Why Goal Setting is Wrong and How to Fix it
Most of us think of goal setting as a productive way of finding success, happiness, and a fulfilling life. There is an abundance of research, techniques, and literature written on the topic ranging from exactly how to set goals to the best method to attain them. In our success-driven society, goal attainment is a lucrative business. There are dozens of planners, worksheets, coaches, online courses, books and articles promising to help you achieve your goals faster than you imagined.
But what happens when goal setting works against you?
He starts off by quoting Thomas Jefferson,
“Comparison is the death of joy.”
He continues to talk about how he stopped setting goals for himself and for his company, Basecamp. He says,
For me, I don’t want to compare myself to an idea I had two years prior of where I wanted to be. I don’t know where I’m going to want to be in two years. So, to set a goal that’s long-term, in some cases you’re actually setting it for who you are when you set it versus who you are when you’re going to get there.
He explains it further with this example,
I would hate, for example, let’s say the company [Basecamp], we were expected to grow 22 percent next year. I’m making up numbers here, right? And we grew 21. That would be a reason in a lot of companies to be upset. That is a ridiculous reason to be upset. Why would I ever want to be upset with that? But when you set out these numbers and these goalposts and these goals and these expectations and you don’t hit them, then you’re upset. And once you’ve actually either hit them or not hit them, then you come up with another set.
You just keep moving these moments of possible joy, but most likely disappointment in a lot of cases. I just don’t feel like setting those up for myself, so I just ignore the whole thing.
I love the line he uses about “moving these moments of possible joy.” We do this in all categories of our lives. Society tells us to keep climbing the ladder of success. Whether it is work, family life, fitness, health, you name it. We turn it into a goal we have to conquer. We are conditioned to think this way.
Just recall any sports championship you have watched on television. One of the first questions the winners get asked by the reporter is, “What’s next?”
It hasn’t been 5 minutes since the players won, and they are already being asked to move onto the next goal. The pressure of having to be the best and always improve on your successes can be exhausting at best and debilitating at worst.
Goal setting can be extremely beneficial but it also has a downside that many people ignore.
Here are some signs that your goal setting may be working against you and how you can course correct to get back on track.
➤ You’ve lost the joy that made you want the goal in the first place.
Sort of the genesis of this for me is I used to do a lot of jogging… I remember trying to hit certain times. I want to run a 6.5-minute mile or whatever it was at the time. I’d go out and I’d run a 6-minute mile and 52 seconds. I remember being disappointed by that. I remember feeling like why should I be disappointed in that? I’m not running a race. I’m not competing against anybody. I’m sort of competing against myself, but I set that up for myself. That’s not something I had to do. I created that moment to be upset.
I have fallen victim to this mentality numerous times in the triathlon world. It’s so easy to get caught up in numbers and benchmarks and false comparisons. As athletes, we are comparing times from one race to another and feeling disappointed or upset when we perform slower than an earlier race. Often we are comparing different race courses or dismissing factors like weather, wind, nutrition or how much sleep and training we had for each race.
It really hit home for me when I came out of the water at a race feeling great about my swim. I was smiling and having a great time. Until I made the mistake of looking at my watch and seeing a number that I deemed disappointing. Suddenly my mind was fluttering with thoughts of what I did wrong or how this could be possible when I was feeling so good. My elation and joy had plundered into discouragement all because of an arbitrary number that is meaningless for all intents and purposes.
I had to ask myself this question:
Would I rather give my best effort, be completely present, feel fantastic and come out short of my expectations…
OR…be so laser-focused on hitting my time that I lose sight of everything else, making myself miserable in the process and not enjoy the race at all?
The root of the problem here is not necessarily the goal but the intention behind the goal. What Jason Fried realized in his running and what I realized in my triathlon racing is that the intention is to have fun and feel healthy. When our goals of hitting certain numbers began to take the fun out of the process, we lost the original intention of the goal. Continued pursuit of the goal in this way was killing the joy and any benefits we were looking to achieve.
Get clear on your intentions. Know why you are trying to achieve something and if success leads you away from that intention, it may be time to abandon that goal.
Now when I race, my goal is to do my best on that given day and finish feeling good enough to want to race again.
➤ You feel like you’re never satisfied and you’re on a constant uphill climb.
