What’s Wrong with Goal-Setting?

Arthur Poropat
7 min readSep 27, 2022

Goals are one of the most useful tools we ever use, at once energising and helpful. At the same time, goals cause many, many problems, often producing the precise opposite of what’s intended.

For example, think about riding a bicycle. Apart from balance, the biggest challenge in bike-riding is steering to avoid obstacles. That seems easy — after all, anyone who gets on a bike has been avoiding obstacles for years, no matter how young they are — yet learner-riders commonly steer straight into obstacles. It’s as if that tree, wall, or fence had a magnetic pull upon the bike.

It’s weird and frustrating for the learner, while anyone with a slightly mean sense of humour is bound to find it hilarious, as some child rides straight into another bush. Or a tree. Or a flower-bed.

Photo by Kaur Kristjan on Unsplash

What the … ?!

While it can be amusing, it’s also bemusing because surely if you can see the tree, you must be able to ride around it! So, what is happening?

The reason for this odd behaviour is that learner-riders focus on the right goals in the wrong way.

The goal of every learner-rider is to follow the path. Everyone who has been taught English knows that ‘following the path’ is the same as ‘not leaving the path’ because ‘not leaving the path’ is a double-negative (i.e., not going where the path is not). Your English teacher probably told you that a double-negative is the same as a positive, so those two goals are the same. And not leaving the path is the same as avoiding obstacles and especially not hitting the tree.

Everyone knows that.

Everyone, except your brain.

That’s because inside your brain, a double-negative goal is never the same as a positive. Instead, your brain focuses on the basic concept, so when your brain hears ‘not the tree’ it still focuses mostly on the basic concept of ‘tree’, not the ‘not.’

How Goals Work. Or Not.

That focus is crucial because focus is central to how goals work.

Goals only work by focusing your attention, prompting your brain to call upon whatever skills and knowledge it has that are relevant to that goal. So, a goal of buying a car will prompt your knowledge of cars and where to find cars for sale, along with any skills you have in searching, advice-seeking, negotiating, etc., so you can achieve the goal of buying a car. If instead your goal is to beat your competitor to the finish line, your goal prompts you to greater effort while taking your focus away from your sore and weary muscles.

That works great when you have a positive goal, which will continue to guide your attention. If your goal is stay on the path, that will guide you along the path. But if you switch to the logically equivalent negative goal of avoiding obstacles, your brain will still focus on the basic concept, which in that case are the obstacles. Unfortunately, the more you focus on the obstacles, the more they will guide your actions. So, focusing on the obstacle leads you directly to the obstacle and not away from it. Looking at the tree guides the learner-rider to a collision with the tree; looking at the wall leads them directly to the bruises and scrapes most of us remember far too well.

That is why my sons repeatedly rode bicycles into trees and as long as they focused on the negative goal, those collisions continued. I solved that by teaching them to change their focus, to ignore the trees and focus instead on the gap between the trees. Once they began focusing on where they wanted to go, they were able to keep themselves, their bikes, and the trees undamaged.

It felt pretty good to be the wise Dad whose clever advice solved his sons’ problems. Years later, I didn’t feel quite so wise when I experienced pretty-much the same thing while learning to ride a motorbike.

Riding a motorbike in a straight line down a highway is easy. Far more difficult is the learning how to turn that lump of metal around. Whether it’s a carpark corner or a u-turn, every motor biker needs to learn how to manoeuvre in tight spaces. So of course I practised, and practice is supposed to make perfect, yet somehow I got worse and worse, struggling to stop the motorbike from falling over.

The reason was depressingly simple in hindsight even though I struggled to recognise it. It starts with the context. I had given myself a 50th birthday present of learn-to-ride course. Being 50 years old meant I had middle-aged bones. Middle-aged bones break easily, my bones break more easily than most so I very much wanted to avoid falling on the road. Consequently, I focused on the road when attempting those tight turns and the more I practised, the more I focused on the road.

In other words, I was doing the same thing my sons had been doing years beforehand, except I was looking at the road while they were transfixed by the trees. Like them, instead of looking where I wanted to go, I focused on a negative goal. That switch in focus was enough to repeatedly throw me off-balance, which meant I was repeatedly having to put my foot on the ground to avoid totally toppling.

Eventually, my instructor helmed me to recognise what I should have been doing, by giving me the same lesson I had taught my sons years before. Like my sons, I needed to focus on the path ahead, the positive goal of steering a new course, and not the negative goal of not falling on to the road.

Negativity & Fear

This isn’t just a story about the problems with teaching old dogs: instead, it’s a story about the problem with negative goals, which are only made worse by strong emotions like fear. Few things focus attention more effectively than fear, and I was afraid of falling because my weak bones are fragile. Those fears focused me on the road surface, which required a lot of training to overcome.

While riding bicycles and motorbikes are physical skills, the same thing can happen with any goal. That’s because every positive goal implies a negative goal of avoiding failure, which is anything short of the goal. The bigger the gap between where you are and where you want to be, the bigger the potential failure and the more you will be inclined to focus on avoiding failure. In turn, that means you are less likely to achieve your goal.

Surprisingly, some of the best advice for goal-setting amplifies these problems. For example, most people have encountered the SMART acronym for goals, the idea that goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. This is excellent advice when people stay focused on a positive goal but if they shift to negatives, SMART goals become dreadful. That’s because SMART-er goals provide a clearer image of the gap between the current situation and the desired outcome, revealing a full-colour picture of the failure people want to avoid. SMART goals can be as powerful as fear for focusing attention on failure, with all the bad feelings that produces.

This may sound weird if you’ve ever been to a goal-setting workshop, yet most people have experienced the downsides of SMART goals. For example, if you hated mathematics at school, it is probably because every mathematics question your teacher gave you included a SMART goal: it had a Specific and Measurable standard (there’s always a specific answer and your answer was either right or wrong), that was Achievable and Realistic (after all, your teacher taught you what you needed to know), and Time-bound (you had to finish on time). In other words, every school-level mathematics question told you precisely how wrong you were going to be.

What this means is SMART goals are not always motivating — if they were, everyone would be queuing up for mathematics classes instead of cringing about calculus. Instead, SMART goals discourage students and others, making them increasingly aware of their failures, and every failure teaches students to hate mathematics or convince them they are either generally stupid or just don’t have a brain for numbers.

The same is true for any clear, detailed goal, and any task that tells you precisely what failure looks like, whether it involves simple things like arithmetic and household repairs, or complex things like finding a job. Perhaps the worst of these goals is that depressingly clear desire to find that special someone. In each case, the clearer the goal, the easier it becomes to recognise and then focus on failure, producing greater fear and eventually, worse consequences for your well-being.

Managing the Shadow-Side

If all this is true, why is goal-setting so popular in personal, professional, and organisational development? Why is every performance management system rife with goals? Why do we hear people advocating ‘big, hairy, audacious goals’? The reason is simply that goal-setting works most of the time. In any case goal-setting itself is not the real problem: it’s the shift from positive to negative goals that does the damage.

But if every goal has its shadow, how can you fend off that negative focus?

The three most useful tricks for staying focused on positive goals all manage your mindset, but in different ways. If you are someone who habitually finds the negative in everything, you need to change your thought habits so my article on Failure Sucks: Seeing Goals Clearly will help. If you often procrastinate or feel overwhelmed by what you need to achieve, check out out Chunking to Conquer. And when the dark side of goals has you in in its group and you simply can’t focus away from the obstacles in your path, Making Fear Your Super-Power is for you.

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Arthur Poropat

Arthur’s work on personality, leadership, & performance helps people work together, bringing the best out of each other.