Why goals do more harm than good [Goal-setting]

Sports are highly competitive. I know, I get the Nobel Prize for Obvious Statements, but we take it on faith that we must push to be the best. And why not? Why go into a sport, or any activity, if you don’t plan to win? Winning is the whole point, no?

I’m being sensationalist with the title, as I don’t think goals are intrinsically harmful. With no goals, we’d have nowhere to aim. We need direction. My concerns about harm relate to how we perceive goals and the importance we attach to them.

Consider how you approach a goal in training, whether you’ve got an upcoming bodybuilding show or powerlifting meet, or a lift you really want to hit. Is it only the outcome — the trophy, the number — that matters to you? If you lose, what will your behavior say about you? When you fail, do you take it personally?

Goals, in themselves, are neither good nor bad. How you treat your goals can make or break you. We tend to measure ourselves by our ability to achieve, transforming failure into a character flaw. Focus on the number means defining yourself by your ability to achieve.

Hearkening back to Carol Dweck’s Mindset, we see that status-driven, fixed-talent mindsets revel in their natural abilities — until they come across a genuine challenge. When that happens, and it always does, the fixed thinker collapses. Convinced they can’t change, they implode. They have tantrums. They get jealous, or spiteful, or hateful. They lie about their successes and hide their failures. They quit applying themselves and stop trying.

The goal is everything. The journey is an afterthought, an annoyance, or a burden. This is the same person that wants to be lean, or strong, or rich, but doesn’t care about eating right, or lifting weights, or doing well in finance. The activity, doing for the sake of doing, is secondary to the outcome.

Psychologist Jeremy Dean of PsyBlog writes of how fantasies of future success can blind us. Positive fantasies emphasize the feeling of achievement while leaving out the work required to get there (called the planning fallacy).

Dean suggests that visualization strategies should focus on the effort require to achieve — the process, rather than the outcome. Concentrating on the process — the doing — focuses your attention on the right actions, while reducing anxiety.

Finding value in your training, training because you enjoy it, training for the sake of training, will more likely lead you to success than focusing on the achievement.

Very Zen.

We should think of goals as signposts, not yardsticks. Direction, not label. Even in competitive world of sports, there’s more of value than winning. The effort — the process of doing for doing’s sake — should drive us. We lift weights because lifting weights improves our bodies and minds. We compete in sports because playing sports is fun. Invest yourself in the activity, enjoy the activity, and focus on what you can become, rather than what you are.

I’ve had this conflict with myself over the years. When I was younger, the goal meant everything. Being big and strong meant everything. What’s the price of getting as big and strong as possible? You eat yourself fat. You experiment with chemicals. You train until you hurt and then train more, until muscles tear and joints give out. And when you get there, it’s never what you thought it would be. Humans are generally horrible at predicting our future happiness.

People who do for the sake of doing are far happier and lead far more fulfilling lives.

How important is that goal, really? So important that you no longer enjoy what you’re doing?

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4 thoughts on “Why goals do more harm than good [Goal-setting]”

  1. Completely agree. When thinking from a post perspective you generally do not just say "Winning the game in '98 was great" No. We look at the actions that we took during those times. Making the incredible plays on a whim. Executing a practiced play that succeeds against an opposing team/rival. The crowd/cheerleaders roaring for/with you as you go the distance and break through your barrier for a common goal. I, too, feel that setting our goals as "hollow" shells to pass by without stopping. Progression is the key, but only if the now is focused. Good read. Thanks for the uplifter!

  2. Good stuff. Like everything, finding balance is key.

    It seems to explain a lot about why so many top athletes fall off the wagon so to speak once they retire. The gym sessions, watching the diet etc were all just a means to an end (Olympic glory or what have you.)

  3. I guess there is complementarity between journey~destination. We cannot emphasize one without taking into account the another. Mindless (goal-less) journey is pointless even if it is enjoyable. We see a lot of people 'enjoying' in the gym, working out without purpose (goal). Also, we see a lot of athletes fixating on the goals (destinations) that they forgot how to enjoy the journey and burn-out themselves or overtrain.
    It is not either~or, rather it is both~and.

    Another interesting article on the fallacy of goal setting by Matt Thornton (Straight Blast Gym) worth checking: http://www.rawfit.co.uk/2009/12/14/the-fallacy-of

    Keep up the good work Matt!

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