The idea that you should not set goals runs counter to what we’ve been taught. Numerous research studies over the years have established a strong link between goal-setting and success, motivation and confidence. For most people, setting goals can make the difference between mediocre and high performance.
But not for everyone and not all the time.
There are times goal-setting is a waste of time or can even decrease your motivation and confidence.
If any of these situations apply to you, you should not set goals, at least not for awhile. It might be a good idea to take a break or do something else first.
1. You’re an overachiever.
Overachievers are used to setting impossible goals and then meeting them. However, a hyperfocus on goal achievement can cause problems such as unhealthy habits (working long hours, skipping meals, losing sleep), not developing close friendships, and melting down when your extraordinary efforts fail.
If you’re an overachiever, always focused on the next goal, taking a break from goal-setting can be a helpful way to get more balance in your life, and it might even improve your relationships with others.
2. You’re not clear about what you want.
You might be setting goals for things other people have told you are important but are not what YOU want. Perhaps you don’t even know what it is that you want. Too many people choose careers based on what their parents wanted for them rather than on their true talents and interest. Or they set goals based on what they think they’re supposed to do. It’s difficult to stay committed to these kinds of goals. This is why so many diets fail. It is easier to stay committed to a diet if you see exactly how it will help you live the life you really want.
If you’re not clear about what you really want, you are likely to set goals that will not be satisfying once accomplished. When you are clear about what you want, your goals become the means to get there. Before you set a goal, make sure it’s something you really want. There are few things more disappointing than to work hard to achieve a goal only to discover it didn’t matter.
3. Your goals are not connected to a larger purpose.
When your goals are connected to a larger purpose, you see why they are important. It’s easier to stay motivated during challenging times. And once you’ve achieved your goal, your next goal is obvious because your goals are aligned with where you want to go.
Goals are milestones that mark the way on your journey. If there isn’t a clear line of sight between your goals and a larger purpose, you are likely to set the wrong goals and get sidetracked. Before you set goals, dig below the surface of what you think you want to discover your deeper purpose so you can be sure to set the right goals.
4. Your goal is too big, too general, or too vague.
Maybe you want to contribute to world peace, to creating a world that works for all, or to fixing climate change. These are noble and worthwhile pursuits. But they are not goals. Using the analogy of a hot air balloon, this is the view from 2000 feet where you see the whole panorama. But the individual blades of grass on the ground are invisible from that height. You need to see the ground to know where to put your feet as you take your next step. In other words, you must translate your vision into actionable steps or you are in danger of simply dreaming and not accomplishing much. The challenge is to set goals based on a realistic look at your current situation without losing sight of your vision.
5. You’re trying to control things you can’t control.
You might desire to improve your relationship with someone, but if that person is not also willing to work on the relationship, it’s going to feel like pushing a wet noodle. When your goals require other people to take action, you need to set goals together.
Feelings are another area you can’t control. You might desire to feel more joy in your life or to have more spiritual connection. But these are things you can’t directly control. The best you can do is to set goals for activities that invite these things into your life, such as taking time for walks in nature, meditating regularly or “doing nothing.”
As an additional thought – It feels counterproductive to obsess over setting specific goals when life will ensure that the larger task gets done. I’ve been obsessing over getting ready to move. However, the fact is that the house will sell, the closing will happen and the truck will come. This is one roller coaster that it just makes sense to ride.
An excellent point about your general attitude about goal-setting. Large goals like selling a house can produce anxiety over all the tasks to be done, and is more difficult when coupled with feeling of loss. Sometimes that tension can be helpful, as in creative tension, but not if you get caught in the small things and lose sight of the positive potential of the big picture.
I am aware of some things I’ve been doing that have hurt my relationships. I’d like to set a goal for self-improvment. Do I need to involve them in goal-setting?
It’s fine to set goals as long as you are only focused on your own behavior and don’t require behavioral change from others. However, it can be helpful to share your goals to make sure you are setting the right goals, to get support to stay on track, and recognition for changes you’ve made. See my post: Why People Don’t Notice You’ve Changed.
Brilliant as always. I will be addressing a well-known engineering college this month. A huge problem is that students are in fact driven to perform,,, over-drive that has produced depression, alienation and in some cases, suicide. Your comment about high achievers is spot on. Life becomes one-sided, health suffers, and relationships falter. To take time out and really ponder the WHY behind a goal is a great start. I realized that for years, I kept creating the same goal and never reaching it… It was what I thought I should do rather than what I truly WANTED to do, Thanks, Jesse.
I think you’re spot-on in pointing out the importance of knowing and remembering the “why” of your goal. Thanks for adding to the conversation, Eileen!
Great points, Jesse! The universal leadership challenge people I work with complain about is a lack of ‘balance’ in their lives, much of which is a result of of goal setting gone awry — esp. for the over-achievers! We live in a culture that celebrates doing over ‘being’, but stepping away and reconnecting to our deeper purpose can indeed create clarity and invite simplification, setting us up for greater success for those goals we ultimately choose to pursue. Thanks for the great food for thought!
It IS about balance! Appreciate your insights Sharon. Many thanks for sharing them here.
I love point 5!
As a coach I am obviously going to advocate goal-setting as a general benefit. I think goal setting in every area of life will give a general balance (not just work-related) and I agree that setting goals that are of no interest to the individual is not a good way to go about it. However, most of us go through life on auto-pilot and then wonder why we have reached the destination we have and that goes for areas such as work, relationships and lifestyle. It’s about balance and goal-setting should be fun, not a chore and certainly not detrimental to ourselves.
Hi Sam, You might be surprised, but I agree with you. Goals are powerful, there is no question about it. See my post: 6 Tips to Set Goals That Will Get You Where You Want to Go. This current post provides a warning that there are certain times goal-setting will not get you were you want to go.