Why Goals Suck (Part I)

Update July, 2012 – I had an epiphany that goals suck way back in 2009. These two posts written in late 2010, really kickstarted an entire research project for me on the topic of effective goal setting and performance enhancement through planning. I’ll be releasing the what I found for free, eventually, but for now I have mostly re-written a lot of this since it’s original date of writing. Honestly, my views really have changed ‘THAT’ much based upon what I’ve learned. There is more to goal setting than SMART though.

You can read Part II here.

If you have the attention span of a gnat (I know I’m verbose…) you can just watch the video, it is a pretty great visual representation of why goal setting is over-hyped, misunderstood and fails the majority of people — particularly with weight loss, but in nearly every other aspect of life too.

Sometimes people overlook this, we often never think about when and where goals are applicably useful and where they can actually hold us back.

Anecdotally speaking, the people who seem to have the most success are the ones who don’t chronically set long-term goals.

While people who struggle, are constantly setting new goals.

As a recovering hardcore goal setter, I couldn’t believe I wrote that title when I wrote this blog post in 2011.

I believe goals can be used beneficially, if you understand their purpose, they are truly inspired, they come from a deep sense of purpose, tie into your values and if you set them correctly based upon their intrinsic meaning.

Too many people set goals based on other people’s perceptions, rather than their personal value or meaning.

Having written about the concepts of goal-setting now for a couple of years, I no longer believe that people should follow the ‘traditional’ rules of goal-setting, like the S.M.A.R.T. or R.U.M.B.A. method you may often hear preached.

*For those of you who may not know SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relavent and Time-Oriented. There are numerous ways actually to utilize the acronym. RUMBA stands for Realistic, Understandable, Meaningful and Measurable, Believable and Agreed Upon. 

Ultimately there are actually a ton of things that most people assume about goal setting (I know I have) and there-in lies the dangers of goal setting, either by yourself or with an organization (sports team, business, etc…).

Goals Narrow Focus

There is lots of research that confirms goal-setting increases your chances of completing a task or objective, in many cases.

However, I’ve yet to read the research study that follows up 1-3 months after the goal to see how the individual has done since.

Too many people end up living goal to goal, without a system in place to orient themselves and tie objectives together.

I cannot argue that a deadline, or putting something in writing to achieve will not help you complete it, it probably will as long as it follow the ‘traditional rules‘ of goal-setting and you’re fully committed to it.

This is also known as Parkinson’s Law.

Sure it does, but as you can see in the video, is also narrows focus, which I suppose could be good or bad, depending on how you look at it.

I inherently believe now that it generally does more harm than good and that’s part of the reason goals suck.

They narrow focus so much so that you don’t notice anything else beyond your blinders, which makes you ignorant to other opportunities that could be more fruitful than the goal you’ve set for yourself.

There was a study done many years ago that compared two scenarios; One rewarded people for solving a particular project in a specific time (a goal); The other created no such sense of urgency but merely asked people to solve the problem at their leisure.

Ultimately the group that was under the clock and being paid, did considerably worse solving the problem than the laissez faire group.

The explanation the researchers came to was that the reward and a timeline narrowed focus too much for those people to creatively view how to complete the project.

Interesting right? Narrowed focus stifles creativity…

In fact I’ve looked back a few times on my goal-setting days and wondered how many opportunities I missed during a goal setting process and/or how many times I was unable to realize setbacks and adjust accordingly.

Setbacks actually that probably would have provided the best learning opportunities too!

By nature, goals narrow your focus and take you away from big picture thinking.

It is a psychological feedback loop that is incredibly difficult to break, once the pattern is established.

Overall, this leads me to believe that goal setting is great for short term adherence and by short-term I mean those few instances when direct focus is necessary, over the course of a few hours, maybe a day or two.

Goals work great for questions like:

  • I have 3 hours available to me know, what am I going to get done?
  • What am I going to do tomorrow?
  • Maybe even…what am I going to get done over the next couple of days?

They are far less useful when the time scale inflates beyond a couple of days and definitely beyond the week, because they become victims of parkinson’s law.

The problem with moving beyond that time frame is that ‘traditional’ goal-setting often leaves people feeling less fulfilled once they accomplish the task.

However, most people set weight loss goals that are weeks or even months away.

According to Parkinson’s law, you’re more likely to slack until you get closer to your end date, when you suddenly realise that you have only a couple of weeks to hit your objective and kick things into overdrive.

