Four Problems with Goal Setting

In our sixteenth episode, Sofie dissects the conventional approach to goal-setting and outlines four significant issues. She explores how winners and losers can have the same goals, how achieving a goal results in temporary changes, how goals can constrain happiness, and how they can conflict with long-term progress. Sofie cites real-life examples to illustrate these challenges and suggests practical solutions, such as embracing a systems-oriented mindset, to revamp your goal-setting approach.

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Hello everyone and welcome back to Claim Your Potential, the Empowerment Podcast. I’m your host, Sofie. And in this episode, I’m breaking down four problems with goal setting.

No, I am definitely not advocating that you should not be setting goals, but what I am going to be advocating throughout this episode is that there are a lot of problems with the way that we currently set goals and the way that we currently think about goals. And those problems is often what causes us to fall short or to just feel really awful about ourselves when we don’t reach those goals.

This episode was actually inspired by my finishing the book of Atomic Habits, which is a really fantastic read. I highly recommend it. And in that book, they break down how to form habits, not through saying, “Oh, I’m just going to go to the gym more,” but rather coming up with systems of improvement. And they also talk about goals and the different areas that we go wrong in when it comes to goal setting. And this book was such a fantastic read that I have completely redesigned my thinking around goals. And I would love to share my findings with all of you.

Problem #1: Winners and losers have the same goals

So the first problem is that winners and losers have the same goals. And so goal setting suffers from what’s called survivorship bias. And what that means is we concentrate on the people who end up winning, winning out their goals, accomplishing their goals, the survivors. And we mistakenly assume that ambitious goals, those high level goals is what led to their success. And what this causes is we then overlook all of the people that had the same objective, but did not succeed. A great example of this is when you’re applying to jobs, every candidate wants to get the job. The successful people that actually get the job, and those that don’t get the job still shared that same goal of, “Oh, I want this position.” So, therefore, we can assume that the goal is not what differentiates the winners from their losers. Because they both still have the same objective. Therefore, that can’t be the root of the problem. The problem isn’t the goal itself. It isn’t the goal of getting the job that actually gets you the job. You have to implement a system of improvements, such as redesigning your resume, taking advantage of volunteer work, or sitting in on the skills workshop. And that is how you can increase your ability to achieve your goal and go from that loser spot of not getting the job to increasing your odds to be a winner, to be able to achieve that high level goal.

Problem #2: Achieving a goal is only a momentary change

Another problem with goals is that a lot of the time when we set our goals, when we achieve it, it’s only a momentary change. So imagine that you have a really messy kitchen, living room, whatever it may be, and you set a goal for yourself, “Okay, on Sunday, I’m going to do a deep clean, I’m just going to clean my whole house,” whatever it is. And so you summon up the energy to clean to tidy up. And then, yay, your house is clean your apartments clean, momentarily, for now. But what happens when it gets messy again? You enter the same cycle of, “Okay, I have a goal this Sunday to clean again.” So if you maintain the same sloppy, messy habits that’s causing the room to get messy, that’s causing the kitchen to get dirty in the first place, then soon you’ll be in the kitchen, looking at the piled up dishes or looking at the crumbs on the counter hoping for another burst of motivation to clean, to achieve that goal. But you’re left chasing the same outcome because you’ve never changed the systems behind it, the systems that contribute to you having to set that goal in the first place, to why you aren’t able to always accomplish that goal and why you have to keep going around in a circle.

And so a lot of the time when we’re setting goals, we treat our goals as treating the symptom without actually addressing the cause. It’s we almost treat it like a medical issue rather than a public health issue. I think that’s the best way to describe. Maybe that’s just my human services background coming out. But when you treat something with a medical model, it means you’re treating the symptoms, you’re treating, “Okay, I don’t take time to put things in their proper place. Therefore, it’s causing my kitchen to get messy. Therefore, I have to clean.” Rather the public health model of addressing the larger issue of the problem, addressing the cause rather than the symptoms is okay, and working backwards and going, “All right, I have this goal of having a clean space. And the way I’m doing that is by cleaning every Sunday, but why am I cleaning every Sunday? It’s because I’m not putting away stuff as soon as I’m done using it.” So maybe rather than just cleaning every single Sunday, I should just be maintaining a general level of cleanliness to where I don’t have to do major deep cleans that feels so overwhelming, every single week.

And so when you’re achieving a symptom addressing goal, achieving that goal only changes your life for a moment. And that’s the counterintuitive thing about improvement, is we need to change our results, we think we need to change our results. But in actuality, the results are not the problem. It is what’s leading to us wanting to change our results. And so we need to change the systems that cause those results that contribute to the problem in order to improve for good.

