Why You Shouldn’t Set Goals For Success

The Challenge: Most people don’t achieve the goals they set for themselves.
The Science: Research has shown that setting overly ambitious goals can have negative consequences.
The Solution: Focus on intentions, positive habits, and process goals for success! 

Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, was quoted as saying, “Goals are for losers—goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary.”

Despite the popularity of goal setting, there is compelling evidence that regardless of good intentions and effort, people and organizations consistently fall short of achieving their goals. According to a University of Scranton research study, 92% of people who set New Year’s goals never actually achieve them. The Center For Disease Control estimates that 34% of Americans are overweight and a further 34% are obese, which means almost 70% of the population is dangerously unhealthy. A curious result, despite the proliferation of weight loss programs that usually focus on weight-loss goals.

In the early 2000s, General Motors had set a goal to capture 29% of the American auto market. They even produced corporate pins for people to wear with the number 29 on them. Needless to say, they never achieved that goal, and without a government bailout, they may not have even survived.

Our society, at both the individual level and in organizations, has an obsession with goal setting, particularly “stretch” goals or “audacious goals.” We tie goals to accomplishment. In our culture, an individual or organization cannot be considered successful unless goals are achieved. And the usual motivation method used by leaders to achieve these goals is the continual focus on “improvement,” “bigger and better,” through harder and harder work and increased productivity. And the way to measure that success is to measure goal attainment.

Thus, self-help gurus such as Stephen Covey, Tony Robbins, Brian Tracy, and others emphasized the necessary link between goals and success. In some ways, both Santa Claus and The Secret have done us a disservice. Both focused on wishing something would happen, and either through the process of writing it down and/or visualization, it is supposed to magically appear. Many management and self-help gurus cite research, reportedly done at Harvard or Yale universities, which describes why only 3% of Harvard MBAs make 10 times as much money as the other 97%–because they write down their goals. The problem with this claim is that no such research study exists.

The easy explanation for such a high failure rate for reaching goals would be to attribute fault to a lack of will or effort by the goal-setter. However, the problem may be inherent in the validity of goal setting.

While conventional wisdom has it that goal setting is critical to improved performance, there is compelling evidence to the contrary.

In my article in the Financial Post, I said, “The inherent problem with goal setting is related to how the brain works. Recent neuroscience research shows the brain works in a protective way, resistant to change. Therefore, any goals that require substantial behavioral change or thinking-pattern change will automatically be resisted. The brain is wired to seek rewards and avoid pain or discomfort, including fear. When fear of failure creeps into the mind of the goal setter, it commences a de-motivator with a desire to return to known, comfortable behavior and thought patterns.”

We must also consider research in social psychology, which shows that activities coded as failures (rather than partial successes) are likely to result in lower perceived self-efficacy, which in turn has been shown to result in demotivation, lower goal commitment, and consequently lower performance.

Aubrey Daniels, in his book Oops! 13 Management Practices That Waste Time and Money, argues that stretch goals are an ineffective practice. Daniels cites a study that shows when individuals repeatedly fail to reach stretch goals, their performance declines. Another study showed that 10% of employees actually achieved stretch goals. Daniels argues that goals motivate people only when they have received positive rewards and feedback from reaching goals in the past.

Adam Galinsky, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and one of the authors of a Harvard Business School report called Goals Gone Wild,” argues that “goal setting has been treated like an over-the-counter medication when it should really be treated with more care, as a prescription-strength mediation.” He argues that goal setting can focus attention too much or on the wrong things and can lead people to participate in extreme behaviors to achieve the goals. The authors of Goals Gone Wild have identified several specific negative side effects associated with goal setting: “An overly narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas; a rise in unethical behavior; distorted risk preferences; corrosion of organizational culture; and reduced intrinsic motivation.”

Maurice Schweitzer of the University of Pennsylvania and Lisa Ordonez of the University of Arizona, co-authors of Goals Gone Wild, have studied the psychology of goal attainment, and in several experiments have shown that when people self-report their achievement of goals, if they are not entirely successful, a significant percentage of them lie to make up the difference.

Sim Sitkin, a Duke University business school professor, completed a study of stretch goals and found they were most likely to be pursued by desperate, embattled companies that would have difficulty adapting if the goals failed.

L.A. King and C.M. Burton, in an article entitled, The Hazards of Goal Pursuit, for the American Psychological Association, argue that goals should be used only in the narrowest of circumstances: “The optimally striving individual ought to endeavor to achieve and approach goals that only slightly implicate the self; that are only moderately important, fairly easy, and moderately abstract; that do not conflict with each other, and that concern the accomplishment of something other than financial gain.”

The blind, value-free pursuit of goals without an examination of the consequences of their attainment and the cost of achieving the goals has been questioned by a few management scholars. These scholars argue that the price we pay for overly focusing on goals is a loss of independent thinking and personal initiative. The Ford Pinto, Enron’s climb to success, the rash lending practices of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the excesses of Wall Street traders, and the lack of environmental oversight of Gulf deep water drilling all reflect the downside of defining success as the mere attainment of goals.  Work, particularly knowledge work, requires a certain amount of creativity and judgment. Reducing complex activities to a set of goal numbers can end up rewarding the wrong behaviors.