Big mistake, because lasting physiological change requires more than 14 days work…sorry…

Some people then extend their original timeline, when the purpose of a timeline is to in fact create a sense of urgency.

i.e. moving your timelines around all the time is really ineffective as a strategy.

OR…they come to terms with the fact that they aren’t going to hit that goal, and start working on another one.

There is actually some ignored research that confirms we lose our intrinsic motivation for success after being rewarded for the completion of a task, and often the reward is merely the completion of a goal.

I recommend making goal timelines as short as possible.

The Post-Goal Dilemma

Goals suck because people have no idea what to do once they’ve completed a goal.

What do you do now? Set another goal?

Is life really just about living goal to goal? Do you lack motivation if you don’t have an obvious goal in all of the dimensions of your life?

It’s easy to see how this could turn into a nasty recurring pattern.

In my work, I can tell you this ‘then-what,’ phenomenon is very real.

Once you complete a goal, you feel lost, until you set another goal.

In fact goals often become addictive by nature because individuals feel the strong urge to constantly find something new to work towards, just for the sake of working towards something and stay interested.

Honestly, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, ‘I need a new goal,‘ whenever I talk fitness with people.

Most of the time they haven’t even really completed their previous goal, it’s just that they figure having something to work towards in the next 3 months will help motivate them.

It often doesn’t…

We set the goal, get excited for the first week or two and then enthusiasm tends to wain.

Goals are really just ‘results,’ and we shouldn’t forget that.

The Better Approach

Live goal to goal if you want (I recommend taking a break every now and then or switching gears), but set those goals daily and/or weekly.

“I want to bench 245 lbs for 3 reps in 3 months” just doesn’t cut it for 90%+ of people.

What does?

I’m going to practice bench twice a week (or I’m going to stick to the program daily).

The feedback loop needs to be tighter, and the goals you choose more manageable.

We Want Everyone Else to Know About Them

Goals suck because announcing them to people makes your enthusiasm dissolve.

People generally like to wear their goals on our sleeves and tie them into our self-worth.

What do we do?

Publicly announce them to family and friends, because we have the wrong notion that publicly stating our goals means that other people will hold us accountable to them.

Often they don’t, I predict because they have their own life to worry about.

Telling other people about your goals is not what anyone in the coaching or goal research world means by accountability. You need a mechanism in place to track how well your plan is working (that’s what these people mean by accountability).

Publicly stating your goals has an undesirable effect.

It convinces your brain that it’s already part way achieved the goal, and thus significantly lowers any intrinsic motivation you might have had towards completion once the honeymoon phase wears off.

It increases procrastination with a self-gratifying burst of serotonin.

Don’t believe me? Watch this great presentation:

Goal Dilution

Remember the work experience I was telling you about?

Many motivation ‘gurus’ will advice you to set a goal for various domains of your life, and it’s commonly encouraged, I hear it all the time.

In my 2009 case, I was asked to set a lofty personal goal, a lofty professional goal, and a lofty fitness goal.

Guess what one I achieved? The fitness one, oddly enough…mostly because I thought it was going to be harder than it was. My other two were actually pretty lame…

The problem with setting this many goals is a concept called Goal Dilution.

Meaning, the more goals you set for yourself the less and less likely you’re actually complete any of them.

It actually pays to be single minded in your aim for domination over anything.

The more goals we set, the less we accomplish, the less fulfilling they also ultimately become.

The book ‘Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us’ by Daniel Pink (which I read in early 2010) confirmed my initial observations about goal setting with plenty of well-documented research.

It solidified, what has for a long time been, a gut feeling about goals — they are not the only thing you should be planning as many ‘self-help’ types would like us to believe.

Now I believe largely in creating useful ‘systems’ rather than relying on goals for motivation.

Goals may become stepping stones towards a larger sense of purpose (when used appropriately) and they can be utilized to keep you on the path or vision you have of your life, but need to be used sparingly and appropriately and probably more focused on the day to day action, than 3 months from now, by Christmas or next year.

(Seriously, since when is your life a business plan?)

A coach really comes in handy here.

