Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Problem With Goals

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By Mark Sanborn

There are problems with goals. Suggesting that is heresy to many.

Goal setting has been such an important concept in the vernacular of success that some have come to view it as sacred.

Goals are good, but there are some often ignored downsides. Technology is good but can be used for bad. Food is good, but eat too much of even the best foods and you'll experience problems. Once you know about the risks, you can deal with them.

Just as Socrates said that the unexamined life isn't worth living, the unexamined use of goals can prevent us from achieving the success we desire.

Let's start with a look at the positive aspects of goals. They give us something to aim for. Assuming what we're aiming for is worth hitting, that much is good. Goals bring focus and structure to business and life. They allow us to benchmark progress or regress, and increase the odds of achieving success intentionally rather than accidentally.

Goals should guide us, but they should never control us. That's one potential problem with goals. It is possible to go from goal-oriented to goal-obsessed. Rather than controlling our goals, our goals control us. When we become fixated, we risk paying too much to achieve a goal, or even lose sight of the reason behind the objective.

One benefit of goal-setting is what we become in the process, whether or not we achieve the goal. I would argue we often learn more from failed attempts than successes.

I believe goals can and sometimes should evolve. While I'm not an advocate of purposeless activity, I do believe, as the old saying goes, that luck favors momentum. I think it better to be in the ocean splashing around than sitting on the beach planning a swim.

Many of the best things that have happened in my life have evolved. I have always been goal-directed, but never goal obsessed. On the few instances where I wanted a goal too much, I found myself disheartened and bitter when I didn't achieve it. Oddly, once I relaxed my grip on that type of goal, I often achieved it at a later-and better-time. And the goals I didn't achieve I often found to be far less important than I had imagined.

Another problem with goals is that they really don't motivate us. The purpose of the aspiration is what powers us; the motivation is in the reason for the goal.

I could give you a goal to earn a million dollars in the next 12 months and it would have little power in your life unless you had a compelling reason to do so.

If, however, you had a son or daughter who needed a life-saving medical procedure not covered by insurance that cost $1 million, you would suddenly and surely be motivated to achieve that objective.

We need to make sure that the reasons for setting a goal are sufficient to motivate us. Compelling reasons result in completed goals.

Can goals hinder performance?

Consider this: what happens if you achieve your goals for the year by the middle of the year? What do you do for the rest of the year? There is something about the security of the achieved goal and human nature that causes us to relax a bit and lift off the gas pedal of achievement. In that funny way, goals can limit our achievement: we stop at goal achievement without achieving our true potential.
If we don't set them high enough, we achieve them too easily and too soon. As a result we miss achieving more and learning more through the process.

Of course if you set a goal too high, you'll be demoralized. When you realize your goal is unrealistic and unattainable, you'll simply quit trying. The hardest part of goal setting is balancing stretch with attainability.

One way to avoid the let-down of goals realized too early or too easily is to simultaneously pursue your potential while going after your goals. Instead of just asking yourself how good you've become, ask yourself how good you could be.

And if you get audacious aspirations - that you aren't quite sure you're capable of achieving - then include some short-term goals that will give you quick and consistent victories. These smaller goals will help you build momentum to go after the big, audacious ones.

Like any good tool used well, goals and goal-setting can enrich your personal and professional life. But the process isn't perfect and the potential problems I've outlined can help you both avoid the downsides and make better use of how you effectively use goals in your life.

Mark Sanborn, CSP, CPAE is president of Sanborn & Associates, Inc., an idea studio for leadership development. He is an award-winning speaker and the author of the bestselling books, "The Fred Factor: How Passion In Your Work and Life Can Turn the Ordinary Into the Extraordinary," "You Don't Need a Title to be a Leader: How Anyone Anywhere Can Make a Positive Difference" and "The Encore Effect: How to Achieve Remarkable Performance in Anything You Do."

His book "Up, Down or Sideways: How to Succeed When Times are Good, Bad or In Between" was released October 2011. Visit Mark Sanborn's YouTube channel at to watch his videos about how you can develop as a leader in business and life. To obtain additional information (including free articles) for growing yourself, your people and your business, visit

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