Goal-Setting Flaws: Top Seven Reasons Why Most Goal Setting Does NOT Work — And What To Do About It

"Set no small goals, for they lack the power to stir our souls."
"Set no small goals, for they lack the power to stir our souls."

Goal Setting That Fails or Goal Setting That Works?


"People are not lazy. They simply have impotent goals, that is goals that do not inspire them." -- Anthony Robbins


Why Some Business and Personal Goal-Setting Works, While Some Fails

I imagine that, for many would-be goal-setters, coming to a coach seems a bit like a frustrated dieter breaking down, and signing up for Jenny Craig. Over the years, both have tried many approaches: read books, listened to tapes and CDs, and watched countless videos. But the pattern is often the same.

Goal setting and dieting efforts work, at first. Both make progress. But then, something happens, and they backslide. After chastising themselves for lacking motivation or flimsy willpower, they adversely compare themselves to those superior beings who set goals and do achieve them. Then, they buy a new book, listen to a new tape, send away for a new DVD on goal-setting—and the pattern repeats itself until the person finally gives up, or surrenders her/his goal-setting to an outside force.

The American Medical Association says that the net effect on most people's weight over 25 years of dieting is a net increase in that weight.

Is it any wonder, then, that, after big investments in time, energy, and psychic sweat, both dieters and goal-setters end up frustrated, stuck, stalled, and looking for some time-tested system that will set goals for them--and for coaches that will make them stick to them until they create the results they long for?

But is it necessary to put yourself into such a program? Is it wise? Most important, will it work? In most cases, yes! But only if you know why most goal setting does not work, and how to set and take action on goals that does work.


Seven Flaws In Conventional Goal Setting

Seven main flaws in conventional goal setting prevent people from creating the results they so deeply crave. Understanding these flaws, and knowing how to get around them can turbo-charge your goal setting process, and lead to creating real and lasting results, and the success you long for.

1. Setting process goals, rather than results goals. For example, "jog for 45 minutes every day," is a process goal. It will work fine until you don't feel like jogging. There is nothing in process goals but the process, and if you don't feel like doing the process you don't. For process goals to be effective, they must be embedded in results goals.

Even if you don't feel like jogging today, if your results goals is to, "A sub-two hour finish the spring half-marathons," you will generate much more motivational power. Instead of focusing on the process that you don't feel like doing, you focus on the result that you truly care about achieving, and then choose to "jog 45 minutes" because it clearly supports that result that excites—that motivates—you.

It is easy to see if your goal is a process or a results goal. Process goals start with verbs, action words. Results goals start with nouns, thing words. In the creating approach, process (even if it is inherently pleasant) always supports the thing you want to create: the result!


2. Setting "ideals" not "visions" as goals. The difference between an ideal and a vision is that ideals are "should" goals that you impose on yourself, and visions are "want" goals that you feel freely chose to pursue.

It's a subtle but important difference, and one that stops many would be achievers in their tracks. An ideal such as, "I should run a half-marathon," is a demand you impose on yourself. Not only does a demand not have much power, if you have even a touch of the maverick or rebel in you (and most of us do), it can easily backfire. As soon as you "should on yourself," you get your back up, and say, "No way, that's too much like work."

You can see and feel the difference between ideals (demands) and visions (desires) by trying this simple test. Take a goal, any goal, even a goal you want to achieve, and say to yourself, "I should (or must, ought, need to, have…) achieve that goal," and note how you feel.

Then take the same goal, and say, "I want to achieve that goal. I choose to achieve that goal," and note how you feel.

Ninety-nine percent of the people I've studied in 22 years of coaching report that when they "should" on themselves, they feel angry, down, and de-energized. But when they state their goal as a desire, a "want", they feel up, energized, and eager to get at it.

So don't should on yourself. Form your goals around your desires, not your demands. Choose only goals that reflect heartfelt desires.


3. Setting goals that are too vague and general, such as "be healthy." This is a good place to start. It's a concept, and conception is the first step in creating results that matter.

