The (false) promise of goal setting

Sometimes, setting a goal is a way for me to figure out what is not important to me.

Goal setting is almost always an important part of what it takes to become successful. By setting important goals and milestones for ourselves, we are better able to align our actions and make incremental results toward the ultimate outcome.

A major benefit of goal setting is how it helps us prioritize how we spend our time. After all, time is the one universal resource that cannot be replenished once it’s spent and no one can get more of. With clear purpose, we are much less likely to while away the hours with mind-numbing activities.

This is not a blog refuting the benefits of goal setting or how necessary it is for high achievers. This is a blog to be mindful about how we hold this idea of “goal setting”.

An important component of goal setting is to help focus our attention and stay consistent to our goals so that we can keep making progress toward the goals we set. This assumes:

  • We are very clear and specific about what our goals are.
  • These goals are really what we want and not something we are going after because someone else / society / culture says that we should.
  • Our lives are fairly stable so that our goals are static and remain what we really want.

Goal setting exists within the space between consistency and flexibility, persistence and open-mindedness, single-minded focus and willingness to re-evaluate.

Earlier in my corporate career, I set a goal of becoming a CFO one day. Not just any CFO, but CFO of a company with a particular employee and financial profile. While I pursued my goal, I worked hard and regularly put in 80 – 100 hours a week for my employer. However, in pursuing this goal, I became blind to other things also important to me.

My vision of my life was incomplete. While I single-mindedly went after my business goals, I lost sight of my important relationships, my health, and other things that give me joy. Without consciously realizing what I was doing, I sacrificed my personal life for professional achievement. It was normal for me to leave for work before the kids get up, stay at work until 7:30 pm, and then jump back online after the kids go to bed. On weekends, I worked eight hour days rather than fifteen. While I progressively made more money and moved up the corporate ladder towards my goal, my relationships deteriorated, my kids didn’t know me, and my health was a mess.

It wasn’t until I re-evaluated my goal within the broader context of my life that I realized I was not living the life I wanted. It wasn’t the title that I really wanted. What I really wanted was the sense of control, financial abundance, and the added freedom and life choices. What I was doing definitely wasn’t giving me freedom and choices.

Another example is my goal around fitness and weight loss. I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with exercise. I don’t enjoy playing most sports but I value fitness and health. I can get myself to exercise, but it’s never something that I look forward to doing. Finally, I enjoy food too much to dramatically change my diet and transform my physique.

However, as things like CrossFit® and Peloton® enter the popular vernacular, I decided to set fitness and weight goals for myself as well. I forgot that, what I really care about for my body is physical energy, flexibility, and mobility, not numbers on a scale or how much I can bench press.

Because it’s so difficult to maintain motivation for something I am not excited about, I find myself using up a lot of willpower to exercise regularly or feeling guilty about missing workouts when my willpower runs out. As a result, most of the time, I am feeling sore either physically or mentally.

Things changed one day when I needed to file some paperwork. I found myself unwilling to stand up because I was really sore. At that moment, I experienced a cognitive dissonance – why was I putting up with soreness and guilt when what I really wanted was energy and mobility?

At that point, I re-thought my goal and decided to focus on just being active daily. Paradoxically, I started working out more regularly after I stopped beating myself up for not exercising.

As a final example, when I was younger, I spent a lot of time volunteering in multiple organizations. Whenever I joined any groups, organizations, or associations, I typically quickly got involved and took on various leadership roles. I did so because I wanted to present myself as a leader to others, which made me feel important and well-connected.

Now, I realize that many of these leadership responsibilities are sapping my energy rather than replenishing my drive. I find that it is no longer as important to me how I appear to others. Instead, it is more important to me whether I believe in the mission of the organization and how I can help promote that mission. When I further a cause I believe in, my activities feed my soul and I become even more energized. Today, I only take on leadership roles in organizations I feel passionate about.

When I struggle to reach my goals, it’s common for others and myself to encourage me to just “push through”.

And if the “hunger” is there and I truly want it, I believe that I will push through with or without someone else pushing me.

On the other hand, if the hunger isn’t there and I depend on other people’s urgings or my own shame and guilt for motivation, I need to look within myself to see if this is still the right goal for me. And, since I don’t always have the clarity of knowing what I want and how I want it, I test the hypothesis of what I want by setting goals.

So, we’ve come full circle. I believe that goal setting is an important part of achieving great things in life. The problem is, I don’t always have the clarity of knowing what I want and how I want it. What’s more, as I learn more and grow, I cannot help but change and maybe uncover better and more worthwhile goals to go after.

Therefore, I use goal setting as opportunities for discerning what really matters to me and to orient myself. I go on retreats where I re-evaluate my goals – if this goal didn’t exist, would I be setting it as my goal today? If yes, I re-formulate my strategy for reaching that goal, given what I’ve learned along the way so far. If not, I reassess whether any components of the outdated goal still resonate with me and I set a better goal than what I had before. 

I think of this process as the kaizen (continuous improvement) of iterative goal setting.

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