Is Goal Setting Causing You to Fail?

Despite the fact that setting goals is an extremely popular ingredient in the typical recipe for success, some studies seem to prove otherwise. Goals are usually set using the best intentions and effort, but many people consistently fall short of achieving their goals. When you don’t meet the goals you set, you generally blame yourself. You may even label yourself a failure. However, the root of the problem may simply be in the goal itself.

Means to the End Goal Justifies?

Unreachable goals set by management can often lead employees to use unethical business practices.

We live in a culture that is obsessed with setting goals. People often believe that success and accomplishment actually depends on meeting specific goals in life. The standard motivation tool used by powerful leaders and large corporations is a continual focus on improvement and success. In addition, the way those leaders and corporations tend to measure success is by simply measuring goal attainment. The idea that “bigger is better”, “it’s their way or the highway”, or “working smarter not harder is better” than everyone else, “time is money” so working longer hours will lead to an increase in productivity are all phrases that you are no doubt familiar with today.

But it could very well be that your brain is simply not wired for these and other’s “goal-setting” standards of success. Neuroscience has proven that your brain works as a protective organ. It is wired to resist change, to seek gratification and to avoid painful situations. It goes without saying that any goals you set will ultimately require a major change in behavior and thinking on your part. When fear or frustration develops as you attempt to achieve a certain goal, your brain begins to become a de-motivating factor. It wants to return to familiar or comfortable behaviors and thought patterns.

One recent study showed that people who repeatedly fail to reach their goals develop major declines in overall performance. Another study proved that only 10 percent of employees actually achieved their work goals.

What is Paralysis by Analysis?

Paralysis by analysis is a condition that occurs when you spend so much time analyzing a certain goal or situation that you never take any action to achieve the goal. This inaction ultimately causes you to fail. Goals will never be achieved if you spend all your time planning and analyzing on a daily basis. At some point, you have to take action. Otherwise, you become one of those people who gets up every single day and decides that you will spend your time preparing and planning today, and then take action tomorrow.

Before you know it, tomorrow becomes next week. Next week becomes next month. Next month becomes next year. You find yourself in an unending state of goal preparation, but have nothing to show for it. Paralysis by analysis can ultimately be responsible for life passing you by.

Problems Caused by Goal Setting

While self-help speakers or management leadership consulting firms choose to spend their time telling you to set extremely high (and often outrageous) goals, research has proven that goal setting may be wasting your time or even sabotaging your success. With only 10 percent of employees reaching their goals, what happens to the other 90 percent who never reach those lofty goals that were set?

Most of the time, people set goals that are so difficult or unattainable that they become unmotivated or discouraged early in the process of trying to succeed. They end up losing focus and paying no attention to the goals they set for themselves. They simply walk away feeling discouraged or depressed. For someone who has gone through the process of setting goals and failing to reach them repeatedly, his or her self-esteem can end up paying the price. When you set yourself up for failure by assigning an impossible goal to your life, there is no successful conclusion to the story.

Another problem caused by goal setting may surprise you. A recent laboratory experiment showed that goal setting plays a huge role in motivating unethical behaviors.

Scientists discovered that people with unmet goals were more likely to take part in unethical activities than those people who were simply trying to do their best in life. If that sounds shocking to you, consider the example of Sears, Roebuck and Company in the early 1990s. Sears decided to set a goal for their auto repair staff, requiring them to sell at least $147/hour. It was later found that the employees of Sears were charging customers for unnecessary auto repairs in order to meet the challenging goals set by upper management.

Edward Brennan, chairman of Sears, eventually acknowledged that the unrealistic goal-setting practices had motivated employees to deceive their customers. Additionally in 1993, Bausch and Lomb employees were found to be submitting false financial statements in order to meet outrageous earnings goals set by management. These are just two of the many cases that show that goals motivate some people to engage in unethical behaviors for the sake of “getting ahead.”

Dangerous Dieting Goals

It is essential to set specific attainable action steps when trying to lose weight, making sure to realistically evaluate your own specific body type, diet and fitness level.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 34 percent of all Americans are overweight. Another 34 percent are considered obese, making almost 70 percent of the United States dangerously overweight. With all of the weight loss programs that are available today, these results are staggering — but not surprising.

Many people who join programs to lose weight are familiar with goal-oriented weight loss plans. In fact, most weight loss plans available today are dependent on goals. One of the very first things people are told to do when joining a weight-loss program is to write down their most important goal for losing weight. With so many people focusing on a specific weight loss goal, it may be easy to attribute the problem to a lack of effort on the participant’s part. However, the problem may not be a lack of willpower.

It may be that the goal was so outrageous that it was impossible to achieve. For example, if you walk into a gym weighing 185 lbs and tell them you have a goal to lose 65 lbs in a month…it’s not a valid goal you can achieve. Goals can also be too vague to drive your success; a goal to “lose weight” by the end of the summer is an example … it doesn’t give you any concrete action to move toward, so you may easily lose focus and motivation.

The Effect of Setting Goals

According to research conducted by psychologists and other scientists, when you set a goal for yourself, you automatically become invested in the target. Part of your brain begins to believe that goal is an essential part of who you are. This belief drives you to work toward reaching the goal and to actually obtain what your brain needs.

