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Does Goal Setting Hold Us Back?

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Click for photo Over the years I’ve read many criticisms of “pop psychology”, specifically relating to the notion that setting goals is a necessary precursor to actually achieving them.  There are people who believe that the very act of setting goals is what holds people back from achieving something they’d otherwise be drawn towards.  Sort of like a reverse law of attraction.

Now, I’m a big fan of thinking critically and applying a skeptic’s eye towards everything, so instead of ignoring perspectives that differ from mine, I try to really internalize them, live with them, and apply anything particularly useful to my own approach.

So before going further, let’s recap some of the most prevalent critiques of setting goals:

  • People with goals are future focused and not focused on the present moment.  By focusing on something that hasn’t happened yet, they’re not focusing on what’s happening now.  Goal setting is by definition counter to living a present and conscious life.
  • Goals are rigid and unchanging despite changes around them.  Someone who set a goal to save an additional $10,000 in January 2008 just to lose $30,000 in the stock market by October for instance.  By having a rigid goal that wasn’t adjusted for everyday reality, this person wasn’t able to react quickly enough to changing market conditions.  While others reacted quickly, this person stayed attached to a false goal.
  • Goal setting leads to a loss of meaningful relationships.  People who are so focused on achievement can fail to focus appropriately on the things that really matter in life: connection with other human beings.  Spend too much time blindly following a goal instead of just living and relationships start to break down.
  • Setting goals can make fun things feel like work.  The immediate reaction people have to deadlines and commitments is to balk.  People don’t like to be told what to do and when they need to get it done – they long to be free.  If someone – even themselves – tells them they have to achieve something by a specific date, they’re not going to have fun in the process even if it’s something they enjoy.
  • Setting goals absolves people of thinking critically.  In a Northwestern University paper called “Goals Gone Wild”, Professor Adam Galinsky makes the claim that “[goal setting] can focus attention too much, or on the wrong things; it can lead to crazy behaviors to get people to achieve them.”  There have also been papers written about how “goals and other incentives can constrict our thinking” by giving us an unneeded fallback plan.  Why think for yourself when you know you have to achieve the goal at all costs?

Naturally, just like most things in life, there’s a much more nuanced way to think about this.

People with experience setting (and achieving) commitments for themselves realize that goals have to be pointers down a possible path, but not the path itself. 

In other words: if you’re going to set goals for yourself, you have to acknowledge that this is just the start of the journey.  Goal setting takes work in order to be effective, and you need to commit to following up on your commitments before you can commit to following through on them.  The downsides to goal setting are very real for some people – so your #1 goal is to not be like these people!  This means you need to take a very mindful approach to the process.

Here are some ways to do this:

  • Write your goals down and refer back to them sometimes, but ignore them most of the time.  One of the non-obvious benefits of good planning is that it actually encourages spontaneity and being in the moment.  If you’ve identified your goals and set aside the appropriate amount of time to progress, shouldn’t you be able to “let go” and be in the moment when you’re in it?  You can free your mind knowing you’ve planned for everything else.
  • Adjust your goals on a semi-regular basis to align to your current reality.  Some people think that adjusting your goals quarterly or even just once per year is counterproductive and giving yourself an “out”.  Not me.  Every couple months I make sure my goals are still accurate – otherwise what’s the point in having them?  The world around me may have changed, or I may have changed.  My goals should change as well.  Just be careful that you’re not giving yourself an excuse to pull back; all that matters is that you’re being honest with yourself.
  • Don’t put achievement above connection with other people.  This may be a challenge for some, but no good can come from standing on the top of the mountain… alone.  This could also mean keeping your goals personal; talk too much about all the things you plan to do with your life with other people and you could drive them away with your intensity.  Or just make them feel inadequate!  And nothing hurts relationships more than a mismatch like that.
  • Stop thinking about it as work! Easier said than done; this one takes some practice.  Your goals can’t all be things you dislike doing – but there are times when you may not be super-motivated to do them anyway.  The plate spinning analogy and striving to find flow regularly can help here.
  • Be aware when you use your goals as a crutch to avoid problem solving.  Instead of using your goals as a way to avoid critical thinking, use them as a way to promote it.  You need to be both a goal setter AND a problem solver.  In fact, the people who are best equipped to achieve their goals are the ones who are best able to solve problems along the way.  You need to look at your goals as just the start; each one is a series of problems to solve, decisions to make, and things to do.

And finally: embrace emergence which can be the best way to deal with the perceived rigidity of goals.  There’s a teaching approach called emergent curriculum which encourages a loose curriculum with kids in favor of following their interests to help guide the lesson plan.  As it’s been described to me, the kids don’t “run” the curriculum, but their interest in topics helps direct it.  In many ways, this is similar to goal setting – you can leverage your own emergent focus to achieve your goals.  What does this mean?  First a quick definition.

Emergent focus (def’n): applying all of your attention to the thing you’re most interested in at that exact moment… without guilt over what you’re not doing; a made-up term for this blog

Because all of us are multi-faceted and our interests and goals span various areas, emergent focus can be the best way to both achieve your goals and find flow “being in the now” at the same time.  It basically means doing the thing you’re most interested in doing at that moment to further progress towards a specific goal instead of forcing yourself to do something to further progress towards another goal.  With emergent focus, you can’t allow yourself to feel guilt over not doing something.  Instead you should be so immersed in the thing you are doing that you don’t have time to worry!

(This does assume your goals are things you want to do and enjoy doing to various extents)

I’ve found being aware of emergent focus to be invaluable.  Because my goals are all things I enjoy, there will be times I’m more inclined to progress towards one goal than another.  I usually can’t predict where my interests will take me on any given week.  So instead of forcing myself into a rigid structure and beating myself up for not achieving what I expected to by a certain date, I embrace my emerging interest and passion about something and make progress with that thing instead.  It may result in a change to my goals – and if so, that’s OK – but it usually doesn’t.  I just need to be confident knowing full well that if the things I’m not doing are important to me, they’ll come back eventually!

This post is longer than I set out for it to be as always, so I’m going to end it here :)  Hope this was helpful!  Do you find setting goals to be helpful or harmful?

Written by Mike Torres

May 3rd, 2009 at 1:43 pm

  • Great post, Mike. You’re right; goals aren’t a fix and forget type of thing. You need to monitor them. Not just in the “am I going to achieve this?” sense, but in the “do I still want/need to achieve this?” sense. Constant, intentional evaluation is key. Thanks for the post!

  • Ron Peters

    To me, a goal is just a reason for why I am bothering with this activity at all – so, yes, I keep stratetic goals for my life and ‘project’ goals for other major activities.