But to be effective, you must move your goal-setting to the next step: vision. A vision is a clear, compelling mental image of what your goal would look and feel like when you fully complete it.

Instead of "be healthy", an effective vision of "A Fit Healthy Body" would specify the success criteria for health. It would include standards of measurement such as blood pressure, resting heart rate, cholesterol ratings, white cell counts, PSA results, and hormone levels.

It would also include physical capacities such as walk 5 miles without tiring, at a brisk pace. Swim 50 lengths of the Olympic-sized pool. Dance all night and feel great in the morning. It might include weight, waist size, and BMI (Body Mass Index).

Many of my coaching clients include their biological or "real" age in their vision. And of course, a vision of a fit healthy body would include how you feel: "light, energetic, vital, relaxed and at ease with myself and the world."

Clearly specified and articulated goals like this have far more motivational power, and as you'll see next, contribute to an increase in the energy of creative tension.


4. Setting "realistic goals" instead of stretch goals. To paraphrase the great Italian strategist Niccolo Machiavelli, "Make no small goals, for they lack the power to stir our souls."

Realistic goals are important, but like process goals, they really only work when they are embedded in and support higher-order goals. It might not be realistic for you to run "a sub-2 hour half marathon," give your current fitness level, but that's no reason for not setting the goal, if you truly want to create that result.

The heart wants what the heart wants, and goal setting works best when it is heartfelt. Your goals are most effective when they reflect your heart's deepest desires, regardless of what your current situation or capacity is.

You want what you want. So acknowledge that, and acknowledge your current fitness state, and then set a series of realist goals as stepping stones from where you are now to where you want to be. Then those realistic goals can draw power not only from themselves, but also from the visionary goal that reflects your heart's desire.


5. Setting goals that are not grounded in, or even ignore, reality. Folk wisdom tells us "if your goals are not grounded in reality, you have no place to start."

To get from where you are to where you want to be, you must clearly know your destination and your starting point. But too often people ignore where they are when they set goals, or they set goals only in reaction to where they are. "I'm fat, so I should run a half-marathon." Neither approach has much power.

The great success of the creating approach is that, as well as having clear, compelling goals, you also have a clear and objective assessment of where you are, now, relative to that goal.

For example, in downhill ski racing, each racer sets clear, specific goals, not only for the race, but for each section of the race: the flats on top, the steep, fast part in the middle, and the twisting, rolling bottom section. During training they assess how they do, not only on the whole course, but on each section as well. Having this information then determines how they practice before the race.

If they won the steep, fast middle section, but were slow on the top flats, and the rolling bottom, they practice generating more speed on the flats and being more stable over the rolls. Then, hopefully, on race day they put all their practice together in support of their results goal: to win the race.

There's a bonus to grounding your result goals (visions) in current reality. The gap between vision and reality generates a useful, creative tension that can add to and extend your motivational energy. In fact, creative tension can supply energy even when motivation is missing. Together the two forms of energy greatly increase your chances of success.


6. Setting goals that are too ego-driven. While most of us set goals to achieve results that reflect well on us as persons and professionals, we must be careful not to put the cart before the horse. If our goals are primarily about us, and not primarily about the result we want to create, there is a strong tendency to go off the rails.

I worked recently, for example, with a frustrated woman writer whose goal was, "A best-selling book that will tell the story of AIDS orphans in Africa, and get me on the Oprah Show." She'd been having a lot of trouble actually writing the book.

When I asked her which of the two was the primary goal, she was confused. "What do you mean?" she asked.

"Is your primary goal to help orphans with AIDS or get yourself on Oprah?" I asked." What is your primary focus?"

She paused for a while, and then said, "I guess it's to help orphans, but I've always wanted to be on Oprah. It's confusing."