There is an addiction in our culture to “getting more,” and the “going for the goals” hype is disconnected from peoples’ authentic selves and their values.

Finally, there are psychological manifestations of not achieving goals that may be more damaging than not having any goals at all. The process sets up desires that are removed from everyday reality. Whenever we desire things that we don’t have, we set our brain’s nervous system to produce negative emotions. Second, highly aspirational goals require us to develop new competencies, some of which may be beyond current capabilities. As we develop these competencies, we are likely to experience failures, which then become de-motivational. Thirdly, goal setting sets up an either-or polarity of success. The only true measure can either be 100% attainment or perfection or 99% and less, which is a failure. We can then excessively focus on the missing or incomplete part of our efforts, ignoring the successful parts. Fourthly, goal setting doesn’t take into account random forces of chance. You can’t control all the environmental variables to guarantee 100% success.

The other problem is that goals are often cast in the image of the ideal or perfection, which activates the self-judging thinking of “I should be this way.” This counteracts the positive need for self-acceptance.

And if the goal is not attained, we can often engage in thinking we are failures, not good enough, not smart enough, not beautiful enough, etc. So, the non-attainment of goals can create emotions of unworthiness.

So What’s The Solution?  Here’s Some Suggested Alternatives

1. Develop good habits.  Research on the psychology of self-control and the science of forming new habits show that of all the disappointments in life; there is hardly a kind more hazardous to happiness and more toxic to the soul than disappointing ourselves as we fail to live up to our own ideals and expectations. The solution, however, might not be to further tighten the grip with which we cling to our plans — rather, it’s to let go of plans specific plans altogether, but rather develop a system of positive habits that are practiced every day that contribute to and reinforce ongoing success and well being. These can be simple habits such as morning routines, meditation, practicing gratitude, working on the most important priorities first, and the list could go on.

2. Set positive intentions. We must also make a distinction between our intentions and our goals. An intention is a direction we want to pursue, preferably with passion. My experience is that people are often confused and unclear about the intentions of how they want to live and achieve, and therefore, a focus on goals doesn’t assist them with clarifying their intentions. When I work with people as their coach and mentor, they often tell me they’ve set goals such as “I want to be wealthy,” “I want to be more beautiful/popular,” and “I want a better relationship/ideal partner.” They don’t realize they’ve just described the symptoms or outcomes of the problems in their life. The cause of the problem that many resist facing is themselves. They don’t realize that for a change to occur, if one is desirable, they must change themselves. Once they make the personal changes, everything around them can alter, which may make the goal irrelevant. There’s an old saying: “You don’t get what you want in life. You get in life what you are.”

3. Focus on intrinsic rather than extrinsic rewards. When we emphasize the connection between specific goals that require external rewards (money or materialism, for example), this can often lead to dissatisfaction or disappointment because of their temporary effect. In contrast, intrinsic rewards, researchers such as Daniel Pink have argued, have a more lasting and powerful effect.

4. Develop a good system or process (the journey) rather than a goal (the destination). Similar to establishing good habits, developing a system in your personal and professional life on how to deal with both success and failure from a psychological and emotional perspective in real time will enable you to handle adversity, develop resilience, and overcome obstacles—particularly the unanticipated ones—in life.

5. Live in the present rather than analyzing the past failure or future attainment of a goal. Spending an inordinate amount of time analyzing why goals in the past have not been reached has a limited value, as the conditions and variables in the present and future will never be identical. Similarly, spending too much time anticipating and predicting the future can create anxiety and fear and contribute to being blind to what is before you in the present.

6. Develop an open and positive mindset. Research by Carol Dweck, published in her book Mindset: Changing the Way You Think to Fulfill Your Potential, shows that an open and growth mindset can maximize one’s success and well-being, as opposed to a fixed or closed mindset, which often happens when people become overly fixated on specific goals.

7. Measure the milestones (on the path or journey) rather than the goal attainment (the destination). One of the more serious problems with measuring goal attainment is the “all or nothing” effect. Either you reach the goal, or you don’t. Anything less than reaching a goal can create a psychological state of failure, which then becomes demotivating.  Instead, measuring your progress (milestones) on a daily, short-interval basis can provide you with more positive feedback and motivation.

8. Develop an area of focus rather than a goal. Max Bazerman and his colleagues, in their study of the downside of goal setting, make the point that “A goal defines an outcome you want to achieve; an area of focus establishes activities you want to spend your time doing. A goal is a result; an area of focus is a path. A goal points to a future you intend to reach; an area of focus settles you into the present.”

So there you have it. The case for why goal setting doesn’t work and suggestions for what to do instead.

Ray Williams
Ray Williams is Owner and President of Ray Williams Associates, a company based in Vancouver, Canada, providing leadership and executive coaching and professional speaking services internationally. Ray has been a CEO, senior HR Executive, Management Consultant and Executive Coach for the past 30 years. His clients include those in the Fortune 500, Best Managed Companies in Canada, entrepreneurs and professionals. He has written books on leadership, personal growth and organizational change, and written for, or been interviewed by such media as NBC News, The Huffington Post, USA Today, The National Post, Entrepreneur, Forbes, The Financial Post, Psychology Today, and other international professional publications. He has served as the Vice-Chair of the Vancouver Board of Trade and President of the International Coach Federation, Vancouver.
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