7 Mistakes to Avoid When Goal Setting
Goals are targets, milestones or results you want to achieve. They can empower you to move out of a rut and experience life more fully.
The right goals can help you create habits, practices and conditions that improve your sense of purpose and wellbeing. When you reach a goal, you shed limiting beliefs, expand your comfort zone, and make positive changes.
The fresh start effect of a Monday, the first day of the month, or a new year inspires us to set new goals. But week after week, month after month, year after year, we set goals that we soon forget. They can make us feel overwhelmed, tired, and unhappy.
We can start to think that goals don’t actually work. What’s the point in thinking about the future? Why should you care about your future self? Why not just live in the here and now? Que sera sera, whatever will be, will be.
But the future eventually becomes the present. Your actions and inactions today affect who you become and what you create over the long-term.
We don’t need to have clear goals to have success or happiness. But even when we don’t set goals, we carry them around in some shape or form. Subconsciously or unconsciously.
A goal doesn’t have to be about performing at your peak or reaching the next level. It could involve learning to do nothing, creating a simpler life, and enjoying the little moments.
Welcome to The Incrementalist. My name is Dyan Williams and I’m your productivity coach who will help you make big changes in small steps.
Before you decide that goals are bad for you or don’t work, first look at how you set them. Here are 7 big mistakes to avoid when goal setting:
Mistake #1 is setting impossible goals
Your big dream, life vision, or long-term mission can be impossible to reach now. But when it comes to goals, you want them to be within reach.
Your vision is what you wish to experience, contribute or create in your lifetime. A goal is one step, but not the only way to move toward your vision.
In a YouTube video, How Not to Set Goals, Brendon Burchard argues that SMART goals are lame. He says setting specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound goals is left brain stuff that doesn’t inspire or motivate.
He says we need to start with our moonshot dreams and set DUMB Goals: Dream-Driven, uplifting, method-friendly, and behavior driven.
Your distant goals, 5, 10, or 20 years into the future, can certainly be a giant leap from where you are today.
But to move toward them, you need to drill them down to what’s possible now. What can you do today, next week, or next month to make the impossible more achievable.
If you’re out of shape, it’s not a limiting belief to think you will not qualify for the Ironman World Championship next month. It’s a fact. You won’t be able to swim 2+ miles, bike 112 miles, and run 26+ miles in 17 hours without months of extraordinary athletic training.
Before you set your sights on your first Ironman, build up to your first long-distance, noncompetitive cycling trip.
Lofty goals can inspire and excite you initially. But if a goal is too high and you don’t believe you can achieve it, you won’t get into a state of readiness. You will struggle to start and follow through to the finish line.
A goal ought to stretch you, but not break you. To achieve your long-term mission over a lifetime, you take steps just outside your comfort level on a shorter time scale.
You set mini-goals to steer yourself in the right direction. You set progress points to make the finish line more tangible, less distant, and clearer. You focus on the next step and recalibrate as you move forward.
Mistake #2 is playing too small
Positive change involves risk exposure, like accountability, failure, and disappointment. If your goal reflects only micro-improvements that keep you in your comfort zone, you stay stagnant.
Playing too small comes from the false belief that your strengths are fixed and your weaknesses are permanent. It doesn’t open you up to growth opportunities or prepare you for challenges.
To live deeply, you can’t just protect what you already have. There is risk involved.
You tap into your full potential when you’re in a state of flow. This is when you’re in the zone, and you’re most productive and creative. To have flow, the challenge must be just beyond your skill level. This is the Goldilocks Zone, the sweet spot of difficulty, where the task isn’t so easy that you get bored, or so hard that you get anxious.
Optimal learning involves making mistakes. In a study published in Nature Communications, researchers examined how quickly AI learned assigned tasks. They concluded the optimal training level is when the computers chose the right answers 85% of the time. In other words, the ideal difficulty level is when mistakes are made about 15% of the time.