We talked for a bit, and I showed her the difference between ego-driven goals and heartfelt results goals. I showed her how they can conflict. A quick study, she quickly realized that she had been letting her ego get in the way of her heartfelt desire to help the African orphans. At the end of our chat, she was clear that the primary goal was "helping the orphans" and that's where she'd put her focus.

She also saw that if the book was successful, then she could further it's success and reach by taking steps to get herself on Oprah to tell the orphans story. Instead of a confusing, conflicting arrangement, she had re-aligned her goals into an integrated relationship where the primary goal clearly drove the action, and the secondary goal supported the primary one. From then on her writing began to flow easily and effectively.


7. Setting goals but not taking sustained action. A big disservice has been done to would-be creators and achievers by the myriad motivational schemes that claim that all you have to do is visualize, dream, or ask, and the Universe will deliver. NOT!

"A vision without action is a daydream," cautions an old Japanese proverb, and, "Action without vision is a nightmare. Even Shakti Gawain, the author of Visualization, has now apologized to followers for suggesting that vision by itself was enough to generate desired results. It is not.

To set and create effective goals/visions, you must, as we saw above, ground your vision in reality to set up the energy and framework of creative tension. And then working within that framework, you must act.

You must explore, experiment, invent, try to fail, create and adjust, and be open to surprise, novelty, coincidences, and your deepest intuitions. Creating is an experiential process. Experience and experiment come from the same Latin root, prier, "to try."

It doesn't even matter if your action works. In the creating approach there is not failure, just feedback. Create and adjust, create and adjust… learn as you go.

Creating is largely a learning experience, a trial and error process in which you teach yourself what you need to know and do to move from where you are to where you want to be. Small actions are best to start with because they have a high likelihood of success. A pattern of small successes leads to increase confidence and momentum. And momentum is another form of energy, which, together with momentum and creative tension, empowers you to overcome adversity, take action when you don't feel like it, and follow-through to completed, successful results.

An inscription found on a church in Sussex, England, circa 1730, sums up the effect of marrying goals with action:

"A vision without a task is but a dream,

A task without a vision is drudgery,

A task with a vision is the hope of the world."


Summing Up: Goal Setting That Produces Real and Lasting Results

Goal setting is a powerful tool for creating results and generating success. Studies show that people with written personal and professional goals, significantly outperform those who do not.

If you want to turbo-charge your goal setting, and ensure that you achieve your desired results, with less stress, more effectiveness, and a lot more fun, apply these seven principles to setting your goals.

1. Set clear and compelling results goals. See and feel your result as if it were fully completed. I recommend writing out your result, in the first person, present tense. Then stand up and read it aloud. If it gives you shivers, goosebumps, or makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up, it's a powerful vision of a meaningful result.

2. Make sure your goals arise from heartfelt desires, not demands. Don't should on yourself. It'll feel bad, drain your energy, and probably backfire on you.

3. Make your goals/visions as clear, compelling, and detailed as you can. Include specific success criteria. Establish standards of measurement with which you can measure your progress, and know when you're done.

4. Set "stretch" goals that far exceed your current capacity. Big goals stir our souls, and draw our best out of us. Set realistic goals only in the context of, and in support of your big, hairy, stretch goals. That'll provide you maximum motivational power.

5. Ground your goals in reality. This provides you a solid platform on which to take action. It also sets up the energy of creative tension that energized your actions.

6. Be wary of your ego. It's OK to want the rewards that come with successfully creating results, but remember it's the result that comes first, not your ego.

7. Take action. Learn from both your mistakes and successes. Build the momentum you need to work through dips, overcome momentum, and to finish fully and successfully.

If you set goals using these seven principles, you will be able to rise above your current situation and obstacles, learn what you need to know and do, and make consistent progress toward realizing your dreams.

Not only will you be better able to create the kind and quality of results you want for yourself, but you will also be better able to help others create what they want. And you will set in motion a virtuous circle in which others will help you when you need it. Together, you will not only create personal and professional results, but you may well create results that change your community, your city, and your world.

