For those of you in-the-know, I’ve been making my way through 2013 without any goals. This is a complete deviation for me. Goal-setting wasn’t working all that well and I felt like an exhausted hamster – cute, fuzzy and tired of the damn wheel. What a sham the wheel is. As I continue to explore the world sans goals I keep noticing other people doing the same thing and the little cogs in my brain start winding up.
One of the things I had always relied on as proof of the the power of goal-setting was the “Harvard Goal Study”. You know, the one about the wee percentage (ranging from 1-3% depending on who you talk to) of Harvard grads who wrote out detailed goals and became infinitely more successful than all their classmates combined, or some variation of that? I took that study to heart just like millions of other people who know what SMART goals are.
As a side note, if you don’t know what SMART goals are, don’t worry. It’s all garbage anyway and won’t help you lead a more fulfilling life.
Since I’m dying to divulge some juicy information here I’ll just cut to the chase. The “Harvard Goal Study” is a sham. It never existed, like unicorns. A some point in the complex history of humankind some smart-ass made the whole thing up and caused decades of grief for millions of people, myself included. Who would do such a thing? The comical part of this story is that I discovered the truth inside an online article from… Harvard Business Review!
Despite the profound relief I felt after discovering the truth the rest of the article was equally as thought-provoking. As I suspected, reaching a goal is not without unintended consequences. Often, in the blind pursuit of our goals, we fail to notice everything else falling apart around us. This happens frequently with people who, driven to achieve financial success, neglect their families, use their friends and burn their bridges while in hot pursuit of their audacious, monetary goals. Yes, they capture the elusive flag and sometimes media attention as a result but what we don’t see off-camera is the wasteland their family and social life has become. Of course, this is not exclusive to financial goal chasers; Olympic athletes often face similar challenges.
According to a Harvard Business School working paper with the cheeky title Goals Gone Wild, goal-setting is not only overrated, it’s downright dangerous. In the abstract they state that goals create:
“… a narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas, a rise in unethical behavior, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation.”
They cite numerous examples from a reduction in personal performance to exploding cars to drive their point home. The authors of the paper, who examined a number of research studies, liken goal-setting to prescription drug use:
“… managers and scholars need to conceptualize goal setting as a prescription-strength medication that requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision. We offer a warning label to accompany the practice of setting goals.”
Basically, what I gather from this statement, is that goals are like percocet, and we all know to stay away from drugs, right? I mean, if we remembered anything at all from high school it would be this one simple thing. Unless you have a kidney stone or something, then maybe some goal-setting might be useful for you. But, only under your doctor’s supervision, ok?
All drug jokes aside, as much as I enjoy being a contrarian, it’s nice to have a little back-up when it comes to some of my more radical notions.
So now that we have established goals are the new drugs, what do we replace them with then? I’m so glad you asked because Peter Bregman, the author of the HBR article, has an answer for you:
Instead of identifying goals, consider identifying areas of focus.
A goal defines an outcome you want to achieve; an area of focus establishes activities you want to spend your time doing. A goal is a result; an area of focus is a path. A goal points to a future you intend to reach; an area of focus settles you into the present.
Areas of focus are a gentle way to steer you without the side-effect of blocking out everything going on around you. With this mindset you are open to opportunities and ideas you would have never been privy to had you been surging forward with your goal blinders on. Another nice attribute to areas of focus, is the lack of completion. At first this sounds appalling but consider the cycle of needing to set yet another audacious goal immediately after completing the last one. Or, even worse, rarely achieving your goals. I can tell you, from extensive experience, that’s a really lousy and depressing way to live.
Are there any reformed goal-setters out there? Or perhaps some die-hard goal fans? I like a good debate, so bring it on.