What do we want? Applying SMART goals to police protests, COVID and more

One of the things frequently discussed in the motivational and self-help spaces is goal-setting. Even if you don’t sit down and do it as an intentional exercise, you probably do some goal-setting in your life. It might be saving for a vacation or your kids’ college. It might be getting ready to buy a house. It might be sitting down with your boss and setting a sales/page view/whatever goal or budget for the year. It might be a weight-loss goal, a money-saving goal, or you sign up for a race and now you have to train.

Whatever it is, you’re familiar with setting goals. Achievement is, after all, something we value in ourselves.

A lot of people don’t set goals correctly, however. “Lose weight” is not a good goal. “Lose 20 pounds in 3 months” is. “Save money” is not a good goal. “Save $5,000 in 10 months” is. See a pattern? OK. There’s a term for this: SMART goals.

S = Specific
M = Measurable
A = Achievable
R = Relevant
T = Time-bound


Last week I wrote about doing the work to rebuild our broken — or even just tarnished — systems.

What does that work look like? What do we even want?

Let’s start with the #DefundThePolice people.

First off, I imagine they don’t actually mean to defund (that is, remove all funding from) the police. Which is a problem — say the words you mean; it’s how people actually understand you. What a lot of people really mean is, “take some money away from the police and put it toward programs that support minorities.” Camden, New Jersey, blew up its police department and created a new one, but I can’t imagine there are very many people who want zero police.

I won’t get into my views on it. I just want to start here because it’s a poorly-set goal. It’s not specific. Assuming “defund” doesn’t mean “zero,” it’s not measurable. It’s not achievable. Yes, it’s relevant. It’s not time-bound.

But if the desired result is “fewer unarmed black people killed by white police officers,” “defund the police” is entirely different. And by the way, “fewer unarmed black people killed by white police officers” is also a poorly worded goal. It’s not specific. It’s measurable, assuming we pick a standard by which to measure “fewer.” It might be achievable [you’d think we’d been angling for it since Michael Brown and Eric Garner, but, well, here we are]. It’s relevant, for sure. It’s not time-bound.

“Reduce police-involved killings of unarmed black people by 50 percent by the end of 2020” is a better wording for that goal. There’s still more specificity to get at. There’s agreeing on a measurement standard. There’s a discussion of methods (which is really what defunding is, a method), which is separate from actually setting the goal, but you need a well-defined goal before you can actually get to where you want to be.


What about systemic racism? “End systemic racism” isn’t a SMART goal. Again, it’s relevant, but that’s about it. We didn’t get here overnight, we’re not going to get where we want to be overnight.

If we take the example that systemic racism can be oversimplified by saying redlining led to poor schools led to poor education led to poor jobs led to increased crime ted to increased incarceration led to more single-parent households, this is a multi-generational problem that needs several approaches to defeat. But what would SMART goals look like for any of these problems? What if we started with funding schools equally across the city, rather than using district-specific property taxes? By the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year? That’s a SMART goal.


And what about our COVID-19 crisis?

Get people back to work, open businesses, grow the economy, reduce deaths, increase testing, flatten the case curve, decrease unemployment … not one of these is a SMART goal.

“Test 80 percent of the state’s population before Labor Day 2020” is a SMART goal. “Keep new cases below 10 percent of new tests through the end of 2020” is a SMART goal.

Again, once the goals are set, you worry about methods, but you need to set a goal you can actually reach.


So let’s start taking this approach every time we have a major event that prompts a call for change. What does the change actually look like? Do we want the change or do we just want to yell about it?

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