Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we set goals….

People who have heard me speak know that I have a sceptical attitude toward goal setting. Here I set out some ideas and some evidence that suggests that all is not well in goal setting land…

What are your goals?  What do you mean you don’t have any goals. Shame on you! You could not be blamed for thinking it is positively un-Australian not to have a clear set of work-related or life goals.  Goal-setting has got to be the most ubiquitous and trumpeted approach to career and life success promoted over the last 30 years.  In just about every human activity we are told goal setting is the technique that will help us achieve success. Some areas where goals are really hyped include: diets, finance, job promotions, coaching, careers, and sporting performance.  The trouble is they don’t work.


At the risk of inducing a seizure amongst the goal addicted or even worse, distracting them from their precious goals, when you start looking at the hard empirical evidence, it is not difficult to find some fairly convincing reasons to suggest that goals have been uncritically oversold to employers and the public at large who are hooked on a self-improvement message.   Support for goal setting can be found in highly controlled laboratory studies where participants reliably perform better when they set or are given goals.  The trouble is, life is a not a highly controlled laboratory and as soon as you let in all the other pesky bits, it can play havoc with goals.   Mark Tubbs from the University of Missouri, writing in the Journal of Applied Psychology in 1986 examined 87 separate studies on goal setting, and found a clear pattern of results: under laboratory conditions goals work, in real-life settings, they were far less effective.


One of the central ideas in goal setting is goal commitment. Goal-setting, so the theory goes, will only be effective if you truly want to achieve your goals.  So maybe this explains why goals can be less effective in real-life settings because your commitment wanes over time.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case either.  John Donovan and David Radosovich from New York State University, report in the Journal of Applied Psychology in 1998, an examination of goal commitment and performance across 12 studies over 20 years, involving 2000 participants, and found that goal commitment accounted for next to none of the performance.


When you start looking around you find other examples that raise questions about goal setting. The obvious one is dieting. The effectiveness of good quality diets is reasonably impressive in the short term (i.e. over-several months). When you look at the effectiveness over several years, the failure rate is overwhelmingly high.


Stephen Shapiro is the author of Goal-Free Living published in 2006. It is a provocatively good read.   In it he cites survey statistics including: 41% of Americans say that achieving their goals has not made them happier; 29% think they’ve chosen the wrong life goals; and 36% say the more goals they set, the more stressed they become.  Shapiro blames his past goal-addicted work behaviour for the collapse of his first marriage.  He sets out 8 “secrets” to a goal free life that emphasise opportunity awareness, flexibility, risk-taking, reaching out to others, enjoying the present and keeping perspective.


Dwight Eisenhower, the US general said that in battle plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.  Being focussed and flexible seems to the best approach in a world that is characterised by continual and sometimes profound change. We need to loosen our ties to goals, but not abandon them altogether. There is nothing better than a goal to assist you in getting an outcome in the short-term, but once your time horizon moves out to several months, or years, chances are the original goal will not get you where you thought you wanted to go.

(the above appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2007, what follows is an afterword from today!)

I think part of the problem with many goals is that goal-setting mantras encourage us to be as specific as possible in our goals (as well as making them measurable, achieveable, realistic and time-based – the over-used SMART acronym).   In making goals highly specific there is a risk of divorcing them from the larger organising and limiting principles in our life – our General and/or Spiritual belief systems.  In the Chaos Theory of Careers terms (listen to earlier Podcast for an outline of this) it means limiting our behaviour to a Point Attractor without appreciating that it is embedded within a Strange Attractor.  In other words by conveniently forgetting the inherent unpredictability and complexity of the world, and also forgetting our inherent limitations, we are encouraged to focus on being focussed at the expense of developing flexible and creative strategies to refine, re-cast or even abandon our goals when they are no longer serving our purpose.  The trouble is without a sense of what that purpose may be we have no way of understanding at a deeper level the value of the goal, which can lead to a “what’s the point?” type self-challenge and the almost inevitable failure that follows.