Everything You're Told About Setting Goals is Wrong

Last Updated Jun 8, 2011 6:26 PM EDT

Setting goals is a popular topic: Google lists nearly 20 million results for "goal setting" and Amazon.com lists 1,600 results for "goal setting" alone.

Clearly millions are desperately trying to achieve their goals.
Too bad most of the advice they get is wrong: Otherwise every guy would be fit, trim, erudite, wealthy, and married to Gisele Bundchen and every woman would -- well, I don't know other than I'm sure my name wouldn't show up on that particular list.

Most people fail to reach their goals -- and then beat themselves up for lacking the willpower, drive, and persistence to achieve their goals.

If that's you, stop. Now. The problem isn't a lack of willpower or drive; the problem is how you've been taught to think about goals.

For example, did you get to work on time today? Did you get the kids to their activities on time? Did you get dinner on the table and cut the grass and do the laundry and all that other stuff? Of course you did. Why?

You didn't really have a choice.

That's the main problem: Most goals give us a choice.

Tasks are what we have to do. Goals are things we want to do. That's why we fail to achieve goals. We make it to work on time because we have to; punctuality is non-negotiable. We don't make it to the gym because we don't have to; we can negotiate, if only with ourselves, and make other choices.

Other poor goal setting advice?

  • We're told, "Make goals meaningful" (the "M" in the SMART goals approach.) No goal can be "made" meaningful. A goal either has meaning or not. The more you work to find or contrive some meaning the less likely you are to achieve the goal. Face it: It's impossible to "find" the meaning in a particular goal. Meaningful goals always find you.
  • We're told, "Setting goals helps you focus." Goals tend to make an already complicated life even more complicated. Think about the last time you wrote a list of business or personal goals. When you finished did you think, "Wow, this is awesome because I have a clear direction and purpose," or did you think, "Oh crap, how will I ever get all this done?" I'm guessing you thought the latter -- if not right away, certainly after a day or two.
  • We're told, "Make goals personal." Every goal has a personal component, but it's a lot easier to achieve a goal when you share and work towards that goal with others. Watch youth swimmers: Almost every kid swims faster when part of a relay team than in solo races. Why? If nothing else, they don't want to let their teammates down. It's a lot easier to let ourselves down than it is to let others down. Peer pressure -- and peer support -- is a wonderful thing.
  • We're told, "Make goals attainable" (the "A" in SMART.) There's nothing inspiring about an attainable goal. Attainable goals are targets, not goals. "I will cold call twenty prospects today" is a target; just pick up the phone twenty times and you meet the target. Valuable, but not inspirational.
Think of it this way: Your boss tells you to finish a report by noon. Meaning, focus, personal, attainable... your boss provides all the "important" aspects of a "great goal." But anything your boss asks you to do is a task, not a goal.

Only you can set a goal. Here's a better way:

Make a list of all the things you currently consider to be goals: Career, business, personal, health... whatever. Now look at each entry. How many are really tasks? For example, basic health -- eating well, getting a little exercise, keeping your weight under control -- is a task, not a goal. Basic health should be non-negotiable. (World-class athlete? Goal. Basic level of health? Task.)

Same with career or business: The steps you take to succeed are tasks, not a goals. (If you have to work, shouldn't you get the most out of it you possibly can?)

When you turn what you thought was a goal into a task, and treat it as a non-negotiable item (like getting to work on time), completing the task will be a lot easier. That's what we're programmed to do.

I realize you'll probably end up with a seemingly overwhelming number of tasks on your list. That's okay. Cut some of the stuff you currently do that is unnecessary. You're smart. You can figure out what should go.

Then list your dreams. Review your list, think big, and pick one dream. Pick a dream that won't feel like work to try to achieve. Pick a dream you can share with someone, even if from afar. Pick a dream you would "work" for because you feel like you have to, that if you don't chase it will someday cause you to feel your life was incomplete. Pick a dream you would strive for even though the odds of success are slim.

When you have to -- when you're compelled to because it comes from inside -- then you're chasing a real goal, not jut completing a task.

When you chase a goal that comes from inside you, when you chase a goal that finds you, the effort itself becomes a reward, even if ultimately you "fail." Weed out the tasks so you can see your goals for what they really are -- dreams you will do anything to achieve.

Will you achieve the goal you choose? Maybe yes, maybe no... but at least the trying part will be easy.

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Photo courtesy flickr user jfdervin, CC 2.0
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    Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business from managing a 250-employee book manufacturing plant. Everything else he picked up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest CEOs and leaders in business. He has written more than 30 non-fiction books, including four Business and Investing titles that reached #1 on Amazon's bestseller list. Follow him on Twitter at @Jeff_Haden.