Why Setting Goals Can Be A Surprisingly Bad Thing To Do

Why Setting Goals Can Be A Surprisingly Bad Thing To Do

WARNING: Researchers from four top business schools have collaborated to show that in many cases goals do more harm than good.

But, but….goal setting is a part of life, business, success, and happiness, yes?

I set goals. I expect you set goals!

Gurus from every walk of life set goals, and urge us to as well!

So what kind of revolt against the establishment is this?

There must be some good explanation for this startling discovery.

Maybe you’re thinking this research really means something different because we’ve long been told goal setting is a good thing, RIGHT?!


According to these business school researchers, “We argue that the beneficial effects of goal setting have been overstated and that systematic harm caused by goal setting has been largely ignored,” the researchers conclude. Bad “side effects” produced by goal-setting programs include a rise in unethical behavior, over-focus on one area while neglecting other parts of the business, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation.

Their research showed that in many cases goals are not necessarily the best thing to focus on, both in a business situation and for life in general.

The danger is that by setting a goal, the goal itself becomes the desired result… even if it comes at the cost of cutting corners, taking risks, going to extremes, and doing things we normally wouldn’t.


Take for example goals on losing weight. How many of us have done some pretty extreme stuff just to get to a certain weight goal by a certain date?

We tend to choose quick-fixes like fasting, cutting out entire categories of food, and deprivation diets, only to yo-yo back to our original weight or higher because we did things that weren’t realistic over the long haul. And we probably drove our friends and family a little crazy in the process.


Goals are supposed to be S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely) so by definition are trackable and on a timetable.

But using this model means that goals come to an end.

Once the end time has been hit, you’re done whether you failed or succeeded.

However, most important goals shouldn’t come to an end. They serve us better if they become positive habits and lifestyle changes which we want to maintain over time.

For example:

‘I want to look skinny for the wedding’, vs ‘I want to live a healthier, fitter life’

‘I want to get a better job this year’ vs ‘I want to continue progressing in my career’

‘I want to spend more time with my family’ vs ‘I want to be the best spouse and parent I can be’


Yes, the very thing which is meant to inspire us can end up demotivating us!


Because we’re tempted to overestimate what we can achieve and so we set ‘stretch goals’ – which by their very nature are designed to push us to achieve something difficult.

They’re hard work and before long can feel overwhelming and unattainable.

This ends up sapping our motivation and turns into a spiral of feeling like a failure.

Did you know that 92% of people never attain their New Year’s Resolution goals? That’s a lot of failures, giving up, lost motivation and desire to try again.


Is the solution to just stop setting goals and replace them with something else?

Maybe even stop setting goals entirely?

The answer is yes, and no!

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Scott Adams (who writes the popular Dilbert cartoon strip and is a big-time entrepreneur and business writer), talks about focusing not on the goal, but the system you need to have in place.

This makes perfect sense.

Whether you call it a system, plan, or strategy, we need to focus on the steps of the journey, not the end goal itself.

And more importantly, this system should endure past the timeline set for the goal itself.

Most goals don’t have a plan for maintaining what you achieved after the end date which is why so many achievements crash and burn beyond that point. However, if you have a system in place, the system endures and your achievement is maintained.

On balance, goals are not inherently ‘bad’, they just need to have the system framework attached so we can avoid the trap of cutting corners and doing “whatever it takes” to hit the goal at all costs.

So the next time you set a goal, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Have I given myself a realistic timeframe to achieve this goal?
  2. Do I have a system in place to support me to do it the “right” way?
  3. What are the successes I can celebrate along the way, knowing they’ll offset the inevitable setbacks I’ll have too?

Ready to start hitting your goals? Go get ‘em!


  1. Forbes – https://www.forbes.com/sites/hbsworkingknowledge/2013/01/02/why-setting-goals-can-do-more-harm-than-good/#3ff4d9ee115a
  2. Inc. Magazine – https://www.inc.com/marcel-schwantes/science-says-92-percent-of-people-dont-achieve-goals-heres-how-the-other-8-perce.html
  3. Wall Street Journal – https://www.wsj.com/articles/scott-adams8217-secret-of-success-failure-1381639163?__s=2ng3msdwns9ytyhz8bwb

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