So when you fix the inputs, the outputs will fix themselves. And that sounds very simple. But what we do with goal setting currently and how you approach goals, is we address the output first. And we forget about the input or we try to work our way back to the input. And that’s not how we should be doing it. We need to address the start of the issue, the input first.

Problem #3: Goals restrict your happiness

The third problem with goals is that goals restrict your happiness. The assumption behind any goal, and I fall into this trap all the time, especially when it comes to going to the gym and working out, is I always tell myself, “Okay, once I achieve this goal, then I’ll be happy.” But that’s not really how life works, is it? As soon as we achieve that goal, what are we going to do? We’re going to move on to the next goal, we’re going to move on to the next part of our life of ourselves that we’re not happy with, and want to continually improve that. And then we’re going to attach that meaning of, “Okay, I can’t be happy again until I complete this.” And then it’s just a constant cycle of unhappiness, momentary bursts of gratification, but then you fall back into that hole of, “Oh, I feel like a failure because I can’t get this goal done.

And I’ve slipped into this trap so many times, because I just thought that was normal. I thought that goals were supposed to be the end all, be all. Once I accomplish this goal, life will be great. And so for years, happiness, to me, was always something for my future self to enjoy – for when I got more money, for when I was healthier, for when I had a better job or when I had more friends, whatever it was. But really, when you put your goals first, it continually puts happiness off until the next milestone.

But goals can be a make or break. Either you succeed or you miss the mark. And what happens when you miss the mark? You feel let down. You feel like I can’t do this. I don’t deserve to be happy. Why can’t I just get this one thing done? And so you mentally box yourself into a narrow version of happiness, which is a very misguided way of thinking. As it is incredibly unlikely that your actual path through life, through your accomplishments is going to match what you had in mind when you started on a goal, when you started on your journey. And so it doesn’t make sense to restrict your satisfaction to one scenario when there are many paths that can lead to that success. If I have a goal to make more money, getting to that goal is going to look very different, because there are a million different ways that I can get to that goal. And so it doesn’t always have to be what I initially thought.

And so the best way to approach this and to get out of that headspace is to develop a system first mentality. When you fall in love with the process rather than the product, you don’t have to wait to give yourself permission to be happy.

And I’ve started doing this where, for me, one of my big goals right now is to work out more. And I was so focused on, “Oh, I need to lose weight, I need to gain more muscle, I need to be fit,” whatever. And I was attaching my happiness, more specifically, to weight loss. And I was forgetting that the best part of the journey is trying out new exercise classes, feeling strong, building up your muscle, feeling like you can do anything, going to the gym, getting that routine feeling like “Wow, I’m proud of myself, I went to the gym three times this week.” That’s pretty cool. And so you have to start falling in love with the process and paying attention to your process and how that feels. Because I always feel motivated when I at least take the first step towards my goal.

And you can be satisfied any time with systems first mentality. Any step you take can just provide you with that satisfaction. And the system can be successful in many different forms, not just the one that you first thought for yourself would be successful.

The purpose behind systems thinking is simply meant to show that you’ve improved, to demonstrate improvement. And when you set out on any goal, really, you don’t need to be looking at the end all, be all. It’s not the end all, be all if you get to your goal. Rather it’s, “Did I improve at all?” And for me, instead of being so focused on, “I need to lose weight, I need to lose weight, I need to lose weight, I need to go to the gym every day, and whatever,” now my thinking is more, “You know what I went to the gym one more day than I did last week or I went to the gym for an extra hour than I did yesterday. I’m proud of myself.” And it’s that constant feeling of improvement that motivates you to actually continue with your goal.

Problem #4: Goals are at odds with long-term progress

The last problem with goals is that oftentimes goals are at odds with long-term progress. When you have a goal oriented mindset, it can create something called a yo-yo effect. And what this means is, I’ll use fencing as an example. And a lot of fencers work incredibly hard for months for competitions. But as soon as they’re done with nationals, whatever it may be, they stopped training or they become more relaxed in their training, because the competition is no longer there to motivate them. And so when all of your hard work is focused on a particular goal, what is left to push you forward after you achieve it? And this is why many people find themselves reverting back to old habits after they accomplish their goal.

If my goal is to lose five pounds. And I’m using weight as an example because it’s a goal that I’ve been struggling with in the sense that I’ve been putting way too much focus on that as my goal and not the actual process of just being healthier in my lifestyle, in my eating, and in my exercise.

