I’ve been reading quite a bit lately about why we should avoid goal setting. It seems to be a current theme amongst some commentators in the personal development field.
In truth, I never used to set much store by goals myself.
Maybe it’s because when I played football as a boy I was always a defender. This was at a time when defenders weren’t Fancy Dans spraying passes around and popping up in opposing penalty areas to score goals with outrageous volleys. In those days defenders defended* and that’s what I did.
Therefore, my role, at least as I saw it, and as defined by my technical limitations, was to stem creativity, block progress and ultimately to prevent goals.
Maybe another reason that I never paid much heed to goals is because when I left school I didn’t want to do what everybody else did. I took my cues from the culture I was immersed in: bands like the Clash, the Sex Pistols and the Fall, books by William Burroughs and Albert Camus, and films like Taxi Driver and Eraserhead.
All I wanted to do was buck the system and be different (although, in truth, I was lacking confidence and a bit lost at the time). In any case, I rarely looked beyond the end of the week (some might say I rarely looked beyond the end of my nose) and ambitions, plans and goals were all part of the system – restrictive and dull as far as I was concerned. So I wanted no part of them.
Or maybe it’s because of my experiences with goals when I eventually entered the corporate world, having had a few years of relative independence practising as a lawyer at the bar. I found then that I was forced to shoe-horn what I was doing into the framework of SMART goals (goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound), without any real consideration of what these goals were meant to achieve.
Anyway, whatever the reason, I’ve learned a little bit more about goals and goal setting now, so I’ve had a change of heart.
Therefore, in this post and in some more to follow, I’ll take a look at what goals are really all about, why they most definitely are not a waste of time and why they are such a valuable tool in any personal or professional development strategy.
The first point to understand is that we are all goal focused organisms. Goals direct our conscious actions and also many of our unconscious actions. If you don’t believe this, just consider one part of what I was doing when I was trying to buck the system in my youth.
I had a band. Therefore, from time to time I’d have to drag myself off the sofa to go and buy some new guitar strings. This would involve walking to the bus stop, getting on the bus when it arrived and making sure I paid the correct fare. I’d have to keep a look out for my stop so that I didn’t miss it and then make sure I got off the bus at the right place. I’d need to remember to get some cash from the bank, then I’d make my way to the shop, avoiding the traffic as I crossed the street. I might then try to persuade Keith behind the counter to let me play the Fender Telecaster on display that was just like Joe Strummer’s. If I was lucky and Keith came up trumps, I’d then have to decide what, from my limited repertoire, was likely to be the least embarrassing thing for me to play. Eventually I’d buy the strings and head home.**
So, the most mundane of tasks actually require us to carry out a complex sequence of actions all involving goals of some kind, many of which we are not even aware of, and all in the service of some higher order values-driven needs or goals. In my case, the higher order goals directing my actions involved making sure I was properly equipped to play music, so that I could rehearse, play gigs and eventually get a record deal and make it big.
Of course, goals do need to be grounded in reality if they are to be achieved, which is why I’m now a coach, rather than an ageing rock star.
In the corporate world the SMART goals paradigm is all that most people know about goals. It has therefore become the be-all and end-all of goal setting, when it fact it represents a very small part of the thinking that needs to go into the process.
As a result, goals, objectives, KPIs – whatever they are dressed up as – very often become dead weights dragging people down, rather than the motivational, performance enhancing tools that they ought to be. This is one of the main reasons that people end up thinking that goals don’t work.
Goals in fact are much more than just mechanisms for achieving things. They have been called “internal representations of desired states or outcomes” (Austin and Vancouver, 1996) and, because of the complexity and variety inherent in the whole idea of goals, they can provide us with a framework for understanding human desires, motives and behaviours.
In fact, it is misleading to talk of goals as if they are just a one dimensional concept, which is very often what those who criticise goals will do. There are more than twenty different types of goals and the benefits goals can provide us depend upon selecting the right kinds of goals for the specific circumstances you are dealing with. So, to suggest that goals are counter-productive when it comes to making long term progress, is in my view, like suggesting that brushes are ineffective because you can’t paint a watercolour with a hairbrush.
So for my part, whereas before I certainly did consider goal setting to be a waste of time, I’ve now come to understand the real value that well-set goals can have, as the focus for values-based, self-regulated development.
I also think I’ve grown up a bit (although my wife might not agree with that statement).
Next up I’ll look beyond the SMART goals construct to see how to make goals actually work for us:
The essential but often missing step in goal pursuit
Austin, James T., and Jeffrey B. Vancouver. “Goal constructs in psychology: Structure, process, and content.” Psychological bulletin 120.3 (1996): 338.
Grant, A. M. (2012) An integrated model of goal-focused coaching: An evidence-based framework for teaching and practice. International Coaching Psychology Review, 7(2), 146-165.
**I credit Tony Grant’s teaching and scholarship for the inspiration for this post, and much of my thinking on goals. The article cited above is a tremendous explanation of goal theory. It includes the example of going out to buy biscuits to illustrate the ubiquity of goal focused activity, which was the basis of my guitar string example.
* Actually some defenders of that era could play. Bobby Moore and Franz Beckenbauer are good examples. Even some of my peers could too. I remember one kid I used to play against called Michael. He was captain of England at under 15 level. He was a defender too, but had more talent than anybody else I ever encountered at that level.