While it’s not clear how the 85% rule applies to human learning, it's fair to say you learn best when you fail some of the time.
When we play too small, our neurocircuits don’t fire up to trigger behavior. In any goal pursuit, the following parts of your brain are activated:
• First, is the Amygdala. This is associated with emotion, memory and the fight, flight or freeze mode.
• Second is the Basal ganglia. This sends signals to your muscles to initiate action or to avoid action.
• Third is the prefrontal cortex. This is for thinking, decision making, planning and other executive functions.
• Fourth is the orbital prefrontal cortex. This affects how you feel about your current state compared to the expected state when you reach the goal.
Making mistakes primes your brain to learn new things, stay alert and adjust your actions. While your daily to-dos should be doable, your goals should test limits, disrupt the status quo, and spark some doubt and uncertainty.
Mistake #3 is failing to set clear goals that you can track
Clarifying your goals and breaking them down into action steps, make them less distant and more tangible.
Writing down your goals helps you to specify what they are. You can do this in a journal, planner, or notebook or on a whiteboard.
Keep visual cues for what you really want. This allows you to filter out timewasters and use distractions more skillfully.
Clear goals create traction, improve self-accountability, and channel your focus. You build energy, endurance and equanimity in doing the work. You stop prioritizing trivial things over your main goal.
With clear goals, you can review and track your progress, daily or weekly.
It’s not about measuring forwards, which is focusing on the gap between your current state and the ideal state when you reach the goal.
Measure backwards instead, says strategic coach Dan Sullivan and organizational psychologist, Dr. Benjamin Hardy in their book, The Gap and the Gain. Focus on the gain you’ve achieved since you started working on the goal.
When you’re in the gap, you end up with failure, frustration, disappointment, low self esteem, guilt and depression. When you’re in the gain, you get success, satisfaction, confidence, high self esteem, enjoyment and optimism.
Detach from the end goal. Raise your minimum standards day by day, week by week, so the future becomes the present.
Looking back on your previous week to see the progress you’ve made gives you a dopamine hit. Dopamine is a neurochemical that motivates you for short term and long-term goals. It affects your effort, movement and action to reach goals.
Dopamine hits can become addictive and counterproductive. To keep the levels in check, you celebrate some wins, but not all, or you avoid celebrating too intensely. Maybe you just do a happy dance or say to yourself, great job.
Mistake #4 is engaging in too much positive thinking
Having a vision board with a collection of images representing your dreams - can help you clarify what you want.
Imagining success can get you started on a goal. But you also need to set conditions and design your environment to reduce friction.
If you want to eat healthier, you add fruits to your grocery list and keep them in a bowl where you see them every day. Keep potato chips off your list and out of your pantry.
You also must prepare for potential pitfalls ahead of time. Don’t wait until you’re in crisis mode to figure out how you will respond to hurdles and setbacks. Visualize how you could fail and preplan different pathways for continued action.
Visualizing failure activates the amygdala part of your brain, which plays a huge role in goal setting and pursuit. This is why procrastination stops and motivation rises when a deadline approaches.
Positive thinking creates vibrant energy and invites serendipity, luck, and the universe to do their thing. But to manifest your dreams and wishes, you also need to acknowledge negative feelings and do the work. You say yes to opportunities that put you in the right place at the right time. You show up, empty out, fill in, connect the dots, maintain momentum, pivot or follow through.
Mistake #5 is sharing your goals too freely and without discernment
Sharing your goals can bring helpful feedback, support, and accountability. It can rewire your mindset and build your confidence to accomplish the goal. But it can backfire too, especially if you share too soon, too often, and with too many people.
We not only get a dopamine hit when we achieve a goal, but also when we share them in conversations and on social media. The social validation tricks you into believing you already did the work.
The problem is talking about the goal is different from achieving it. There might even be social pressure to follow through, even when you’ve discovered the goal is no longer right for you or isn’t worth the effort and tradeoffs required.