Goal setting can breed a kind of discontentment. For A-type personalities, it becomes an endless stream of striving. As each goal is achieved a new one is set and there is never a moment of satisfaction or ease. It’s a constant cycle of one-upping that inevitably leads to burnout. And conversely, when the goal is missed, disappointment sets in leading to discouragement and lack of motivation.
Cultivate Mindfulness. This is essentially what Jason Fried is talking about in his interview with Tim Ferriss. He doesn’t have expectations or goals because he knows he wants to do his best on any given day and that is the only accomplishment he needs. He understands that being present and fully engaged in whatever you are doing is the best way to feel satisfied and fulfilled in life. That is how he runs his company as well. He explains it like this,
The reason we do what we do every day is because we enjoy doing it and we want to make what we’re working on better. The thing that we’re making for others, we’re also making for ourselves. So, we technically want to make our own tooling better because it helps us do a better job with what we do.
He continues to elaborate on that point later.
What’s pulling you forward, hopefully, is your intrinsic motivation and your desire to do a better job and what you’re doing and that sort of appreciation of the craft and the respect of the work that you’re doing and who you’re doing it for and that’s kind of enough. Everything else is sort of a side effect of that.
Practicing mindfulness improves your ability to find joy and contentment in every day living. It does not demand you to prove your worth, make more money, or attain a greater status. Mindfulness promotes peace and stillness in the mind and is proven to greatly reduce stress and anxiety that comes from striving too hard.
Luckily, getting started with a mindfulness practice is relatively easy. There are online resources, classes, and smartphone apps that will offer easy basic instructions you can get started with today. For a brief introduction and a simple practice, read my article below.
➤ You’re often not meeting your goals or you are giving up on them.
Do you find yourself losing steam and giving up on your goals a lot? Do you take an all or nothing approach to your goals? Or do you often lack the motivation to get started or continue working on your goals?
These are common pitfalls that people fall into when it comes to goal setting. Because we are taught that goal setting is good and maybe even necessary for success, many people set goals without properly assessing their objectives and mindsets. This can lead to two problems:
- The goal is too demanding.
- The goal is result-oriented instead of process-oriented.
Make smaller, actionable goals that are process driven. Very common advice from coaches, mentors, or business leaders is to set small, specific, and attainable goals. There’s even a fancy acronym for it: SMART (Small, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time Bound). This is good advice because when we succeed we build confidence, giving us the motivation to keep moving forward.
But just using this method alone isn’t enough. Making sure your goal is about the process rather than the result will keep you motivated and avoid the pitfall of giving up because of the lack of progress.
Let’s say as an example that a goal of mine is to write a book. If I don’t set any actionable processes to accomplish this goal, I’ll likely never get started. Conversely, if I set a goal to write a chapter a day, I might be tempted to give up before I finish if I miss a day and lose momentum.
A better option is to set a goal to write for 10 minutes every day. This is small enough that I can manage it even on busy days. It’s process-driven because all I have to do is write. I don’t have to complete a chapter or a certain number of pages. If that were the case, I could easily fall into the trap of skipping writing if I don’t have enough time to complete the arbitrary goal.
This way all I need is 10 minutes, the process of writing becomes the goal, and the goal is attainable and realistic. If I miss a day, it doesn’t mean I’ve failed at writing a book. I don’t have to feel bad that I’ve fallen behind. The goal is still attainable for the next day.
The More Effective Habit Over Goal Setting
Setting goals has many benefits and can work in positive ways to help you achieve many things in life. But as I’ve stated, there are times when goal setting can work against us. There is a more important habit we can develop to help us achieve success without falling into the goal setting pitfalls.
Researcher and author Shaun Achor writes about what he calls the “happiness advantage” which is this:
People who cultivate a positive mind-set perform better in the face of challenge.
Rather than emphasizing goals, we are better served to cultivate a positive mindset. Achor shares what his research revealed in The Harvard Business Review,
Research shows that when people work with a positive mind-set, performance on nearly every level — productivity, creativity, engagement — improves.
So when you are feeling discouraged, jaded or unmotivated from chasing an endless stream of goals, maybe it’s time to re-examine the order of things. Rather than assuming happiness comes once you achieve your goal, maybe practicing happiness first is the smarter and smoother path to reaching your goals.
For 50 tips and tools on how to practice happiness, click here.