Why goal setting doesn’t work….or does it?
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“Set goals” has arguably the most popular mantra in the motivational scene for years. But lately there has been a countermovement that calls the benefits of goal setting into question. Do these goal adversaries just love going against the grain, or do they have a point?
Although Aristotle was already speculating that purpose can cause action, the real interest for goal setting was sparked by research in the1960’s. One of the most cited and referred to studies “proving” the benefits of goal setting, is the Harvard MBA study. Allegedly this research proved that written down goals had a positive effect on later outcomes in life. Unfortunately for many goal enthusiasts, it was recently uncovered that this study never even happened.
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So with a blow to major evidence and with people like Vishen Lakhian arguing against goal setting, should we just stop setting goals?
Let’s look at the most popular arguments against goal setting.
1. Goals are ineffective to achieve long term dreams
The argument here is clear. People don’t set the right goals, so goals don’t lead to more success or happiness.
The problem is most people set goals based on their present situation instead of on a vision for their future. They set goals for what they actually would have wanted to have had now. They only focus on the next step ahead. Plus they set goals as a series of boxes they have to tick in order to be successful. This common approach has 3 big disadvantages:
- You start with the feeling you are already behind
- It keeps people within their current realm of success
- It doesn’t lead to fulfillment
But this problem can be largely avoided by having the right scope. Goals should be a means to an end, not to goal in itself.
In order to set effective goals that do lead to fulfillment in the future, we first need to have a clear understanding of what we want that future to be. Research shows clearly that goal setting is more effective when you are conscious of the long term rational behind it.
So start by discovering your rational: your purpose or your vision for life. What is it that really fulfills you? What are you aiming for in the long run? Happiness? Success? Wealth? Peace of mind? Translate what that means to you in practical terms. What does that mean for where you need to be in 10 years on a professional, personal, spiritual and social level.
Set your goals with the long term aim in mind, and define the steps that will lead you there.
2. Stretch goals don’t work but only undermine your self esteem.
Many people struggle with even setting a goal, arguing that it will only make them feel bad if they don’t achieve it. And indeed, statistics show that most goals aren’t achieved. So why would you try?
Here the question arises what the definition of achievement is. Do you identify with the result or with the effort? Isn’t growth an achievement in itself?
Why are we limiting ourselves (before even getting started!) by believing that it’s only worth it if we make it to the finish? Is walking off the field before you throw a pitch a more fulfilling life strategy than playing in the finals and lose?
If you never allow yourself chance to fail, you will never experience true success nor can you built up self-esteem.
You don’t fail if you fall short, you fail if you never take the risk to fall at all.
3. Too much focus on goals stimulates unethical behavior
Psychologists have proven that people are more likely to cheat or engage in unethical behavior when they want to achieve a goal, especially when falling just short of reaching it.
With examples of the Wolf of Wall Street and other macho goal driven cultures in mind, it is not a far stretch to imagine goal setting can have a negative ripple effect.
But again, the risks of these negative effects on your behavior, depend on your definition of achievement. When we cultivate a mindset that values “fair play” over “winning” the likelihood of us falling prey to our ethical pitfalls decreases.
To be able to make any important decision in life, especially deciding on the right goals, we need to define our set of Core Values. Our Core values not only keep us from breaking the rules, they provide instant internal rewards like, pride and happiness, when we live by our personal rules. That is why we feel good when we don’t cheat when we can.
4. Numbers show people don’t achieve goals
If you set a goal, in 90% of all cases, performance increases. So even when you don’t achieve it, you will have gained more than if you hadn’t set a goal at all.
Furthermore, you can easily increase your chance of achieving your goal. A (real) research by Gail Matthew shows that by writing your goals down and defining a clear action plan (Personal strategy) your chance of achievement go up to 65 %. If you find someone, a coach or mentor or even friend that you report to about your progress and that holds you accountable, your chances go up even more.
So to set yourself up for success: Make an strategy plan that defines your actions to achieve your goal step by step and includes an accountability plan.
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