But anyways, back to what I was saying. If I set a goal to lose five pounds, what happens as soon as I reach that goal? What’s to stop me from stopping my exercise routine, from stopping my eating habits that I had developed? Nothing! Because in my mind, I reached my goal, therefore, I don’t have to try anymore because I got to my goal. I did it. Now, I can just revert back to my old habits.

The purpose of setting a goal is to win that momentary gain. In the fencing example, the purpose of doing all that training is simply to win a competition when you have that goal mindset. But when you switch it over to a building systems mindset, that goal turns into, “Oh, I don’t want to just win the competition, I want to continue growing as a fencer, I want to continue so that not only can I compete but I can also feel like I am strong at this sport, that I’m not constantly having to redo training, redo everything that I’m learning, relearn some of the techniques.”

True long-term thinking is goalless. It’s not about that single accomplishment. It is about the cycle of endless improvement and your commitment to that process is what determines your progress. Not, did you reach your goal? Rather, did you try? Did you make a conscious effort to do something different with your life?

And if you’re having trouble changing your habits, the problem isn’t you. The problem isn’t because you’re not setting goals, the problem is your system. Why are you doing what you’re currently doing? Why do you want to change? How can you change? Bad habits repeat themselves again and again, not because you don’t want to change, but because you have the wrong system for change. If you’re always focusing on the output, the outcome, switch your thinking to “How do I get there? How do I feel about the steps I’m taking to get there?” And you do not rise to the level of your goals rather you fall to the level of your systems. And that is where goals go wrong. That is where at the end of the year when you’re looking through your New Year’s resolutions, you’re going, “Oh man, I pretty much didn’t accomplish any of these.” I can guarantee you the reason you did not accomplish your New Year’s resolutions is because you did not develop the systems to accomplish them.

And so I asked you this question, if you completely ignored your goals rather, you focused only on building your systems, those everyday habits that contribute to constant personal development, would you still succeed?

Going back to fencing, if you ignored your score during the competition, if you ignored the number of points that you had, if you ignored whatever your placing, your school’s placing, whatever it may be, their position in the competition, and you focused only on “How am I doing? Am I performing to the best of my abilities? Did I practice? Am I practicing? Am I making sure that I am using the techniques that I’ve learned?” Would you still get results? Would you still have success? And I think the answer to that is yes. And I think if anything, not only would you feel better about your success, but you would probably have greater success because you’re not focused on “Am I winning?” You’re focused on “Am I performing? Am I performing to the best of my abilities that I know that I can do?”


And so as I look back on my own relationship with goals and trying to change habits, whether that was setting goals for the grades I wanted in school, for the amount of times I wanted to go to the gym, for the weight I wanted, for whatever it may be, I succeeded at very few and I failed in a lot of them. And eventually, I began to realize that my results or lack thereof, had very little to do with the goals I was putting on myself and nearly everything to do with the systems I was building.

And no, I’m definitely not advocating that goals are completely useless, even though it might sound like that. Goals are great for setting direction. It’s almost like your vision statement. What is the general outcome that you want? But systems are what’s needed for making progress.

Goals are about the results you want to achieve and systems are about the processes that lead to those results. So as you’re thinking about the goals that you want over the rest of the year, the next five years, however long you want the window to be, don’t just focus on the outcome. Yes, set a general outcome, but don’t attach your feelings of happiness to that outcome. Don’t think that, “Oh, if I achieve this, then life is great. I’m a winner. And if you don’t achieve it, then I’m a loser.” Rather focus on “What am I doing to get there? How do I feel about what I’m doing to get there? Do I feel better in my work life? Do I feel better my personal life? Do I feel healthier, happier?” Yes? Great! Then me actually achieving that goal doesn’t matter. Because I’ve already made continuous improvements. And that is what matters. It’s the improvements that you make, no matter how small, no matter how large. Personal development is a slow process that involves incremental steps. It’s a very big picture process. And so give yourself a little bit of grace when it comes to setting those goals and building those systems out, because it is truly amazing what focusing on the small improvements that you make can do for your happiness and for your motivation.

Speaking from experience, I can say that I feel a million times lighter. I’m much less stressed. And I don’t beat myself up anymore for when I don’t achieve a goal. If I miss it one day, rather than going, “Oh Sofie, you’re so… Oh, I can’t believe you missed a day of writing in your gratitude journal. You’re such an awful person. I can’t believe it. You’re never gonna get this goal done.” Rather, I continue to focus on, “Hey, you did six days of writing in your gratitude journal. That’s pretty impressive. Yes, you missed the day, but guess what, tomorrow’s a new day and you can keep writing in it.”

And I’ll leave you all with this quote, “Value the road over the goal. It’s all about the journey.”

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