The case against goal setting (part one)

Oh boy, that headline is bound to get some people riled up. Most of us have been taught all of our lives to set goals. Any problem that we have, we need to set goals in order to solve it. If we want to achieve something, we need to set a goal, right. Shoot for the moon and we’ll at least land among the stars, right… I disagree.

This is part one in a three part series on why goal setting is actually working against you.

Like most things, I disagree in a different way than you might think.

It’s not that I think goals are bad, just how they are most often interpreted and applied.

The short answer to this is that goals (as they are commonly understood) simply don’t work. They are far out in the distant future and they seem insurmountable to most people.

Put it this way (and here is a personal story of mine). During my mid to late twenties I lived a pretty crazy lifestyle (as a result of being a bartender throughout most of that time). During that time, I ate unhealthy, I drank too much, and my sleeping habits were terrible as well. Couple that with not getting any exercise and it resulted in me ballooning from a fit 180 pound guy that was a multi-sport athlete to a 250 pound guy that would lose his breath trying to climb a decent sized set of stairs.

I’m sure you could imagine what that may have felt like. It was the health equivalent of having once been rich and suddenly you wake up and you’re completely broke.

That wasn’t even the whole scenario. I would often set goals of losing that weight (and did) several times throughout that period.

  1. I was ignoring the process and focusing on the end result
  2. By doing this, it made me needy for validation and acceptance
  3. I was setting myself up for a lose-lose situation

Don’t get me wrong, I am fine with an overall big idea that drives the process. This is often called a mission, a raison d’etre, a guiding principle. These are essential as part of your person ethos if you want to get things done. It helps you focus, helps you be efficient with how you spend your time, but they are not goals because goals need to be specific.

By doing things this way you are focusing on things that are completely outside of your control. You can’t control how quickly you are going to learn something. No more than you can control how quickly and easily you can shed pounds. This is the pitfall so many people find themselves in.

You cannot control the outcome, you can only control your action.

Back to my example of losing weight. After years of being on the weight loss roller coaster I was able to refocus myself by controlling things that were well within my control.

This required discipline and it wasn’t easy but it was simple.

The first thing I did was cut out fast food. For years I would not touch the stuff, it was empty calories that I didn’t need so I eliminated it.

After that, one of the major changes I made was, I substituted starchy foods like pasta and breads that were mostly just filler anyway in favor of spinach or mixed greens.

After doing this I was able to lose a lot of weight quickly. And this required no exercise. Even better than that, it was something I was able to stick to.

The key to this working for me was that it became a habit. It became a part of my daily routine of things. If it had have been a goal, once I hit my desired weight (or even got close), I would have been off the hook again and gone right back to the same bad habits as before. This is what I was doing in the past and it would only work for a short time.

By focusing on the process rather than the desired end result, I was able to stay in control which kept me focused. Do the right things over and over until they became habits. And change things throughout the process that changed my lifestyle permanently (and for the better). None of this had anything to do with traditional goal setting.

Bringing this back into the realm of marketing, focus your efforts on things you can control. Things that build a connection with your audience like communicating with them every day. The boring, every day operations that bring in sales. Not the sales themselves.

More on the case against goal setting later…



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Colin Durkin

Marketing and Communications professional with over 10 years of experience. Which is a fancy way of saying I create marketing campaigns that make money.