Do You Need to Set Goals?

If you’ve been reading personal development blogs for any length of time, you’ll have come across plenty of posts about goals. We’re all expected to have them. We’re told that having goals means we’ll be happy high-achievers, storming through life as we check off yet another item on our to-do list.

And yes, setting goals for yourself can help you to stay focused on what you want from life. It can help to counter our bias towards short-term thinking and short-term results. But even if you’ve diligently written down your goals, if you’ve created your vision board or made check-lists galore, you might still have a nagging sense that’s something’s wrong.

Here’s why:

Writing Down Your Goals Isn’t Magic

At some point, you’ve almost certainly been told to write down your goals. The theory goes that because you’ve put something down on paper, you’re going to be much more committed to it than if you’d just thought about it.
The truth is, there’s not a huge amount of actual research on this. In fact, the key oft-cited study (variously attributed to a group of Harvard and a group of Yale students) appears to be fictitious – Sid Savara has a great debunking of it on his blog:

Sometimes the study references a Harvard class of 1979, and sometimes a Yale class of 1953.  …  The premise and results were always the same.  Either this was a reproducible experiment, or something was a little fishy.

(Sid Savara, Fact or Fiction? The Truth About The Harvard Written Goal Study, SidSavara.com)

You  could sit down for an hour and write a huge list of goals: it’s easy to jot down everything we think we should do. But simply writing something down is no magic bullet.

I wouldn’t like to tell you how many times I’ve come across a list of written goals – big or small – that simply haven’t happened. My old journals and diaries are full of them. The act of writing something down can be helpful, but it’s not magic.

Arbitrary Goals Won’t Work

So why aren’t written goals working? A key problem is that we have a tendency to construct impressive lists of spurious “goals” which we don’t really care about. Here’s one from the lovely Naomi Dunford:

Here’s an actual sample of the things on my actual 100 Things To Do list from an actual (very good but sadly, I think, out of print) book:

1. Get driver’s license.

2. Get glasses.

3. Crochet a whole blanket.

4. File my taxes.

5. Get divorced. Finally.

6. Buy a Waterman pen.

7. Get personalized stationery.

8. Learn how to cook.

9. Get up to date on all my bills.

10. Buy car?

(Naomi Dunford, How to Set Unstupid Goals, IttyBiz)

Naomi goes on to explain the problems with each of these goals – traps which a lot of us fall into when we’re setting our own goals:

  • Some are completely unexciting (e.g. “file my taxes”, “get up to date on all my bills”)
  • Some are goals that she felt she should have (e.g. “get driver’s license”)
  • Some aren’t really goals at all (“learn how to cook” – how do you know when you’re done?)
  • Some involve settling for second-best (“buy a waterman pen”)

In the end, there are only a couple of goals on that top ten list which Naomi really cared about: “crochet a whole blanket”, and “get personalized stationery”.

The only gurus I can think of which would possibly include those as great goals are The Etiquette Grrls (I have both their books, they’re hilarious). The point is, Naomi picked those goals because she actually wanted to do them. Which, surely, should be what goals are all about?

What Do You Really Care About?

So the best place to start when goal-setting is to ditch the “should” and choose a few things you care about. My big three aims for this year are:

  • Getting married
  • Finishing the novel I’m writing
  • Continuing to build up my business

None of those are goals which I need to write down. I’m hardly going to get to September and suddenly think “Oh yeah, I’m getting married in a week’s time, and I forgot to do anything about that. Oops.” I’m not going to wake up one morning having forgotten all about my novel. I’m definitely not going to sit around all day, every day, wondering what I’m supposed to be doing, only to belatedly remember that I’ve got a small business to run.

Have you got any goals like that? Perhaps you wouldn’t even describe them as “goals” – they’re just what you really want to do. Maybe you’re working on a cool project, designing a website, writing a book, redecorating your house, raising a family, or doing something else awesome.

Don’t treat goal-setting as some exercise that you’ve “got” to do. Use it as a tool to help you narrow your focus in the areas which you really do care about.

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13 Responses to Do You Need to Set Goals?

  1. Jeff says:

    Learning to set goals for myself has had major changes in my life. Good article.

  2. I love goals and goal setting…as long as my clinets take action :-) I guess that’s what I’m there for.
    You’re correct that there is no magic bullet about writing down a goal. I think many have lost track that writing a goal is the first of many steps.
    Thanks for the great info!

  3. I love and enjoy setting goals…I do agree with the point raised about just writing them down isn’t enough as I have suffered from that same bout of “read my goals once in a while flu”

    I came across Anthony Robbins who described it as having impotent goals.. If we are not motviated to take action then our goasl are likely to be impotent.

    Thanks for the post

  4. Matt Maresca says:

    I have two categories of goals for myself: regular goals and dreams. My dreams are the ultimate goals for how I want to live my life. My regular goals are the stepping stones toward my dreams. By achieving many smaller goals (though some are not small at all), I know I am moving in the direction of my dreams. Thanks for getting me thinking about this again!

  5. On a quest says:

    Something must have been missing in me at birth. I struggle to find something I am even passionate about. I get out of bed because of my kids, but they are both off to college in the fall and I have no clue what’s next for me. Got any clues? How do I find the passion?

  6. Laura Barros says:

    I really like to read this kind of posts when I’m getting lost with all the things I have to do. I Keep losing track of the post it’s where I write down what I have to do, sometimes I completely forget an important task, etc.

  7. Leslie says:

    I don’t understand what you are getting at.

    You say that “finishing my novel” is a dream more so than a goal. But then never provide examples of valid goals that would help you achieve that dream. For example, “write 100 pages a week” or “have chapter 3 completed by June 5th”. If you did not set up baby-step goals, then you may easily lose sight of your dream.

  8. Carol Roth says:

    I personally think there is a big difference between a goal and a to-do list. A goal is an achievement that takes a number of small milestones to conquer. The best goals are very specific as well. Learning to cook could be a goal, but learning to cook homemade ravioli is much more achievable because it is specific.

    Buying a pen, filing taxes, getting a driver’s license are errands at best, not goals.

  9. Steve says:

    Learning to set goals for myself has had major changes in my life. Good article.

  10. Pingback: Goal Setting 101: Get to Where You Want to Be | PickTheBrain | Motivation and Self Improvement

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