Focus on your goal and you might miss that everything else around you is dying. (Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash, cropped to fit).

Is Achieving Your Goals Killing Your Business?

Avoid the worst advice Medium has to offer.

One of the worst pieces of advice you’ll get on Medium, or anywhere, is also one of the most common. Despite the fact that popular columnists tell you that you must do it, please do not set goals.

It’s important to have a vision of the future you want to live in. It’s important that you’re able to work backwards from that vision to set an intention. An aim. It’s important that you allocate your energy in a way that aligns you with a future you look forward to.

Just don’t set goals.

Goals are for losers. — Scott Adams in How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.

One of the most popular systems for goal setting is the S.M.A.R.T. system. It stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.

It sounds pretty reasonable, doesn’t it?

The way it works is that you decide on something that you want in the world that your can measure. The more specific, the better. Then you decide a time frame by which you want it. Be sure that it’s realistic and achievable and important to you.

Then enjoy your boost in motivation and focus. At least in theory.

The advantage of goals is that it will focus your energy and attention, eliminating wasted effort. The theory is that an explicit goal will motivate workers to achieve the goal, especially when goal-directed performance is tied to compensation. And these schemes (like the recent trend towards gamification) can work well for tasks that are well-prescribed. That is, where creative effort is minimal, because what’s most important is physical labor or following explicit instructions.

The problem is that goals have a downside that are rarely discussed in the popular advice columms.

For example, one of my engineering business practices students did an independent report on the downside of goals in which she emphasizes the way that SMART goals create incentives for unethical behavior. In short, SMART goals introduce the problem of moral hazard (when people take risks with an upside that they benefit from, but a downside that will hurt others).

Raveena John discusses the downside of setting goals — especially those that are tied to compensation.

Moreover, the very purpose of setting goals (narrowing of focus) comes at the cost of peripheral vision. That is, a focus on goals erodes capacity for lateral thinking, for problem reframing, and reasoning by induction, all of which are important to serendipity.

In short, setting goals as a way of making you unlucky, because the narrow focus will cause you to overlook those fortunate happenstances that might give you things you want, but weren’t looking for. Especially when goal achievement is tied to compensation, you introduce the problem of moral luck (when people are judged on the basis of circumstances beyond their control).

Far better to visualize the processes that will move you in the direction you want to go than to fantasize about your goals.

Nothing is less important than the score at halftime — football coach Bill Walsh, in The Score Takes Care of Itself.