We’ve all heard it while growing up; if you want to accomplish anything significant, be sure to first set goals. We hear it from coaches, teachers, parents and self-help gurus.
Although the intentions may be good, the advice itself is not necessarily conducive to guaranteed accomplishment and more importantly fulfillment in life.
As we get older and go into the workforce, we’re often asked to do “stretch” goals and brainstorm quarterly goals, team goals, yearly goals, etc. In our society we tie goals to accomplishment.
The constant obsession for success is often measured via the goals achieved. Once a particular goal is accomplished, the question becomes “ok, what’s next?” And the cycle continues, often at the cost of being mindful of the process and actually learning from it. Sometimes we may even be guilty of going to extreme measures and taking shortcuts to accomplish that goal.
So, how did we become such a goal obsessed society? And how do we become more effective at making things happen without obsessing over goals?
Well, according to many books there is a famous “research” on goal setting. It took place with the 1953 class of Yale University. Researchers asked students to write goals for their future. Only three percent of the student body wrote down goals.
Twenty years later, the research team circled back to collect more data. They discovered that the students who had written their goals had accumulated more wealth than all their classmates combined.
The only problem with this incredible study was that it never took place. No students from the Yale class of 1953 ever remember any such study taking place.
Now, just to be clear, I am not completely against goals. I think they can be great as long as they are done right. Stretch and long term goals can often times be unpredictable. Daily action goals can be far more feasible, and allow you to readjust accordinly if needed in order to stay on track.
While long term goals are often put off, shorter goals allow you to stay in the moment and focused.
You don’t get what you want in life, you get what you become and the best way to become the best version of yourself is by tackling daily goals.
If someone wants to lose 30 lbs in 3 months and the only thing they focus on is the 30 lbs and not the process, then it’s very easy to drop off at the first challenge that comes their way. Now, if you were to make the goal to exercise at 6am for 30 minutes every day during the weekday and eat a salad before each dinner, with the weekly goal of losing 2 lbs, that individual may find more success because he is focused on the process; and by tackling one day at a time, he creates momentum.
And momentum creates motivation!
Psychologist Karl Weick presented the idea that people often become overwhelmed and discouraged when faced with complex problems. In his article “Small Wins” he talks about breaking down larger problems into smaller, bite size goals. The more visible the small results, the more motivated the individual becomes and further progress is achieved.
When you focus solely on the end result of goals, we may completely shut ourselves to new opportunities that may arise out of seeking the end goal. Instead of staying fixated on a goal, be flexible in your approach and don’t be afraid to take route B and C if necessary.
Sometimes the path is not always clear, although it may be filled with rich lessons.
Recent research in the neuroscience field shows that our brains have a defensive way to thinking, which makes it resistant to changes. The brain likes to stay in normal function and any behavioral change or thinking pattern switch can alarm the brain to resist those changes.
We are wired to seek pleasure and avoid discomfort/pain. Fear is an example of discomfort which can sometimes save your life (running away from a bear chasing you ), but in the process of developing habits and creating positive changes, fear only serves to demotivate you as the brain is trying to get back to normal thinking patterns.
Some examples of goal setting gone wrong:
The 1996 Mount Everest Disaster: On May of 1996, 8 people died in one day and 12 over that season making it the deadliest year in Mount Everest ever. Climbers that survived the climb that year talked about the heavy commercialization of different climbing companies and how they were far riskier in getting to the top. Psychologists suggest that because of the heavy investment both financially (it costs $50-75k to climb Everest) and physically, the goal of reaching the summit is the only thing on people’s mind and they will risk everything, including very bad storms. Instead of listening to the professionals regarding dangerous storm and turning back, some climbers instead chose to continue forward so they could reach their goal.
The Ford Pinto Disaster: After employees were given a goal to build a car under 2k pounds and under $2,000 by 1970, the employees felt pressured (and feared losing their jobs) so they sped up the process and overlooked safety testing and designed a car where the gas tank was vulnerable to explosion from rear-end collisions. Fifty-three people died as a result.
Under the pressure of the underperformance of the American auto industry, General Motors had set a goal to recapture the market by telling employees they were going to increase sales and recapture the American market by 29%. Employees were even encouraged to wear safety pins with the number 29. The goal had no basis whatsoever. It was simply a number thrown out there. They never achieved that goal, the CEO was replaced and some people even suggest that the GM may not even have survived without the bailout of 2008.
These are just some of the examples of goal setting gone wrong. I know I personally have tried to take shortcuts while obsessing over goals. In my running, I’ve tried to run through injuries simply out of fear of losing my “fitness” and trying to stay on track with the training schedule for a certain race, which wasn’t very smart since it made the injury even worst.
How to handle Goal Setting in a healthier way:
Set up micro goals. Determine what you’re going to do on a daily basis to become the person you want to be. Goals are made by consistent and repeated efforts. Even if you’re only spending 1 minute per day towards that goal, it’s worth it. Daily consistency trumps long term goals.
Align your goals with your values. Many people will unknowingly cheat their way into achieving the goal, mainly because of pride, especially if others know of the goal.
Obsessing over a goal creates a narrow focus, which often times takes away from learning and being mindful of the process that is happening while you’re chasing the goal. The golden nuggets are in the journey.
Goal setting increases extrinsic motivation, which takes away from genuine intrinsic motivation. In other words, we subconsciously engage in a particular task for its own sake.
Stretch goals can be psychologically draining if not done right. Linking failure of achieving a goal with being unworthy or not good enough can lead to low self esteem and low self acceptance issues.
It’s not about winning or losing in life, but rather winning or learning. Sometimes life gives you lessons in the form of losses or the inability to achieve something you really desire. That’s ok—work on being better, not bitter.
I believe that long-term goals, that nebulous fantasy in the future, aren’t that motivating — we’re more motivated by something that can pay off now, which includes things that make us happy as we do them. Take it one day at time and don’t forget to enjoy the journey!