The Problem with Goal Setting

Goals are a very accepted and highly promoted way of accomplishing what we want in life.

It’s no wonder so many people advocate and practice goal-setting. However, in his book Overachievement, Dr. John Eliot paints a very different picture. In his study of high performers, he has discovered they think differently from most people. The traditional focus on goal setting is not what drives them.

He writes:

It is a myth that success is about setting the right goals and working hard to achieve them. The path to the top is rarely so direct. And the most inspired stories (coincidentally belonging to the happiest people) are about achievements that stemmed from unexpected career twists, events, and discoveries of people open to all the possibilities that life may offer them.

Does goal setting influence “success drive” (a term I use in my book, Breaking the Spell)?

Absolutely. Goals involve focusing on what you want to accomplish in the future. They’re about achieving more. It’s not that goal setting is bad, it’s just another example of the way we’ve been conditioned to always seek more.

I know I was a victim of relentless goal setting for years. I’d set a goal, achieve it, and immediately set a new goal. I was so busy looking toward the next mountain to climb that I never stopped long enough to celebrate my achievements. That constant focus on the future caused me to burn out. It was also at the root of much frustration, because I was never satisfied with where I was.

I no longer set goals.

Instead, I have a vision of what I’d like to achieve, but I leave the specifics open. I have found this allows me to be more present while still being open to growth. I don’t become so attached to specific outcomes that I drive myself crazy trying to achieve them. Yes, a vision is harder to measure than specific goals, but given my personality type, I’ve found it to be a much healthier way to manage my success drive.

Excerpted from “Breaking the Spell: The Truth about Money, Success, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”


About Debbie

Debbie worked in marketing for 32 years and ran a successful coaching and consulting business for 19. She now teaches marketing and helps people find greater happiness and success by learning how to Follow Inspiration.

4 comments on “The Problem with Goal Setting

  1. I read somewhere that creating plans is a priceless exercise (good!), but the plans themselves are useless! Seems to be true in my life 😉 I love a good plan, but have learned to really just let things flow naturally instead of forcing it.
    Plus, living ONLY for achievement of a goal leaves you unfulfilled and constantly seeking ‘the next best thing.’ Great blog post, Debbie!

  2. I love this conversation Debbie! I enjoy goal-setting, but not for the sake of goal-setting. I set goals only to give me some specific ways in which I would like to achieve or experience my vision. This is helpful for my personality. I need specific targets to move toward. I personally used to place TOO much emphasis on goals and achieving them (which caused me lots of frustration like it did for you!). A big reason for that was my lack of vision first, prior to setting goals. One way in which I see many people lose sight of the purpose of goals is to not birth goals from their vision. The difference now in my goal-setting is that I create goals from an inspiring vision that drives me and compels me, and by keeping my vision in view, I have a balanced place for goals in my life & business. Now, my vision moves me, rather than my goals. Because of that shift, I now use goals as tools that can be modified when new information and opportunities arise. Goals are no longer those “scary, serious, unchangeable, must-accomplish-to-be-happy-and-feel-successful things” :-). I am in charge of my goals rather than vice versa (aka: I lead them, they don’t lead me). A very cool shift for me.

  3. Kim,
    I totally agree. Planning helps you get clear in your own mind where you want to go. Like when you’re going on vacation. You need to plan to some degree. Where am I going? When am I going? What do I want to do? Where will I stay? But the real magic happens if once you have that plan you allow your “schedule” to unfold. There are always things you couldn’t have known about while planning that you might really enjoy. And to miss them because you’re so focused on “doing your plan” would be a waste. It’s the same in business, and the rest of life IMHO. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Sara,
    Great points and a wonderful way to use goals as guides but not let them rule your life. I think what it boils down to is this: vision is important. You have to have some greater vision for what you want out of life. And, if goals help you move toward that, okay. But the key is to remain flexible, open to change, and as you say, be in charge of the goals rather than myopically letting them run your life. Thanks for sharing! And congrats on the shift!

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