You’re Probably Wrong About Goal Setting

By John D. Moore

As a life coach, I’m always working with clients on their goals. It’s kind of our thing. Good coaches have a full, big toolbox to help you create important goals, get into action, and stick with them.

If you’ve done any personal development work, you have gotten hammered with the need for written, well-formed goals: “Write stuff down, or you’ll never achieve it. Make your goals time-bound and specific. Your goals must be achievable . . .”

All of that is fantastic and I will work my butt off to help my clients do or achieve whatever is important to them. However, I’ll share a secret: I’m less interested in the achievement that comes from their reaching the goal than I am in their personal transformation in the process. The side effects of setting great goals and going for them are often larger than the benefits of the goals themselves.

The Transformative Nature of Goals

I love coaching because I can watch clients transform, literally before my eyes. It’s so rewarding. I have seen clients turn around their whole lives, their self-concept, and their motivation just from working on goals that mattered to them.

How does this transformation take place? With these important points:

Clarifying and Acting from Values

I find that many people have never actually worked through what’s important to them. If you ask what’s important to most people, they might have a few stock answers, “my family,” “God,” “making a lot of money.”

We can observe what’s important to most people by the actions they take. If you set a goal to get in shape but have no idea why that’s important to you, you’re going to quit the gym. This happens with millions of people around the New Year every year.

If you were suddenly struck with a deadly disease and the only way to live was to lose 20 pounds, you’d stick to it. They “why” is apparent.

Connecting with “why is this important to me?” and acting from that brings body, mind, and spirit into alignment. You’ll feel like you’re more congruent, and there will be less uncertainty about your actions. It won’t feel like you’re driving around with your breaks on.

Knowing Your Locus of Control

When you work on your goals, you feel more empowered. You feel less like life is happening to you, and more like you are “at cause” of the effects of your life.

Locus of control is a psychological term that comes from personality psychology and denotes how much control you think you exert over your life. An internal locus of control means that you are oriented towards feeling like you have lots of control over your life. And external locus of control means that you feel as though you have almost no control.

This has critical implications for things like health. People with a strong external locus of control may ignore health advice because they feel like anything they do might be futile.

Internalizing your locus of control can have positive repercussions for many areas in your life. For example, it might make you less likely to do things that aren’t in alignment with your values that you may regret later.

Setting good goals, taking positive steps towards them, and then observing the effect can help you feel more in control of your life. You can get away from that “learned helplessness” effect where you feel like nothing you do matters. You can recognize that you matter, and your thoughts and actions matter. You can live a healthier life because of it.

Realistic and Positive Self-Esteem

Self-esteem is a bit of a tricky area. Unrealistic positive regard, in the form of narcissism, is not a good thing. But low self-esteem can also be unhealthy.

I will frequently ask my clients to reflect on their progress in a positive way. Even in the face of a setback, just the fact that someone keeps going is something to be appreciated. This keeps the self-concept positive but still realistic.

Realizing that we can achieve the things that we want, and reflecting on that can have a systemic effect on people’s psychology. I’ve seen enormous boosts in self-confidence, self-control, and overall life satisfaction even before goals were accomplished. Forward movement was necessary.

Conquering the Zeigarnik Effect

Most people, at some point in their life, have said something like, “Someday I’ll write a book.” A lot of guys will sit around on the couch scratching themselves saying, “man, I need to get into shape.” But the action never comes.

When you think about a “someday, I’ll” that you’ve had for a very long time, it probably makes you uncomfortable to some degree.

The Zeigarnik effect (pronounced zee-GAR-nik if you want to impress your friends) is a psychological principal stating that you remember unfinished tasks better than finished ones. This means that all that unfinished stuff is kicking around taking up unconscious and conscious space and making you uncomfortable.

If you’ve made a verbal commitment to something like writing that book, this adds additional psychological pressure and discomfort. Think about leaving a hundred tabs open in your web browser. That becomes distracting for you and uses up your RAM.

You can choose to close down the tab, by making a decision that you’re not going to pursue that goal. That lifts some of the psychological pressure and allows you to focus on what’s important. You also might decide that this goal is vital to you and start to make progress on it.

Either way, give yourself some psychological space to breathe.

Get Good Goals

Good goals have some characteristics. They are well-formed, they are in alignment with your values and identity, and they force you to grow.

If you’ve been through any goal-planning work, you’ve been exposed to well-formed goals. Well-formed goals are SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant to you, and time-bound. They also need to be something that you can exert control over. Further, the goal needs to be something that won’t mess up other important areas of my life.

I’ve already covered how goals need to be in alignment with your values, but how about your identity? Who are you, and who do you become when you get your goal? This is profound and meaningful work to approach. If you can answer the question, “I want to be the kind of person who …” with your goal, you’re going to be more successful.

Lastly, your goals should push you to grow. I’ll warn you that growth is never comfortable, but it’s always worth it. I know you’ve heard it a zillion times, but you have to get out of your comfort zone.

With all of this in mind, work on your goals. Align them with your values and identity. Get with a coach if you need one. Take action.

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One Response to “You’re Probably Wrong About Goal Setting”
  1. Rebecca says:

    Excellent teaching and insight. Constructive help. I enjoy reading these articles. Well written.

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