The Trap of Goal Setting

The trap of goal setting - introduction

Why do some people who really desire success and work tirelessly fail to achieve it? Why is it that sometimes in spite of careful planning and vigorous efforts things still don’t happen?

Sometimes it seems like people that are very clear about what they want and have very clearly outlined goals still fail to achieve worthwhile success. This in turn leads to frustration, which causes a cycle of defeat that ends up doing a lot of damage to their enthusiasm and belief in themselves. There have been many people that have tried and followed good advice on goal setting and achieving their dreams that have only ended up disappointed because, although they did everything they were told to do they did not get the results they expected to get.

Many people have read lots of books on how to succeed, how to make money, how to set and achieve goals and a dozen other promising titles. In spite of this, progress seems to be very slow if at all. What is missing? What are they doing wrong? One possible answer is that they could be spending too much time on goal setting and goal checklists.

The trap of goal setting – don’t be defined by your goals

Dr. John Elliot, author of “When Goals Fall Flat!” wrote about a man that was very successful outwardly, earning millions of dollars, but he was neither happy nor satisfied with his life as a top salesman. He said of the man “As we talked at greater length, I discovered that Henry had fallen into the trap of relying on goal setting to navigate his career and define his success — to define him.” He says he has seen many cases of such people who “get caught up creating and checking off to-do lists for all of their personal and professional responsibilities.” Whilst such people often are rewarded greatly for their efforts, it is often at the great expense of lost time with their families and lost time for themselves. Most of all, these people do not feel fulfilled with their lives. They are held captive by the perfectionism of goal setting.

There is clearly a danger in being too meticulous and planning everything to the last detail. I remember meeting a colleague one evening who told me that he enjoyed reading the articles I wrote, but he felt that they were always so serious and made it seem like life had to always be so well planned and thought out. To him, they took the fun out of life. I told him that wasn’t the idea and that I totally agreed that life should not be an affair totally full of goals, study and all with no spontaneity. There has to be room for fun, spontaneity and the unexpected to happen.

It is for these reasons that I shun books or programs that have page after page of goal setting exercises and daily checklists and benchmarks. It is like the 200 page “how to study for an exam” books that I often came across whilst studying. If you spend your time reading such a book and mastering what it says, when are you going to have the time to study? It is the same with goals. If you spend all your time writing, analysing and perfecting goals and ticking checklists, when are you going to have the time to actually achieve anything?

Some of the pitfalls

The many paths of goal setting have certain traps which you need to be aware of. Like any good thing in life, they can cause more harm than good if used in excess or not used correctly. Dr. Elliot identifies several things to beware of as you set goals: perfectionism, impatience, thinking in the future and excess planning.

Perfectionism is perhaps the most common goal setting trap. Goals, by definition are meant to be ideals. However, that does not mean that in real life things will be so ideal. They are simply a guide, and you may have to adjust to realities as you go along. As Dr. Elliot says “the real world often gets in the way.” That is fine. There is more than one way to achieve anything. Being flexible and willing to make adjustments is important.

The trap of goal setting – don’t be a nitpicker

World renowned internet expert and the developer of “Site Build It,” Dr. Ken Evoy, wrote a book called “Why People Fail.” He wrote it in order to try to explain why in spite of his company having a virtually fool-proof system that allows people to build websites that are successful and profitable, some people still failed to do so. In his book he identifies many character traits which he says are the core reasons people fail. Amongst these he identifies “the nitpicker.” He says “This person is ‘the perfectionist.’ She can miss the forest of success by spending too much time on the details of the trees.”

He adds that such a person works very well within a very organised system and makes a very good employee, but when it comes to succeeding outside the workplace things are not always so predictable, which creates a big problem for such a person. Their focus on small details and wanting to do things perfectly leaves them exhausted and makes them less effective. He advises such people to “accept that not everything is perfect. Now... where would today’s efforts bring you the most results?” The emphasis should not be on perfectionism it should be on results and making progress.

The trap of goal setting – live in the moment

Impatience and thinking in the future are related in that people that are fixated on goals are always drawing comparisons between where they are and where they want to be and they spend a lot of time thinking about the future. This is not healthy as it often means that less time is spent focusing on the present and doing what should be done now. “A funny thing about true visionaries: They don't actually spend much time thinking about the future.” They spend more time doing what needs to be done now. The future is simply there to guide, not to be a 24/7 obsession.

Lastly, excess planning can be a huge hindrance to achieving things. Follow the “ready-aim-fire” approach and not the “ready-aim-ready-aim-ready-aim…” approach as Dr Evoy calls it. There is a time for planning and there is a time for doing. One without the other is a waste of your time and energy. But be careful not to fall into the “fire…ready…aim” way of doing things either. Effective planning is still important.

The trap of goal setting - conclusion

Remember that the only place where the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, is in mathematics. In real life the shortest distance is often a zigzag and twisted line. Make goals, but be flexible and don’t be handicapped by them.

You are all you can be. Go on and be it.

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"The Trap of Goal Setting" is published with the permission of Post Newspapers Limited.

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