As Bobby Kennedy said (paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw), "Some see things as they are and say, "Why?" I dream things that never were and say, "why not?"

If not you, who? If not now, when?

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For more of my writing, please visit my HubPages Profile.

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Comments 27 comments

Ray Saunders profile image

Ray Saunders 8 years ago from Raleigh

This is a great advice article. I especially like the "should vs want" idea. I've always been having difficulty with the way I state my goals (shoulds). Thanks for the advice.


Bruce Elkin profile image

Bruce Elkin 8 years ago from Victoria, BC Canada Author

Hi Ray,

Yeah, the should vs want issue is a major stumbling block for many folks. It was for me, too, until I learned not to "should" on myself, other people, and the situations that troubled me. When I learned to focus on what I really wanted to create, most of my "problems" dissolved, and I was well on my way to creating the results I desired.

Thanks for your comment. Much appreciated!


VioletSun profile image

VioletSun 8 years ago from Oregon/ Name: Marie

Hi, Bruce: The stretch your goals to infuse it with passion. and the "should vs want" is good advice. I played with the word "should" and "want" as suggested, and I did feel the difference, I sat a little taller when I said "I want to lose weight," instead of "I should lose weight." The part where you advise us not to use goals that are too vague or general makes sense too! Just tonight, I had done affirmations, saying I want to be "healthy," even if

I am healthy in general, but want to feel more vital, and get rid of the little annoyances; thanks for reminding me, I have to specify as I didn't do this with tonight's earlier affirmations.

I could go and on with your article.  Its another gem!


Bruce Elkin profile image

Bruce Elkin 8 years ago from Victoria, BC Canada Author

THanks so much VioletSun. I appreciate the feedback. You've highlighted a couple of the most important points in the piece: the "stretch" goals that give power to your realistic goals. And the difference between shoulds and wants -- such a big difference. Psychologist Karen Horney once said, "If you want to get at the root of most people's anxiety and depression, 'Cherchez les shoulds!" Search out the "shoulds."

A word about affirmations. I recommend to my clients that they only affirm things that are true: results they have created, adtions they took that succeeded. Use affirmations to build authentic confidence of the "I did, I did, … I can do!" sort. Visions, as I use them, are not affirmations, because you are not telling yourself they are already true, you are "choosing" to make them true in reality through taking supportive action.

Affirmations that are not true tend to backfire. We're not stupid, and a part of our brains hears, in my case, "i'm a slim, lean, strong, handsome man," and immediately counters, "BS! You're out of shape, your gut hangs over your belt, and you haven't been skiing for 3 years! Who are you trying to kid." So, then I get stuck between my affirmation and reality.

But in the creating approach I use, myself, and with clients, you purposefully set up a gap between a vision you truly want to achieve, and the reality of where you are now, and then use the energy that arises out of that gap to make choices and take actions that move you toward the vision. Affirming the actions and results along the way helps a great deal. It is telling the truth in this instance.

So I recommend people only use affirmations after the fact, and use visions and choice before. It generates more power, and doesn't backfire on you.


VioletSun profile image

VioletSun 8 years ago from Oregon/ Name: Marie

Thanks for your response, adds more clarity! I shared one of your hubs on commitment versus discipline with family and a friend in NY, and the friend printed the article and read it while commuting in the subway and was very appreciative that I sent her your article.


Bruce Elkin profile image

Bruce Elkin 8 years ago from Victoria, BC Canada Author

Great, VioletSun. I'm glad it added clarity. ANd thanks so much for sharing my article with others. I appreciate your support. I don't think everyone on HubPages would agree with my take on goal setting, and it's weaknesses. But, I really do think people would find it easier to achieve their goals, and create what truly matters to them, if they took these points into consideration. So, thanks, again, for the support!


Ray  8 years ago

Bruce,

A fabulous article which I will frame and put on my kitchen counter.

