Myths and Mistakes in Goal Setting

I have recently come across some highly competent professionals who say they have become reluctant to set goals.  They don’t think that goal setting really works.

I am interested in this. I wonder if they have run into problems with goal setting because they have adopted some common, counter-productive goal setting myths. So here are some problematic but common goal setting ideas.

  1. Spend a lot of time visualising success.  A mistake.  This can actually decrease motivation –for those of us who are upbeat, imagining the wonderful outcome in detail may trick us into feeling like we have actually experienced the positive outcome, so we don’t need to do it in real life.  Or the visualisation can trigger a cynical response from our mind: ‘Yeh, Like that would happen!’ or ‘Won’t it be terrible if I don’t achieve this’. Instead, spend time making an action plan. Run through the plan in your mind to see if you can identify any likely problems that you need to deal with.
  2. Spend a lot of time getting your thinking right. Another mistake. Having confidence that you will achieve the outcome is very helpful as it encourages persistence – but this confidence only really comes from experiences of success in the real world rather than trying to persuade yourself that you will succeedwithout any meaningful evidence to back up the belief.  Instead,
    • Accept that if you move out of your comfort zone your mind is likely to start to chatter. Thank your mind for this and gently carry on.
    • Divide the steps up into bite sized manageable chunks – as you experience success your confidence will grow. And, accept that each time you move forward, your mind is likely to start chattering again.
  3. Rewarding yourself for progress – this is kind of odd.  As if you are in two parts – the part that doles out a reward and the part that does the task.  Think back – how many times do you actually follow through on this?  Do you really, genuinely only allow yourself to watch ‘Gavin and Stacey’ once the ironing is done? Does this strategy really work for you?  Are you genuinely more likely to do the ironing because you know that then you will be ‘allowed’ to watch ‘Gavin and Stacey’?  I think that this is a tiny bit psychotic (sorry)! Most of us think we will follow through with our plans to ‘reward’ ourselves but then we either just give ourselves the reward anyway (and justify it with ‘Well I have had a hard day at work and I am sure I will do the ironing later’) or we do the task and don’t give ourselves the reward (‘When I lose 5kg I will treat myself to a massage’ – Yeh right, I bet you will!). Instead, link your goals to your values. Ask yourself: What is important about this?  How does taking this action move me towards being who I want to be in the world?
  4. ‘Rewarding’* others for progress – e.g. giving a bonus. This may work in the short term but it is often ultimately de -motivating.  If an external reward is attached to something I would have done anyway, (e.g. doing my best at work) then,
    • Doing my best can start to feel like something I ‘have to do’ rather than ‘choose to do’ which is a punishing feeling
    • I stop doing my best if the ‘reward’ isn’t available
    • The ‘reward’ has to keep getting bigger for it to feel like a reward  and if it doesn’t then I will tend to stop doing my best
    • If I don’t get the ‘reward’, I feel punished

Instead, start from the assumption that your employees want to do a good job.  If possible, pay them a little over the market rate so they don’t feel taken for granted. Manage them and the organisation well, so it is easy and intrinsically rewarding for them to do a good job.  (More on this in other posts)

5. Setting challenging goals. For some personality types this works well. People who enjoy risk are motivated by ‘audacious’ goals.  These folk have a tendency to climb Mount Everest and then become motivational speakers who want to teach us ‘how to climb your inner Mount Everest’. Ignore them if you don’t have the same love of risk. Instead, set goals that feel achievable and meaningful to you.

Coming soon – more tips on effective goal setting

* A note on rewards – In this post I am using the term ‘reward’ in the way it is commonly used i.e. giving someone something external (like money or praise) when they do what you want. From the perspective of behavioural science this isn’t an accurate use of the word. There is an excellent discussion of this here

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