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."

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 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 and 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 succes 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?

Bruce Elkin is the author of three books — Simplicity and Success, THRIVE! and The ABCs of Emotional Mastery. He is an internationally known Personal Life Coach, and Professional Success Coach. Find out more about Bruce.