Thoughts From Our Heads

Thoughts From Our Heads


Does goal setting work?

Wednesday 15th May 2019

We are always advised to set goals to help us achieve more. But is the conventional wisdom, right? Do goals help us to improve and get more done or are they counter-productive and would you be better leaving measures of your performance more open?

The Case For 

Goals provide clarity of action

Many people struggle with prioritization and having too much on their plate. Through effective goal setting you can gain focus and clarity over what you should be spending your time on. Goals can cut through the noise and improve your productivity. If you are feeling unsure about what you should be doing you can ask the question – what activity is going to help move me towards my primary goal? This question can also help you to expand your scope and consider new ways to reach your end goal.


Goals help you measure success

Without goals you have no objective measure of how you are doing. If you want to lose weight having a target weight is a clear indicator of your success and your progress can be measured on an ongoing basis. The same is true at work, revenue targets, customer satisfaction, delivery times, staff turnover, all offer a clear indication of how well you are performing in different areas. The numbers speak for themselves and send a message to others about the state of matters.


Goals are motivating

Setting goals allows people to see a version of the future that is better than the current reality. This can have a powerful motivating effect and encourages people to work hard to attain that future. When you experience success and see yourself attaining your goals it has a positive impact on your confidence and motivation. You gain a sense of accomplishment and this is motivating for achieving future goals. This can spread from one areas of your life to another. Achieving a transformation in one area of your life has a knock-on effect whereby you gain a sense of being unstoppable in other areas of your life. So, struggling at work? Sign yourself up for a fitness challenge and see the benefits of your increased mental toughness start to impact your professional life too.

Goals build accountability

Setting goals for yourself and others gives a clear indication that that is your responsibility and you are accountable for the results. Accountability is something that many organisations struggle with. Goals help by giving ownership over an outcome and encouraging the individual to act creatively to ensure the goals are met.


The Case Against 

Goals can be demotivating

James Clear argues that goals can be counter-productive because once you have achieved them you lose your motivation. He argues that instead of focusing on goals you should focus on your system. What are the daily habits and rituals you commit to? Chances are that by focusing on that you will achieve your goal anyway. 


Goals can make you miss things

John David Mann argues in Huff Post that focussing your efforts on your goals could make you miss opportunities that don’t align with those goals but in the long run are what is intended for you. Life is full of twists and turns and we don’t always know what lies ahead. By narrowing your focus too much you may be blinkered to ideas, initiatives and relationships that you didn’t even know you needed.


Goals can encourage laziness

Goals can lead to laziness once they are achieved. There is a sense that I have achieved that goal so now I can relax. This can lead to problems in the future when the impact of the new behaviours begins to show. Example include a sales team who slacks off as soon as they meet their monthly target or organisations who stop innovating once they have gained sufficient market share. Things may be good now, but the impacts of a sloppy sales team and uncreative product development will come to fruition.


Goals don’t tell the whole story

Earlier I said that goals provide a clear measure of success, you can quantify and see if you have hit your goal or not. This is true, but it isn’t the whole picture. You might look at a declining staff turnover number and conclude you are engaging your staff well and people are happy. However, this number might reflect a bad economy where employees are afraid to go somewhere else.


Goals can encourage unethical behaviour

There are many examples where excessive pressure to meet goals causes individuals to act in unethical ways. Volkswagen had goals on emission targets that caused people to cheat the system in order to be seen to be meeting those goals. Enron built a culture where earnings were inflated and outright lies told in order to maintain aggressive growth targets.


What now?

What does this mean for goal setting? While goals bring with them challenges, I do think the positive impacts on performance make them worth setting. We know that goals we set should be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time Based) But what else can you do to ensure success with your goals setting?

  • Celebrate success. Acknowledge when you have achieved a goal rather than letting it pass by you and immediately moving onto the next thing.
  • Get clarity on values. Ensure that your goals don’t send you off in the wrong direction by aligning your goals with your values. Know your hard lines of what is acceptable and what isn’t in order to attain your goals.
  • Focus on habits. To make behaviours stick long term focus on the daily habits and routines that help move you towards your goal. Goals come and go but habits will stick long term.
  • Remain open to opportunities. Try and keep an open mind when things come to you that don’t immediately align with your current goals. That distraction could end up being something critical in your future.
  • Find the sweet spot. Goals should be challenging but they also need to be attainable. Check in with yourself on your goals and check that they are not becoming all-consuming, so they impact other areas of your life. When you set goals for others keep communication lines open to ensure you have set the goal at the right level.
  • Stay Curious. Constantly challenge yourself and your goals. Ask question like, are we setting the right goals? Are we measuring the things that matter? What impact are goals having on the team? Be observant and look for ways your goals setting process can be improved.


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Read: How To Kick Ass At Changing Your Habits