Serious Goal-Setting

If you’ve found this article, you probably need no explanation of the power of setting goals. What is not so well-known is that a few of your goals should deliberately be very difficult.

That’s right, difficult. Just plain hard; in fact, as hard as they can be, so long as you still believe that the goal is possible. In numerous studies, research has demonstrated that effort and performance are directly proportional to the goal’s difficulty level, up to the point where the goal becomes no longer believable (at which point effort tends to cease altogether).

But here’s the clincher: Performance is maximized even when the goal is not achieved!

How is this possible? If you look closely, most things that people attempt are not truly binary, meaning they’re not measured as all-or-none, pure success vs. pure failure. Most outcomes are a matter of degree and incremental gains are key. A marathon runner may not finish her first race but she might run further than she’s ever run before. A smoker might fail to quit smoking altogether but might cut his nicotine consumption in half. A salesperson might reach only 90% of a large sales target. In all of these cases, the goal was not reached, but performance was improved.

The research thus overwhelmingly suggests a new approach to goal-setting: Set very difficult goals for yourself and then recognize and reward partial success. It’s better to earn 80% of a $1 million income goal than to earn 100% of a $500,0000 goal.

This can be hard to get used to for highly aggressive, old-school goal-setters who writhe in pain at the thought of failing to meet a goal by its deadline. Fear not. The research also shows that failure to reach the goal (regardless of whatever gains were accomplished) is still highly motivating to people, especially when you missed your goal by a narrow margin. Reaching 80% of your goal stimulates you to try that much harder next time and reinforces your overall belief in the goal’s attainability.

True, there are bigger risks when attempting bigger things. But that’s the whole point. Working to minimize risk is what it’s all about. After all, it’s the fear that creates the stress, and it’s the stress that forces the mind to adapt, coming up with ever better approaches and solutions that minimize the risk. The very act of eliminating risk is what raises us to the next level.


2 Responses to “Serious Goal-Setting”
  1. Hmmm…I like that you backed up your argument for setting aggressive goals with research. I believe there is a lot of misunderstanding, generally, about how to set and strive to reach a goal. My best outcomes have always been achieved when a strong emotion/passion accompanied logical reasoning. This leads me to believe that fear of failure and low self-efficacy (related to specific goals) are road blocks. But I’m going to think about what you’ve said here. Thanks!

  2. Harry Che says:


    Thanks for your comment. Strong emotion/passion is very important to forming a commitment to a goal. A sad mistake with many people, myself included, is that sometimes tend to plunge into action to reach a goal too quickly without doing enough “emotional work”, and the result of that is we tend to distract or derail ourselves when we are in the action phase with unnecessary emotional reasoning, which should have been done before the we commit to the action stage.

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