How to Keep Your Goals From Taking Over Your Life

People make goals for all kinds of reasons. Some simply want to feel a sense of personal achievement, while others are trying to discover the meaning of life or make the world a better place. Sometimes, these are things we pursue in hopes of improving something inside ourselves (intrinsic goals) or things we pursue for some external reason (extrinsic goals).

Setting and achieving goals can be extremely beneficial; it creates a sense of self-expansion and connection by helping us latch onto the tangible value of life. Goals can also enhance our emotional well-being and give us a sense of autonomy and competence.

But sometimes, even goals that seem overwhelmingly positive can have negative effects.

Throughout high school, medical school, and my residency, I worked very hard. I was competitive and goal-oriented until one of my mentors pulled me aside and said, “If you keep on doing what you are doing, you will become the head of the National Institute of Mental Health, and you will hate it.”

My mentor wasn’t paying me an indirect compliment, and I may never even have made the cut; he was saying I had become so consumed with checking off award boxes and satisfying grant reviews that I had disconnected from my passion of integrating biology, psychology, research, clinical work, and the world outside psychiatry.

It took a lot of self-reflection, but I finally realized I needed to leave the safe bubble of academia and venture into a world that was more aligned with my passion.

When Goals Go Bad

Goals can become harmful when they aren’t congruous with who you are or when they’re selfish. Harmful goals can disconnect you from your true self or from a community that could help you. And if they drive you toward perfectionism rather than excellence or come at the expense of your emotional well-being, they might be doing more harm than good.

So how does goal setting change from something life-affirming into a destructive force?

Oftentimes, this occurs when your unconscious goals begin driving your behavior more than your conscious goals. For instance, perhaps your conscious goal is to find a relationship, but you end up ruining it due to your unconscious goal to manifest the sadness of a past relationship that failed.

In other cases, you end up losing your sense of self in the process of trying to achieve a goal. If a woman wants to meet someone, fall in love, and have a child, for example, she may start going out and meeting people. This is good for her and good for her goal. She’s also getting in shape, which keeps her healthy, helps her attract a partner, and supports a healthy birth.

But when the goal takes over, she may start tanning constantly or taking a slew of diet pills. At a certain point, she’s no longer interested in what’s good for her — only what will satisfy the goal.

Other times, the goals themselves aren’t harmful, but the motivation behind them is. For instance, if a person can’t confront something painful, he might try to ignore it by running from one goal to the next without stopping.

Some people never stop running, while others realize that it’s time to confront the issue and work toward more authentic, life-enriching goals.

Are Your Goals Hurting You?

There are a number of red flags that your goals are becoming harmful. Maybe you’ve hit a wall and feel as though you can’t work toward your goal anymore. Or maybe you feel like you’ve strayed from who you really are.

If you keep making the same mistakes over and over again or feel a sense of depression or anxiety, that could be a sign that your goals have morphed from something positive to something destructive. Discomfort is often a part of change and achievement, but the distress caused by negative feelings is usually a signal that something isn’t right.

If you think your goals may no longer be serving you in a positive way, there are a number of steps you can take to get back on track:

  • Reflect and manage your goals. Don’t just set goals and chase after them. Focus your energy on managing your goals so they don’t control you. Ask yourself: Does this goal fit who you are? How is it going to change over time? Is it impeding your life? Does it make you feel more or less connected to yourself and others?
  • Discuss your goals with people you trust. They’ll often have insights that you wouldn’t. 
  • Think about whom you will disappoint if you fail. Try to be compassionate, but realize that if you disappoint yourself, you’re going to have a much harder time serving others.
  • Eliminate Plan B. If your goal isn’t bringing you fulfillment, it might be because your backup plan is obstructing your primary goal. At some point, you must commit to your goals fully, so consider dropping Plan B to make it easier to achieve Plan A.

Achieving your goals and maintaining life satisfaction are not mutually exclusive. In fact, when you pursue the right goals in the right way, they should naturally support one another. In the end, it’s all about remembering that you are not your goals. Rather, your goals should be a concrete extension of your inner drive, passion, and hope.

Dr. Srini Pillay, founder and CEO of NeuroBusiness Group, is a pioneer in brain-based executive coaching, dedicated to collaborating with world-class experts to help people become unstuck and unleash their full potential by tapping into the power of their brains. He also serves as Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and teaches in the Executive Education Programs at Harvard Business School and Duke Corporate Education.