Why we might be thinking about goals all wrong

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Goal setting theory has always bothered me – there’s something a little artificial about it – something not entirely natural.

Take the wording in this paper, for example. Edwin Locke and Gary Latham point out that some 400 studies carried out over 25 years show that specific goals lead to better task performance than easy or vague or abstract ones.

This inference hits the target but misses the point.

Before we look at why that is the case, it is useful to note that goals are then split into extrinsic and intrinsic ones.

We try and achieve extrinsic goals to show that we are capable of doing something, or to avoid showing that we are not capable.

We try and achieve intrinsic goals because they give us feelings of mastery and control and satisfaction.

The findings from more studies is that intrinsic goals lead to longer lasting performance.

There seems to be little appreciation, however, about the nature of goals themselves.

A more useful classification of goals, it seems to me, is to think of them as simple or complex.

A simple goal might be something like hit the bulls eye four our of five times on a shooting range. A complex goal might be create a sustainable level of income for a consulting business.

What happens all too often, especially when it comes to an activity like sales, is that we try and set simple goals and targets to achieve a complex outcome.

We’re then surprised and disappointed when the results don’t materialise and get cross and angry and change people.

Perhaps the mistake we’re making is in thinking that all goals are the same and all we need to do is make them SMART – the whole specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time bound thing that is trotted out in courses.

Instead, we need to recognise the characteristics of the two types of goals and what we need to do to make progress towards them.

Take a simple goal, like getting better at hitting a target with a bow and arrow.

That is a specific goal and can be made SMART.

We can make progress towards the goal by improving how we carry out each step of the sequence of activities needed to achieve goal.

Elite athletes train until their muscles remember what to do and visualise every step they must carry out.

Finally, simple goals have an end point. We achieve them – and then that’s that. There is nothing else we need to do.

Complex goals, on the other hand are vague. They include things like living a good life, having peace of mind, and doing one’s best.

We make progress towards such goals not by following steps but by practising behaviours.

For example, we might try and learn something new every day, talk to a new person, take a different route, try new experiences.

When it comes to tasks like writing or sales, it is well known that having ridiculously low targets is a good way to actually make progress.

Finally, with complex goals there is no obvious end. When do you achieve being good? When is your business sustainable?

There is always change and we will need to adapt and discard less useful behaviours and adopt more useful ones.

Goal setting is a useful exercise. The problem is that we may be trying to adapt goals that are designed for success in fields like sport to life in general.

And life is more complex than that.

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