Why goal setting doesn't work

When was the last time you set a New Year’s resolution and stuck to it?


I've tried all manner of goal-setting exercises over the years and fallen off the wagon many times over. During this time, what I failed to realise is that goal-setting in the majority of cases doesn't work. And there is compelling evidence that people and organisations often fall short of reaching their goals, despite their best efforts.

Research published over the last 25 years shows that goal-setting actually hurts performance in the majority of situations. We now know that goal-setting within organisations only helps a small segment of people - those who have a high need for achievement - the other 80% find goals to be a source of stress that leads to cognitive impairment. Furthermore, goals only help when activities are routine and simple (Richard Boyatzis).

The inherent problem with goal-setting is related to how the brain works. Neuroscience research shows that there is a part of the brain, the amygdala, that works in a protective way, resistant to change. Therefore, any goals that require substantial behavioural change or thinking-pattern change will automatically be resisted. This part of the brain is wired to seek rewards and avoid pain or discomfort, including fear. And when fear of failure creeps into the mind of the goal-setter, it commences a de-motivator with a desire to return to known, comfortable behaviour and thought patterns. 

So how do we go about changing our behaviour?

1. Be intentional

People are often confused and unclear about the intentions of how they want to live and achieve. A focus on goals doesn't clarify what lies underneath. In describing goals, for example, "I want to be wealthy" or "I want to lose weight", people are often describing the symptoms or outcomes of their problems. It is important to understand the unconscious intentions, to surface the invisible.

In order to achieve a level of performance that is greater than your current performance, your vision for the future needs to be bigger than the present reality. Make your 'Why?' stronger than your fears!

2. The emotional connection

Neuroscience research shows that our behavioural learning is much more sensory, and comes from different parts of the brain; the Default Mode Network (DMN) and the prefrontal cortex. The critical first step to executing well is creating and maintaining a compelling vision of the future, that is aligned with your purpose and values. When you are able to dream, your mind becomes open to new ideas and possibilities.

If you have a strong enough why, a deep motivation, and a passion for what it is you want, you are much more likely to follow through with your actions. If you don't feel the emotional connection, it's unlikely to stick.

3. Chunking

Chunking works both ways. When setting a goal or commitment, it's important to chunk up. Ask yourself, "What's important about this?". Once that vision has been established, it's time to chunk down. Ask yourself, "What specifically..." or "where are some examples of this?".

If the goal is too big or audacious, we are likely to become overwhelmed and give up at the first hurdle. Split the goal into manageable pieces, be specific about the actions, and take small action steps every day. Practice builds capacity.

4. Accountability

The very nature of accountability rests in the understanding that each and every one of us has freedom of choice. It is this freedom of choice that is the foundation of accountability. When you understand that true accountability is about choice and taking ownership of your choices, everything changes. You move from resistance to empowerment, from limits to possibilities, and from mediocrity to greatness (Brian P. Moran and Michael Lennington, The 12 Week Year).

5. Be in the moment

Choose action that takes us into a state of flow. What is flow? Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. That moment where the ego falls away and time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one. Think of it like playing jazz - your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost (Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi).

6. Intercept the saboteurs

All of us have self-sabotaging inner voices that hold us back when changes become real possibilities. Preserving the status quo is part of these saboteurs’ job. The bigger the dream, the louder the saboteur's voice becomes. Notice when the saboteurs show up, for example, "I'm not XXX enough", "When X happens then...". Anticipate how your saboteurs might try to sabotage your actions, and intercept them.

7. Dream big

Planning your year is a good habit. It can help you become more aware of your successes and sorrows, and make you realise how much can happen in 12 months. And by learning from the past, you can plan your future in a way that ensures you don’t repeat the same patterns, and you feel more in control of your own life.

What does the year ahead of you look like? What will happen in an ideal case, and why will it be great? Write, draw, let go of your expectations and dare to dream.

One of my favourite habits is to pick a one-word intention for the year. Pick a word to symbolise and define the year ahead. You can look at this word if you need some extra energy, so you remember not to give up on your dreams.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Life Coach Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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