Wishes and dreams are different from goals. They can even come up in small talk. For goals though, it’s usually better to work toward them first before you tell others about them. Talk about the progress and what you have done, not about the goal or what you intend to do. Ask for feedback and support in the goal pursuit, instead of affirmation and validation of the goal setting.
Mistake #6 is having absolute time constraints early in the process
Deadlines can help you prioritize, make progress and avoid perfectionism. But stretch goals that involve high effort, high risk, and high creativity take more time and energy than we expect.
If you’re too focused on meeting a rigid deadline, this compromises the results. This leaves no room for spontaneity, surprise, and creative flow.
When you’re in the exploration phase, give yourself flexibility. Make space to experiment with different options, test out ideas, and do the first draft or rough sketch. Take regular breaks with mundane tasks, daily rituals, or creative hobbies. Do the dishes, read a book, enjoy a cup of coffee, do some birdwatching. Be with nature without needing to label or classify what you see and experience.
You can set target completion dates to move things along. But hold off on setting strict deadlines until you’ve explored enough, the finish line is clear, and further delay will harm the results.
Mistake #7 is choosing the wrong goals
It’s often said we need to know the why behind the goal. What’s the purpose? What’s it about? But sometimes the reasons are unclear. Or there are many reasons. You really don’t need to know the why behind a goal if it feels like a calling.
A goal will not excite or engage you unless you truly want it. Your desires can change. They are trained by exposure and influenced by external sources.
In his book, Wanting, author Luke Burgis writes that what we want is shaped by mimetic desires: we choose objects due to the influence of a third party, a model or mediator of desire, or what someone else has already desired or is perceived to desire.
He says, “Thick desires are less mimetic than thin desires. They have had time to form and solidify over many years or during a formative experience that is at the core of a person’s life. Thick desires have meaning. They are enduring.”
Meanwhile, “Thin desires are rooted in ephemeral, superficial things. They’re fleeting, mimetic desires that dominate most of life when it is lived unintentionally and easily infected by mimetic phenomena.”
So, you might end up with a Bialetti moka pot, not because you love fake espresso so much, but because it showed up so many times on YouTube and Instagram.
Author Luke Burgis describes the problem of moving goalposts. He writes, “The obsession with goal setting is misguided, even counterproductive. Setting goals isn’t bad. But when the focus is on how to set goals rather than how to choose them in the first place, goals can easily turn into instruments of self-flagellation.”
You don’t set goals because you hate your life. You set the right goals to create a brighter life that is more aligned with your highest values. To design goals around thick desires, you identify your core motivational drives.
Identify which experiences are most fulfilling to you. You have motivational patterns and themes, whether it is the desire to master a skill, to achieve potential, to serve, to explore, to overcome difficulties, or to fix things.
A thin desire can be mixed in with a thick desire. Playing arcade video games can be a shallow activity. But when done intentionally and with time limits, it can be a way to enjoy nostalgia (especially if you grew up in the 1980s and 90s), tap into your inner child, or socialize in a fun environment.
Choose goals that are based on enduring desires, not mimetic desires. And remember, goals are not set in stone. Feel free to abandon your goals when they no longer serve you or your future self.
For more on how to prioritize based on your values and rhythms, check out my book, The Incrementalist. You can find it at leanpub.com/incrementalist. The link is in the show notes.
To dive deeper on the incrementalist approach to productive living, you may reach out to me for coaching or speaking events.
If you have feedback or topic ideas, drop them in the comments section of the YouTube channel or send me an email at email@example.com.
If you found value in this episode, click the like and share buttons. This will help the show grow and reach you and others. And if you want to keep learning how to make big changes in small steps, be sure to subscribe. Thank you for being with me and join me again on The Incrementalist.
Join our newsletter
Sign up to get updates on blog posts, online courses, bonus tips and exclusive access to Empower Toolkit