Is There a Downside to Setting Goals?

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I recently read an article about the downside of setting goals. To me, someone who has always abided by the virtue of goal setting—and, more specifically, the value of setting SMART goals (specific, measureable, attainable, realistic, and time-bounded goals)—this was heresy! What could the downside be?

Resolutions vs. Real Goals
Without these, reaching your goal is likely more luck than anything else. But setting both personal and business goals that are well thought out is something I’ve always preached, as well as subscribed to personally, throughout my own career.

What Could Go Wrong?
So what could be the downside of goal setting? There are a couple of concepts related to goal setting that cause concern.

First, if goals are too absolute, a “failure syndrome” can occur. For example, let’s say I’m not used to exercising, and I set a goal that I want to exercise 40 minutes every day in 2016. But then I only exercise 40 minutes four times a week. Most people would hardly consider that a failure, but it is a failure to meet my exact goal and might discourage me from further efforts for fear of additional failure.

The failure syndrome can be avoided by setting a realistic goal and a separate stretch goal, or by setting a goal range. Using the example above, if I change the goal to say that in 2016 I want to exercise three to seven times per week for 48–52 weeks, I have established a feasible range. Fear of failure becomes less of a reason not to set goals and more of an excuse to avoid seriously thinking about the direction I want to move in and what range of change I seek.

A second downside to goal setting is that goals might incline people to be overly focused on future results at the expense of present-day opportunities along the way. In fact, many people live in the past or the future and miss the whole concept of living in the present. Focusing on a particular goal for the future can blind them to an opportunity right under their nose that might not have existed at the time the goal was set.

To counter that, I would argue that you could either acknowledge that you have set the wrong goal or recognize that there is a new opportunity available. It seems like the logical thing to do is simply to change that goal and move on.

Goals for Business
Business planning starts with envisioning the future and ultimately driving toward those goals that align the present with where you are heading in business. If there is a downside to business goal setting, it might be that goals become like trees in the proverbial forest. If you get too hung up on your goals (trees), it is easy to forget about the vision (the forest). The reality is that you need to be cognizant of both simultaneously to succeed.

Joni Youngwirth_2014 for webJoni Youngwirth
Managing Principal of Practice Management
Commonwealth Financial Network
Waltham, Mass.

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