Here are some of the obvious goal-setting traps I’ve come across thus far:

  • Your focus should lie on setting goals within the process (what I call process-oriented goals) and realize that outcomes are the direct result of the every day actions, habits, and behaviors you execute on.
  • Setting an outcome-oriented goals (to achieve X result, by Y time-frame) is a waste of time (see crucial point from above) IF you’re not going to bother with process oriented plan. You should carefully craft an idea of what outcome you want to achieve, but if you do the process well, the result will take care of itself. You don’t want to focus on the outcome, but you want it written down and in the back of your mind somewhere.
  • Focusing on outcomes or results exclusively at the expense of the journey or process, will almost guarantee failure (8 of 10 people who set new years resolutions do not complete them, wonder why?). You climb a mountain one step at a time.
  • You need to really commit (9 out of 10) to achieving any goal, going half hearted on goals is not enough. Be honest with yourself, are you confident that you can tackle this process oriented objective? Are you willing to put the work in, if you struggle? Don’t choose goals you think other people would like you to achieve.
  • If ‘Focus’ is the true objective, you should only have one solid short-term goal to work on at a time. The more ‘goals’ you add to the mix, the less likely you are to achieve any of them, let alone even one of them. At most I let people worry about 3 things, typically never more than 2 and the focus is always really on one.
  • You can’t be told what your goal(s) should be, but you may be guided via mentorship, coaching, or other influential relationships. You cannot create goals based on perceived expectations of you, they have to be intrinsically motivated.
  • You shouldn’t publicly state your outcome oriented goals really, even to your coach. Unless it’s a process oriented goal and you’re setting up a true accountability system.
  • Setting a goal, by no means, actually serves as a guarantee that you will complete it, you will still need to work at it (daily is preferably, but at a minimum weekly or on a weekly time frame — i.e. you can’t resistance training every day typically, but you can 3x a week).
  • You can’t create goals for the sake of creating goals. You need to have decided that something was valid or interesting enough that you want to achieve it in the first place.
  • You cannot start a process of goal creation when working from a low-state of mind. Don’t set goals when frustrated, angry or out of guilt.
  • You cannot start a goal creation process thinking of other peoples goals (because other people’s goals, hold no value to you).
  • Any goals you do set must align with your personal values and purpose, or it will create a lot of inner turmoil and unneeded additional distress. 
  • You need to keep a fresh outlook, goals should really be modified as new information is presented, both as setbacks occur and as new opportunities present themselves. Timelines are a good thing, but shorter seems to be best. However, do not be afraid to adjust as things change, and remember that things are always changing!
  • Not all goals can be quantified, sometimes you need to set quality-oriented goals too *I’ve since coined some of these ‘Experience-Oriented Goals.’ Experience oriented goals are goals in which merely the experience is the goal — this relates largely to travel objectives, and many family/friend objectives. Often times the reward is merely participation or the experience. If you do the bucket list drill, you’d be surprised how many goals you list that are actually experience oriented goals.
  • Goals should be set as tasks/deadlines that help you work towards achieving the greater vision you have of your life. In other words, if you still insist on starting with an outcome based goal, make damn sure you break it down into a manageable process of execution (process-oriented goals!).
  • Pick one thing to work on at a time, and put your heart and soul into it. This is far more effective than trying to live up to 5 different goals in 5 different realms of your life. Improve one thing at a time, and reiterate appropriately. You’d be surprised how hitting one goal somewhere in your life (like losing weight) impacts other objectives that might be held loosely in the back of your mind (like work performance or ‘happiness’).
  • Maintenance can be a goal. There is nothing wrong with maintaining other elements of your life, while you work towards accomplishing a big goal. You don’t need to have big hairy audacious goals (BHAG’s) in EVERY aspect of your life.
  • Life is more holistic, organic and biological than the linear path of traditional goals. Self-Discovery is therefore key to the path of success. You need to build a system that supports your success, rather than defining an outcome you really really want to achieve.
  • Be flexible with any goal. That’s not to say that you should downgrade or underestimate yourself. It means avoid tunnel vision and be open to other opportunities. For instance I had once set a goal to have a full schedule (40 hours a week of actual training – which ends up being like 60 hours of actual work), and I would take any and every client on to get there, once I was there I was miserable. I hadn’t properly vetted too many of them, I wasn’t properly servicing many of them and the coaching experience was a drag with some as a result. I work with less clients now, but I enjoy working with all of them. I would have saved myself a lot of trouble had I been a little more flexible from the start. I should have remained open to finding my sweet spot, rather than just filling my schedule based on a typical work week.

We’re talking about the greater picture at this point, really understanding yourself, where you’ve been, what you’re presently doing and where you want to go.

That stems from intrinsic motivation, something that is hard to build within yourself and maintain for an extended period of time, but that you absolutely need to dedicate some consistent time and effort towards.

What you should do instead is focus on building an effective system. Something I hope to write about in detail one day soon.