I have noticed that traditional goal setting seems to result in emotional tension as it inherently implies that failure is a lack of motivation or desire, a very personalised orientation. The creative approach you describe seems to put the whole process in a much more proper perspective. You can buy into it without elevating counterproductuve emotions, and it helps to generate the proper emotional outlook- genunine enthusiasm.

This is the best part:

"Creating is largely a learning experience, a trial and error process in which you teach yourself what you need to know and do to move from where you are to where you want to be. Small actions are best to start with because they have a high likelihood of success. A pattern of small successes leads to increase confidence and momentum. And momentum is another form of energy, which, together with momentum and creative tension, empowers you to overcome adversity, take action when you don't feel like it, and follow-through to completed, successful results."

Thanks for a great contribution Bruce.


Bruce Elkin profile image

Bruce Elkin 8 years ago from Victoria, BC Canada Author

Your welcome, Ray. And you're right that the creating approach can transcend counter-productive emotions. In this approach, you have 3 forms of energy working for you: motivation, which comes from a clear vision, but is sometimes fickle, and fades; creative tension, which arises from the gap between vision and reality, and can work for you even when motivation fades. THat is, it works, even when you don't "feel" motivated to work. Creative tension will still operate. You will take action. And taking action makes you feel like taking more action. It creates the third form of energy: momentum.

So, equipped with all these energizing sources, it is easier to experience genuine enthusiasm, and, even when you don't feel enthusiastic, the approach still generates action and results, which renews your enthusiasm.

One more point, it's important to put this stuff into action, to try it, to learn from it, to get it into your muscles. Insight and understanding are good first steps, but teaching the process to yourself though action and feedback is key.

Cheers!


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 8 years ago from Houston, Texas

Good advice!


Shaun Lindbergh profile image

Shaun Lindbergh 7 years ago from Cape Town, South Africa

I would like to add that the most important reason people fail to achieve their goals is that they don't find out what is possible for them, they buy into conditioned or environmental limitations.

If this is true, then RESEARCH should be the real starting point in any goal setting process because research expands one's vision which in turn sparks ideas and ideas ignite desire which is the fuel that powers us towards our goals.

Research can be as simple as reading biographies of inspiring people; hey, maybe I could do that! and the fire of desire starts to burn. Check out my "how to catch your dreams" hub for more.


Shaun Lindbergh profile image

Shaun Lindbergh 7 years ago from Cape Town, South Africa

I would like to add that the most important reason people fail to achieve their goals is that they don't find out what is possible for them, they buy into conditioned or environmental limitations.

If this is true, then RESEARCH should be the real starting point in any goal setting process because research expands one's vision which in turn sparks ideas and ideas ignite desire which is the fuel that powers us towards our goals.

Research can be as simple as reading biographies of inspiring people; hey, maybe I could do that! and the fire of desire starts to burn. Check out my "how to catch your dreams" hub for more.


Bruce Elkin profile image

Bruce Elkin 7 years ago from Victoria, BC Canada Author

Hi Shaun, A very interesting, and overlooked point. THank you. I find reading biographies and memoirs very inspiring -- and I get a lot of good ideas from them! Thank you for adding this to the discussion. Much appreciated!


glassvisage profile image

glassvisage 7 years ago from Northern California

Those are fantastic and helpful tips for goal-setting. I fear I fall under the "ego-driven" one and I know I need to work on that! We use SMART or SMARTER goals to be more effective in goal-setting. Thanks for the Hub!


Bruce Elkin profile image

Bruce Elkin 7 years ago from Victoria, BC Canada Author

Thanks GV. It's hard, sometimes, to separate your ego from your goal or result, but creators learn to do. They realize that they are not their painting, or their novel, or their sculpture. They see their creations as gifts they give to the world. Sure, they may also want to get some reward in return, but if that's the primary reason for creating something, the creation isn't usually very good.

But, if a love for the creation, and a deep desire to see it exist is the primary reason for creating something, the chances are it will succeed, and the creator will reap rewards, including satsifaction, pride, fulfillment, and wealth.

