When Goals Backfire

If the practice of setting goals does not help you to reach them, the problem may not be you.

Bold Peak, Alaska, by Paxson Woelber
Bold Peak, Alaska, by Paxson Woelber (CC BY 2.0)

In our culture of efficiency and productivity, the idea of goal-setting is nearly sacrosanct. In order to succeed, we must set goals. Right?

Maybe not.

In “Forget Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead,” writer and entrepreneur James Clear offers three reasons why we might want to focus on creating and following systems rather than chasing goals:

“1. Goals reduce your current happiness.”

“2. Goals are strangely at odds with long-term progress.”

“3. Goals suggest that you can control things that you have no control over.” Read the full article.

His argument is compelling and worth your time. Of course, goal-setting does work for many people, but that doesn’t mean it should work for you.

Writer and blogger Cal Newport recently asked “Do Goals Prevent Success?” He cites research that suggests a “bottom-up” approach (rather than “top-down”) to planning for the future allows us to tap into our strengths and change direction as needed:

“Causal thinking has you try to draw a map to a peak in advance. Given the complexity of the landscape, this is likely to fail. Your best bet is that your map, by pure luck, happens to lead you straight to a high peak.

Effectual thinking, by contrast, has you hone your navigation skills. It teaches you how to systematically search the landscape around you, bringing along guides that know the area, and keeping your attention tuned to the tell-tale signs of elevation gain.” [emphases added] Read more

Does it work for you to set goals, or to follow a system, or both?

2 thoughts on “When Goals Backfire

  1. Great post, Lisa! I’ve never heard the time “effectuation” before, but it is exactly the kind of organic, instinctive, constantly-reassessing/learning kind of strategy/tactics that I’ve taught in the creative thinking course. Appreciate the introduction. Through the links you provided, I found the Society for Effectual Action and have already printed out several articles to read. Thank you!

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