. And how about the impact on the environnment – might it be wise, for example, to only allow more relaxed planning rules if the buildings in question meet the highest environmental standards?

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