Forget Setting Goals: They May Actually Prevent You From Achieving What You Want

We all do it. Our personal and professional lives are infused with the belief that we have to set goals to be successful and happy.

The more goals we set and the harder they are to attain, the better. We see this at governmental and country levels as well in reference to economic agendas or the environment.

And writing them down is a necessity. So goes the conventional wisdom. Yet, there is clear evidence that call into question this kind of thinking and practice.

There is compelling evidence to show that, despite good intentions and effort, people and organizations consistently fall short of achieving their goals. More often than not, the fault is attributed to the goal setter.

For example, weight loss goals, may be the number one personal goal set by people, as evidenced by the proliferation of weight loss programs. Yet, studies have shown that the majority of people are unsuccessful.

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The same is frequently true for organizations. Managers and employees are encouraged or required to set goals, usually ambitious ones. For example, in the early 2000s GM set a goal to capture 29 percent of the American auto market, a goal that was never attained. Blame and a lot of teeth gnashing was the result.

Many self-help gurus and self-help experts such as Stephen Covey, Tony Robbins, Brian Tracy and others have emphasized the link between goals and success.

An often-quoted research study, reportedly done at Harvard or Yale University, has been referenced by many in which it claims that only three percent of the Harvard MBAs make 10 times more money as the other 97 percent because they wrote down their goals. The only problem with this claim, is that no such study was ever conducted.

Our Brains Aren’t Wired That Way

One reason why we can’t reach our goals has to do with how our brains work. Any goal that requires substantial change will be resisted by our brains because they are wired to seek rewards and avoid pain or discomfort, which in turn creates fear. Fear of failure or pain can creep into the mind of the goal setter and subsequently negatively affect performance.

And the result of not reaching our goals successfully can be both demotivating and affect subsequent performance, according to management expert Aubrey Daniels. His and others’ research shows that only 10 percent of employees successfully achieved really bold or “stretch” goals.  

Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and co-author of the Harvard University study entitled “Goals Gone Wild” argues, “goal setting has been treated like over-the-counter medication when it should really be treated with more care, a prescription-strength medication.”

He contends that goal setting can focus too much attention on the wrong things and can lead people to participate in extreme behaviors, including cheating, to achieve the goals. Overly ambitious organizational goals can also reduce intrinsic motivation, he says. Sim Sitkin at Duke University agrees.

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He completed a study of stretch goals, and found they were most likely to be pursued by desperate, embattled companies that would have difficulty adapting if the goals were not reached.

People and organizations set goals which are usually described in terms of an ideal or improved state. Implicit with that description is the assumption that the current state is unsatisfactory or the individual/organization is not happy with it. Usually that dissatisfaction comes as a result of introspection or a review of the current situation accompanied by a mental state of negativity.

Much of our behavior is automatic, based upon repetitive actions, which evolve into habits. Research into habits by experts Charles Duhigg and Ann Graybiel has shown that to change a habit and establish a new one requires repetition over a period of time.

Malcolm Gladwell has argued it takes 10,000 hours for mastery, although that conclusion is being challenged. Others have established a time frame of 21 to 66 days for a new habit to form. Thus, goals that are too short-term in nature don’t provide sufficient time for mastery of new behaviors.

Psychologists have also identified another problem with goal attainment called the “false hope syndrome.” In essence, this means having high optimism at the beginning of a goal or habit attainment and then a relapse when the new behavior or routine becomes too difficult, too boring or too intensive.

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Achievment is Anti-Climactic

Another phenomenon that occurs in goal attainment is disappointment upon completion. When we achieve that goal or target, we have an expectation of a significant reward of happiness or satisfaction, something that is dramatic. But often, that feeling doesn’t materialize and we are deflated. This is particularly true with respect to extrinsic or external goals connected to material things such as money or possessions.

So does willpower have an effect on goal attainment? Research by Roy Baumeister has shown that will power can be depleted easily and can affect motivation and productivity. It is not an endless resource.

Focusing on will-power and outcomes is an outdated approach for goal-setting. There are too many variables in the course of pursuing specific goals which can make for errors and failure. Instead, we can create the conditions that make it impossible for you not to achieve your goals.

This has been referred to as either “Inevitability thinking,” and “acting as if.” Accordingly, this approach is thinking and acting as if what you are doing is either already happening or a forgone conclusion because you set up the conditions for it to happen. So In your mind, the outcome you’re seeking is already a reality.

Finally, In the many years I have worked with clients on individual goals and a desire for change and improvement in their lives or in the organization, I am convinced that the key lies in looking at habit patterns, particularly in examining their thinking patterns and emotional regulation, and increasing self-awareness.

Without a commitment to do this, goal setting can often be a superficial, mechanical process, fraught with disappointment and questionable results.

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