But your brain cannot tell the difference between some things you want and things you already have. In essence, your brain treats the failure to achieve a goal the same way it treats the loss of an important possession. This sets up a kind of constant tension that your brain works to resolve. In a perfect situation, the tension is resolved by driving you to reach a goal. Oftentimes, though, your brain responds to the loss causing you to feel physical fears, anxieties and even depression. The addiction our culture places on getting more and constantly achieving goals can often end up disconnecting you from your true self and your family values.

Additionally, goals are sometimes very narrow. They are focused on one specific area of your life, like your career or weight loss. These types of narrow goals can lead to an imbalance due to your neglect in other important areas of life. If your goal is to lose weight and it is always the focus of your attention, you tend to ignore other great opportunities as they present themselves. For these reasons, it is essential that you learn when to set some goals aside or rearrange your priorities to pursue a different opportunity.

What Are Some Goal-Setting Drawbacks?

There are some common drawbacks seen when it comes to setting and achieving your goals. The good news is that when you know what you are doing wrong, it is much easier to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again. Paying close attention to the following information can guide you to make smarter and healthier decisions the next time you set a personal goal.

  • Impossible Goals: These are goals that are almost impossible to achieve. Often these are goals that are confused with fantasies. It is essential you understand the difference between a dream and a goal. Many people initially over estimate the value of their dreams dismissing realities of others options and circumstances (i.e. asking higher prices than buyers are willing to pay for a service or for a home they want to sell. Dreaming without assessing comparative market prices is typically frustrating to the dreamer confusing the dream as being their unreachable goal. First by aligning with realities can prevent losing desired and often needed results. Seeking and relying on experts to guide and assist you can greatly save you time, money and frustrations.
  • Blind to the Big Picture: When you set a goal and then cut yourself off from any other opportunities that present themselves, you are essentially putting on blinders. It is dangerous to focus on one goal and pay no attention to everything else in your life.
  • Obsessive Goal Setting: When your life begins to revolve around a list of goals, it’s time to re-evaluate some things. Life is a process and there is nothing healthy about obsessing over a list of goals on a piece of paper. Goals are no good if you forget to live your life and enjoy the ride in the process.
  • Wasting Time: When you don’t take the time to set a goal that suits your true self, you have only hurt yourself. When you set the wrong goals for yourself, you end up wasting precious time chasing after something you don’t really want in the first place. Develop goals that are perfect for your life.
  • Depression: When you set goals that are absolutely impossible to reach, you end up spending large amounts of time chasing after disappointment. Why set yourself up for failure? When you fail to reach these goals, you sink further and further into a depression. Save yourself the heartache and develop goals that are obtainable.
  • Losing Yourself: If you end up confusing who you really are with the goals you have accomplished (or have not accomplished), then you end up losing your identity. You are not judged solely by your accomplishments in the end.

If Not Goals, Then What’s the Key to Success and Happiness?

Goals are meant to be a kind of guide in your life. The important thing to remember is that you may need to adjust those goals as your life changes and moves forward. There is more than one way to achieve success and learning to listen to your instincts can set you apart from other people. Successful people trust in themselves and understand that it is okay to experience some failures in life. The key is to pick yourself up, brush yourself off and get back into life once again. Confidence and action, added to your intellect and experience, can be an unstoppable force.

Rather than focusing on setting goals, focus on finding your focus! Focus is the ability to concentrate and place your attention on a goal. If your mind is constantly distracted or pulled in too many directions, your focus will become watered down and ineffective. In fact, if you attempt to spread your energy over too many tasks, it’s likely you won’t achieve true focus on any of them, and will likely give up before you’ve even begun.

Life is full of distractions and temptations that will pull you away from your purpose if you’re not careful. The following tips will help you to stay on track, achieve your goals and live the happy life you’ve always dreamed of.

  1. Decide what’s most important to you, then center your life in and around those items with activities that create value. FOCUS on that which you excel and achieve your greatest purpose (often being ways of better serving and benefiting others) to gain the greatest relationships and sense of value – achievement that makes you happy.
  2. Resign from any and all organizations or projects that don’t have purpose or value.
  3. Set as much of your life as possible on autopilot. For instance, set up your bills to be paid automatically online, have your paycheck direct deposited, and hire a pet sitter to come and walk your dog everyday at lunchtime.
  4. Delegate. If you can’t figure out how to do it on autopilot, think about who might be able to complete certain tasks that you do now. Then delegate everything and anything you can.
  5. Redesign your day. What takes up the most time in your day? The least? Evaluate how you spend your daily time carefully, and then reorganize it so you have time for what’s most important to you.
  6. Live in the moment. Help your mind to slow down by appreciating every moment as it comes. Even if you’re doing something you’d rather not be, simply focus and prioritize to resolve, schedule or dismiss. By living in the moment, you only think about what’s going on right now, not what you’ll be doing in 10 minutes or what needs to get done by 5:00.
  7. Spend time alone and with family. Many people cheated in life because they don’t have time to just read a book, have a hobby or simply contemplate life. Likewise, many would enjoy more time to spend together with their family. Make time for both in your life, even if it means saying no to something else.
  8. Do one thing at a time. When you try to do too many things at once, you’ll find nothing gets done very quickly or well. The idea that multi-tasking will save you time is a fallacy in most cases. By focusing on just one thing — one goal, one dream, one task at work, one child’s question, one conversation — the task will get done with more thoroughness and less stress on your part.
  9. Surround yourself with positive people. Their enthusiasm will definitely rub off on you.


Harvard Business School: Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting

ACAD MANAGE vol. 47 no. 3 422-432

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