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Setting Goals: A Blessing Or A Threat To Your Productivity?

7 min

The practice of setting goals has gained a lot of attention as of lately, getting rather positive appraisal – most of the time. A lot of us have already been introduced to the concept, at least to some extent, and probably exercised it with more or less success. So, why is it that there are more ‘less success’ situations, even though we do our best to apply this presumably wonderful scheme? Is it simply bad execution? Or is there something more behind the idea of goal setting?

Ready, Set, Goal

Let’s start with a short revision of the goal setting mechanism. Its core idea is to focus on the end effect of the task we are going to take on. The result you want to achieve should be clear, accompanied by a precise action plan that can be put in a workable time-frame, leading you to achieving said goal.

Most importantly you have to know how to measure your success. As obvious as it is, you need to know what has to be done, in order for you to be able to say “FINISHED!”, then proceeding to proudly cross out another thing from your to-do-list.

It may be also useful to refer to others and ask for feedback to keep yourself in check and on the right track. How can you keep yourself motivated throughout the process? Make your goals ambitious! Whatever you do, turn it into a challenge. Demanding tasks will simply entice you to go that extra mile – all in the name of mere satisfaction taken from getting out your comfort zone.

When talking about goal setting, it all comes down to one thing. Your goals should be SMART:


S – specific

M – measurable

A – ambitious

R – realistic

T – time bound

(Image source: Giphy)

Top that off with constructive feedback and spice it up a little bit with a challenge factor… and that’s it! As you see, it is as down to earth as one can imagine. All in all, it seems reasonable and not that difficult to follow. So, what could possibly go wrong if we implement this scheme? Well… it seems that quite a lot.

Goals Gone Wild

I couldn’t help myself but to quote here the title of Adam Galinsky’s article. This social psychologist claims that if you follow the goal setting formula without any deeper reflection it will bring you nothing but trouble. He provides some heavy arguments (based on substantial evidence) to prove his way of thinking. Although he discusses the issue from a rather organizational point of view, I believe that an individual can also take a lot from his writing. So what’s the fuss about?

One of the threats mentioned is the fact that while pursuing your one specific goal, you may tend to disregard all the seemingly unimportant issues that, indeed, may be quite influential for your general performance.

A perfect example is when one works on quantity targets – especially those particularly demanding. When not being able to meet your managers’ expectations, it may be really hard not the get tempted to sacrifice the quality for the sake of a required quota. The harder it is to reach, the bigger is the risk of becoming narrow-minded.

According to Galinsky, the problem lies in goals that are poorly defined – not just pushed to their very limit, but those that also seem to fall out of the broader understanding of a given job. This may cause other dangerous symptoms as well, such as short-term thinking, unnecessary risk-taking, or unethical behaviors. Most importantly, incompetent goal management can considerably affect employee motivation.

In short – imposed goals can quench inner thirst for success and accomplishment. From the perspective of an employee this may have a disastrous effect, leading to the frustration and, consequently, to professional burn out.

Our brains are also somewhat not capable to work the goal setting idea. It turns out that ambitious goals which involve surpassing ones comfort zone are working against our neurological setup. The reason being that we are genetically programed to avoid anything that may cause discomfort or anxiety, and considerable change always brings on the risk of something going wrong. Therefore, it seems natural that you may act resistant when faced with a task that requires you to redefine your way of acting or thinking. Subsequently, your motivation level may hit the bottom and so your productivity.

(Image source: Giphy)

This all sounds kinda frightening, doesn’t it? Fear not, there is some remedy to the maladies described above!

4 steps to make your goals more approachable

1. Work out the motivation behind your goal

The opportunity to upgrade our skills and develop professionally is something we all strive for. We eagerly hop on a quest if it yields the promise of strengthening our sense of competence. Sounds legit, doesn’t it? As far as gaining expertise is concerned, people fall into two categories:

  1. Those who strive for a boost in their performance – they will do everything to show off their skills. Such people love being scored and compared to others, and would do a lot to stand out amongst others. They want to have their performance measured and acknowledged.
  2. Those who want to achieve mastery in what they do – this group defines success in relation to their own progress. Comparing their accomplishments with the performance of others in the group may make them feel uncomfortable, and thus make them lose their motivation.

When you’re setting goals take into account what is the genuine source of your inner satisfaction – hitting the highest ranks or beating your own records? Which group do you belong to?

(Image source: Giphy)

2. Broaden the horizons

In contrast to the principles of the SMART methodology, it may be more reasonable to avoid being overly specific about your goals. Don’t forget about the long-time perspective consequences of your actions, but let yourself see more than just one approach. What at one time seemed to be the perfect solution may prove wrong after working on getting closer to your mark.

The key here is a constant reevaluation of your plans. Make them less rigid and more flexible, so they can flow with changing requirements. Pay more attention to the context and who, in the end, will check your finished task. Carefully analyze the magnitude of risk that you are ready to bear. If the level of insecurity concerning your task gives you sleepless at nights, maybe it is worth your time to redefine your goal and opt for different solutions and approaches.

3. Let loose

Setting a well-defined goal is the best way to pump up your motivation the very moment you begin working. Nevertheless, if you get too engrossed with your targets, while trying to finish everything up, it may simply kill your enthusiasm.

So, how do you keep your interest in your job? Don’t daydream! Fantasizing about the lucrative outcomes of your brilliant plan can do more harm than good. Marvelling at the vision of your imminent success is like eating the cake before you have have it. You will simply consume the effects before you produce them. It is far more efficient to shift your focus to the very process of fulfilling your objectives. Make sure that you have your goals at the back of your head, as not to lose your direction, and then just go with the flow!

4. Baby steps

Your goals should pose a challenge, but making them overly demanding can result in some serious shortcomings. Under pressure you may be taken over by your inner instinct to avoid failures at any cost. This means that you could be begin to take unnecessary risks or even straining your work ethics. What’s more, our professional life is not lined with roses – we simply cannot avoid problems or difficult situations. To not get discouraged by the daily atrocities, divide your goal into smaller steps or wins. Cherishing small yet meaningful accomplishments will keep your motivation level high throughout long-term projects!

(Image source: Giphy)

There’s no doubt that setting goals can indeed work wonders. It makes our work more transparent and organized. But you have to bear in mind that this seemingly easy to follow formulas can lead to serious negative consequences if you don’t think through your plan of action.

Nevertheless, I hope this reminder in balance is something to adopt in our daily work life. Set your goals reasonably, gain as experience as you can, and enjoy all the accomplishments – whether they’re small or big. Do you have any other ways to make your goals more productive? Let us know in the comments!