Stop setting bad goals

I’ve experienced my fair share of terrible goals. I’ve set myself some bad ones and I find goals at work interesting. Several recent books from management, psychology and philosophy have posed some contradictory thoughts on the topic, which got me thinking: I can’t be the only one that finds goals intriguing but frustrating.

This post is to summarise some of the more promising, logical ideas for anyone wanting to set, challenge, or deal with goals at work or in their own life. The ideas draw on different books, covering systems thinking, psychology and even philosophy. I’ve put links to those books in at the end of each section in case you care to read more on the topic.

First of all let’s cover the basics of how goals work. Stay with me, this does improve…

  1. Think of something you do regularly.
  2. Take a reliable measurement of it (or imagine you have).
  3. Set a clear, achievable target for the yourself in the future.

You’ve just made Creative Tension; the gap between your current performance and your target.

Creative tension is based on something called Cognitive Dissonance; the theory that holding two contradictory beliefs causes us discomfort. In this instance the contradictory beliefs are the current state and the target state.

The brain is motivated to reduce cognitive dissonance. With goals there are two ways to do this; improve reality, or lower the target. If we decide to maintain the target, the only option left is to improve the reality.

The Dangers of Creative Tension

Creative tension is the basic framework of how goals work. In this respect goals are very effective. We can simulate motivation. However, this acts as a double edged sword which requires consideration to avoid unintended consequences, such as:

  • In work environments goals can cause shortsightedness, having effects downstream that do more harm than good. (e.g. sales vs delivery goals)
  • Outside work, personal goals are often too numerous, too varied and without clear pathways to achievement. This can lead to failure and regular goal switching. (e.g. new hobbyists, peaks and troughs of effort)
  • For all goals, our happiness is at risk. If we have the wrong mindset, achieving a goal gives only a small feeling of satisfaction, and failure leads to greater unhappiness.

In the following sections I’ll cover each of these ideas in more detail and provide practical advice to avoid these pitfalls.

To learn more about Creative Tension try reading The Fifth Discipline.


Goals at Work

Goals have been used at work since the industrial revolution. Managers first realised that incentive linked goals increased output. This approach worked well when tasks were repetitive and improvements could be made and tested over time. People became more efficient, production rose, profits rose.

Then came the knowledge worker. By it’s very nature knowledge work is not repetitive. Knowledge workers are employed to make the best decision they can based on the information available at the time. Furthermore, they are a part of a larger system of work. Their actions have repercussions elsewhere. Cause and effect are separated by space and time, meaning they are difficult to see, let alone prove.

Unfortunately goals for knowledge workers tend to enhance focus on one area at the expense of all else. If the goal works for one person, it may not work for them all.

There are four key ideas that we should embrace when considering using goals at work.

  1. Goals should not be linked to performance. Workers should be rewarded enough to make them stay in the job. After this, the work itself is the reward. For the most convincing argument on this, read Drive, by Daniel Pink.
  2. Rather than starting with goals, start with a shared vision. A shared vision is not imposed from the top. It is created by all the members of the organisation. It’s intention is to create a common interest and a shared sense of purpose that each individual can relate to and feel a part of. This will give better alignment and produce more productive conversations than goals alone. For more on this read the shared vision section of The Fifth Discipline.
  3. Goals should rarely be used. Following point 2, the individuals should be bought into the shared vision. At this point their intelligence and natural desire to do good work should mean they’ll be more creative and productive if left alone.
  4. If being used, goals should be set by the teams themselves. A scary thought for many managers, but consider the alternative:
”Tell me how you measure me, and I will tell you how I will behave”

This is a famous quote for a good reason. Trying to boil down varied knowledge worker’s performances into a few KPIs will lead to shortcuts and cause and effect issues down the line. Allowing teams to consider and propose their own goals and targets gives them immediate buy-in, improves autonomy, and encourages thought in the individual about how they fit into the shared vision of the company.

In summary, rather than measuring your teams against what you think the company needs them to do, let them understand it for themselves. Every decision they make is then informed — it’s not a shortcut based on the goal you have set them.

To learn more about setting goals at work try reading Drive.


Goals in Life

I’m guessing at some point in your life you’ve set some goals for yourself that you haven’t met. Maybe in the last day, month or year. What I’ll propose next is you’re failing because you have too many goals.

Have you ever considered all the goals you have in your life? Either as vague ideas or concrete things you are working towards? Chances are they are many and varied.

I’d like to be more creative…be better at darts…to travel more...to see more of my friends…to start my own company…to learn how to make sushi…

Halting that train of thought, let’s take another approach: Your life is your own, and your time is limited. Let’s think about your inevitable, encroaching death. When you go, how would you like someone to sum your life up, in one sentence?

“A caring mother who loved long walks and laughter”
“A passionate manager who helped everyone he met”
“A polite punk who partied and drank tea with enthusiasm”

What about considering what your life sentence is not. Someone who was better than average a darts? A guy who made (quite poor) sushi for me once?

The problem here is the diversity of goals that don’t support the top level ambition — who you want to be. If you don’t know who you want to be, how could you know which goals will lead you there?

Some practical tips to follow for personal goals:

  • Write down all and any goals you have in your personal life
  • Think about the type of person you want to be (your life in a sentence if you can. Don’t worry if it’s still a bag of ideas, just keep it front of mind)
  • Go back to your written list of goals and highlight those that support your one sentence
  • Cross everything else out and stop pursuing those goals

The finite amount of time and effort you have in your life should be prioritised. Prioritise who you want to be.

To learn more about life goals try reading Grit.


Dealing with Failure

Goals pervade our lives. They get named KPIs, SLAs, metrics, grades, gold stars, or other annoying words and acronyms.

As we’ve seen in this post so far, goals can be useful tools or counter-productive frustrations. Yet, one of the most interesting aspects of goals is rarely considered. That is, what happens when we don’t achieve them? Our happiness can be affected. To help us remain as happy as possible in life, I suggest a Stoic approach to dealing with goals.

The Stoics said that happiness was the difference between your expectations and reality. The two ways to resolve being unhappy are to increase reality, or reset your expectations closer to reality.

The chap in this video demonstrates the principle well.

The (stoic) Happiness Algorithm

Some tips for putting this into action for goals:

Don’t worry about things outside of your control.

We cannot control the randomness of life’s events. Unpredictable things will always happen. So set your expectations this way. Expect your plans to take a beating.

Instead of trying to control everything, consider what is in your control. Are there any actions you can take to meet the goal? If not, there is nothing to be upset about.

If you’ve failed a goal, remember it is in the past and there is nothing you can do about it now.

“If you have a problem that can be fixed, then there is no use in worrying. If you have a problem that cannot be fixed, then there is no use in worrying.”
Buddhist proverb

Regularly and purposefully align your expectations to match reality.

Reduce the chance of unhappiness by keeping reality at the forefront of our minds. With goals this means regularly reviewing progress against expectations and using this to form a realistic idea of our ability to succeed with the goal. Don’t wait until late on to find out you’ll fail or succeed.

Don’t distribute blame.

Don’t blame other people. Don’t blame randomness of life events. Don’t blame accidents or unpredictable things. You may view one of these things as the cause, but each one has an underlying cause itself. Blaming one link in that chain is futile. Instead try to understand the links between the causes and identify those that are systematic. These are things that are worth your effort to change.

To learn more about the Stoic approach to life try reading Happy.


Thanks for reading the mammoth post. I hope you found some of it useful or interesting.

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