I read a great piece once by a woman who wanted to make money writing "thrillers." So she analysed the best-sellers and figured out a forumla. Then she wrote a thriller using that formula. NOT published. So she wrote another. Same thing; not pubished. She wrote four of them, but none were published.

She got so mad at the publishing industry for stiffing her, that she wrote an angry and passionate memoir about her attempts and failures to break into mainstream publishing. And, guess what? Editors loved her memoir, and it got published.


DrJim profile image

DrJim 7 years ago from Oklahoma

WOW!!!! You nailed it down. Great Hub let's all keep failing forward!!!!


rockinjoe profile image

rockinjoe 7 years ago from Standing right behind you!

Bruce, I really enjoyed the hub. I've been a fan of many authors over the years, such as Tony Robbins, Brian Tracey, Earl Nightingale and of course, Napoleon Hill. Eveyone pretty much says the same thing (in a different way, of course), but you've pretty much summed up the problem people seem to be having in the traslations.

I've never heard poor goals described as "demands" before. You make a lot of sense. Thanks for the free lesson.


Bruce Elkin profile image

Bruce Elkin 7 years ago from Victoria, BC Canada Author

Hey, thanks, Joe. It's not so much that the goals are poor, but that we impose them on ourselves. We think we "should" achieve them, so we unconsciously "demand" that we do, instead of just desiring that we do. Because we are not completely in charge of reality, the difference between demanding and desiring can mean the difference between frustration (and diminished mental health) and the learning that is needed to create our results.

Demand = should, must, ought, have to, need to…

Desire = prefer, want, choose.

Big difference! In how we feel, what we do, and the results we produce.

Your comment is much appreciated!


Reynolds_Writing profile image

Reynolds_Writing 7 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

Very well written hub with extremely valuable information. I consider myself a goal oriented gal, but need to take it up a notch- especially after reading your advice.


Bruce Elkin profile image

Bruce Elkin 7 years ago from Victoria, BC Canada Author

Thanks so much for your supportive comment. I really appreciate the feedback. I hope the ideas in this hub do help you take it up a notch. All the best!


Judy Cullins profile image

Judy Cullins 7 years ago from La Mesa, CA

HI Bruce, Great hub. I use NLP too with my clients and their book project goals. Good ideas and examples!

Cheers,

Judy


Bruce Elkin profile image

Bruce Elkin 7 years ago from Victoria, BC Canada Author

Thanks, Judy. I appreciate the feedback. Cheers!


Harry 7 years ago

Thanks Bruce, this is a great post.

You may also want to try a web-based goal tracker, http://www.goalsontrack.com


Goal Setting profile image

Goal Setting 6 years ago from British Columbia

Very good list of "flaws in conventional goal setting," Bruce. I would add one more: Not identifying the habits (daily or weekly) that will move us toward the goal.

I think that while the goals need to be results driven, as you say above, every result has an underlying process or system that will bring it about. And if we never identify and plug in to that system, work the process, the goal is never achieved.


Bruce Elkin profile image

Bruce Elkin 6 years ago from Victoria, BC Canada Author

Goal Setting: thanks for the comment. You are so right about the importance of having a process, system or what I call an organizing framework that brings the result into being. I describe such a system in my new ebook Staying Up In Down Times & Beyond: Creating Resilience Results and Real Rewards - With Whatever Life Throws At You!


kims3003 6 years ago

Great hub - excellent information! Very nice writing style! A+ material!


ptmastery profile image

ptmastery 5 years ago from Australia

I think goal is still dependent with the mind setting of a person. Either you should or you want. Person's effort is one way achieving your goals. This HUB did a very nice explanation. thanks for this


Bobski606 profile image

Bobski606 3 years ago from U.K

This is some really great advice. I'm starting to plan out my goals for 2013 but I've noticed a pattern in the last few years: I only meet about 25% of my goals because I set myself up for failure. Now that I've read your hub I'm sure I can be much more successful than in previous years. Thanks again!

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