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What Most People Do Wrong When Setting Goals

When it comes to goal setting, many people consider themselves experts on the subject. In fact, if you type a search in Google for goal setting you will get approximately 98 million results. In my opinion there are really two overrated tips or ideas that people may miss when talking about goal setting. The first is somewhat part of our culture, sort of an urban myth. There is a study that was done in the 1950s at Harvard or Yale or Princeton, some prestigious university that monitored how successful they thought a group of students from a graduating class would become. Twenty years later the results showed that 3% of the class was very successful but the rest were only moderately successful. When asked what the more successful group had done differently, it was said that they had planned their goals and written down their plan on how to do it and what they wanted to accomplish.

Fast forward to a study done about eight years ago or so by a Social Psychologist at Harvard University in which the group studied a great many of those 98 million examples, anything they could find in fact and discovered that there was actually no formal record of that 1950’s study ever having been done. It has become one of those socially acceptable things that everyone knows about but really no one really knows about because it did not happen as far as we can ascertain. This Harvard Social Psychologist, Stephen Kraus, the lead author of this study did take a look at the impact of writing goals down, of sharing those goals with someone else and having benchmarks and standards to there and the last thing was the impact of doing all of that.

So a person wrote down the goals, and shared them with someone else. The measurements were written down based on how the person would get there, action plans and that sort of thing. The plans were shared with someone and that person checked in with your on a regular basis. The assumption would be that the person would always move from one step to the other and the more involved you get in the process, the better the results would be. What Dr. Kraus found out was that a funny thing happened. When the person wrote down the action steps actually got a lower level of accomplishment than those who didn’t.

Although it is great to think of goals and as a second step write them down, according to this research there is an increase in the amount of expected results a person would get. When that information is shared with someone else, it does bump up the success a bit. However, when you write down the steps, all the things that will be done the success rate actually decreases, not completely where you don’t get any results at all but the results do decrease the results you get by doing the other things.

Tunnel Vision in Goal Setting

This way of thinking is simple. If you have already decided how you will accomplish something, you have tunnel vision. What that tunnel vision does is it makes you say, “I know I’m going to get there” and as a result the rest of the world fades. You miss all the creative things, all the nuances, all the new ideas because you are so certain that you will get it done.  So the two things that people miss about effective goal setting is in placing stock in the study that never actually happened and the second is that actually writing down your goals gives you the belief that you will enhance your results but as Stephen Kraus’ research indicates that may not be accurate.

I was recently asked by a colleague, David about how often a person should set goals and how many goals they should set. Is there one goal that we should focus on until it is accomplished or should we concentrate on a list? The best approach to this depends on what the outcome is. As an example might be that we could set an idea of what we wanted to accomplish in a conversation with respect to David’s work and my work and we could have said that by the time we got finished with the interaction we wanted people to understand the challenges they may have in setting goals and some of the things to avoid and yet our relationship is strong enough that it is implied in what we do and we didn’t have to write that down or need to. We could have; however, established benchmarks and measures and all it would have done was get in the way of having a conversation.

On the other hand, one might have a goal of building a railroad from one location to another and the odds are that the big goals is there, we want easy transportation from one place to another. In this case, we might want to write that down and put in subsets of goals and how well things will have to happen, measurements and accountings to go about accomplishing the goals. It depends on the circumstances that you are trying to accomplish if there is something right now in the immediate or if it is something that’s going to require focus in a future time frame.

Spend Less Time Writing Goals

I want to mention that there is a book on the market that although I have not yet read I have put it in a place where it is next on my list to read when that time presents itself. My understanding of this book and the reason I ordered it is because it talks about the fallacy of goal setting that we have been discussing here. It talks about the challenges we may run into because we think that goal setting is so important that we waste a lot of time doing the planning, in essence planning to start to commence to get ready to begin to actually do something rather than simply getting it done and moving on to something else.

Using the analogy that people often use about NASA and their goal to get to the moon and all the steps it took to get them there. You might say that you aren’t going to the moon and so you don’t need to plan every detail. This is true but you can look at this NASA analogy in a different way, as well, in that you don’t have to plan the entire goal out step by step ahead of time. You don’t have to know all the steps in advance. When President Kennedy said he wanted to send a man to the moon by the end of the decade, nobody actually knew how to accomplish it.  They knew they had some fundamental needs such as a propulsion system, a capsule that wouldn’t burn up on reentry or freeze while in space, a navigation system, a communication system but they had no idea how to accomplish this so they figured it out. That was the reason there were so many subsequent flights so that they could find out what worked and what didn’t so they could make it better and what was needed and what wasn’t.

The point is that you don’t need to plan the entire process out in advance. It is counterproductive to put all that effort in before actually taking an action step. It’s enough to say that in this year or in the next seven months I would like to accomplish a certain task and what direction you want to go in and then making the adjustments along the way. This can be a very effective format to get to a successful ultimate outcome.



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