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May 23, 2016

Goal-Setting: Benefits and Cautions

Bruce Murray

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Goals? Sure, I have them and I could more or less tell you what they are, but I didn't need to write them down like all those motivational speakers told me to do. Why? Like auditor Todd Weinman, I recoiled at the notion of being controlled – even when the "controller" is someone as likable and trustworthy as myself!

Eventually, I was persuaded to use the SMART framework for outlining my goals. This process gives me insight and clarity about where I’m heading. SMART has led me to greater achievement in less time.

SMART is an acronym for five qualities to the goals that you set. Make them Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. If the SMART concept is new to you, click here for Mind Tools' guide to using this framework and then join us back here.

There's little objection to making goals Specific, Measurable or Time-bound, but criticism abounds about Achievable and Relevant. Many people see these as unfit for keeping pace in today's "more agile environment" and just plain "dumb [… because] they act as impediments to, not enablers of, bold action."

Looking at Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, Matt Mayberry says, "Nothing they ever set out to do was realistic… in what the SMART goal-setting system says to do." He advises that, "If you aren't setting goals that scare not only yourself but others as well, then they are not big enough."

I see a spectrum. At one end are the easily achieved goals whose results are far from bold. This seems like a waste of time and energy that will only fulfill the most meager dreams. Mark Murphy cites a study showing that only 15 percent of employees agree that their goals will lead to great achievement or maximize their potential.

At the other end are the stretch-goals realized by Jobs, Musk and some others. But only 10 percent of stretch-goalers say they achieve their goals, and performance actually declines for most. A Duke University study concluded that stretch goals are most likely pursued by the desperate and embattled, "paradoxically, [those] that can least afford the risks associated with them."

Goal-stretching often leads to truth-stretching. Volkswagen installed software that detects when its engines are undergoing emissions testing. During the tests, the engines are within legal limits. When testing ends, however, the engines reconfigure and emit 40 times the legal limit of pollutants. How many Volkswagen employees do you think had stretch goals when they signed off on this system design?

Stretch goals not only induce us to lie to others, but to ourselves! When people self-report their achievement of goals, if they are not entirely successful, a significant percentage of them lie to make up the difference.

So, how far toward the stretch side should you set your goals? The psychology is tricky. Ray Williams reminds us that the brain is wired to resist behavioral or thinking-pattern changes. To avoid pain, discomfort or fear, "[the brain] becomes a demotivator," driving us back to comfortable behavior and thought patterns.

I lean toward the stretch-goal side, but it is difficult to stay motivated and focused with lofty goals that may require years to achieve. To avoid the traps that critics identify, I create layers beneath each of my goals. The layers are related, shorter-term objectives. Seeing my objectives as relevant and achievable is essential, but I agree that it's a fast-changing world. So, as I accomplish my objectives, I frequently revisit the bigger picture. When appropriate, I swallow my pride and reconfigure my objectives or even revise/abandon the goal itself. Call me Pollyanna-ish, but I'm usually okay with only meeting 90 percent of a lofty goal.

In Goals Gone Wild, Adam Galinksy writes, "Goal setting has been treated like an over-the-counter medication when it should really be treated with more care, as a prescription-strength medication."

The SMART framework clarifies my desires and prioritizes my actions. I find that, with improved focus, I achieve progress more quickly in both my personal and professional life. Formalizing my goals and objectives has both positive and negative psychological effects. I gain self-confidence as I check off my objectives and goals, but I also feel stressful annoyance when life's inevitable distractions disrupt my focus.

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4 comments on “Goal-Setting: Benefits and Cautions”

  1. There are so many advantages to setting goals in childhood; it builds confidence and self-reliance, helps to focus on what's important and can work for all areas of life: household chores, school work, healthier lifestyle, even managing time on electronic devices. Our platform walks parents and students through effective goal setting, tracks progress and rewards achievement - all online.

  2. We set goals in childhood but gradually when we grow the goals change as per the requirement.But now when i think i feel like i should have done setting goals stronger,so that i may be happy with what i have set.with the work i am doing now i think every second that i am not on track.

  3. It's a bad cycle to get caught into - thinking you should have set better goals earlier in your life. The horrible part is that it doesn't fix anything. Why not start setting new/different goals now? It's never too late. I started studying again in my late thirties - many people would have said "it's too late". Looking back now, it's the biggest gift I could ever give to myself.

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