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Why goal setting is more complicated than you think

I’ve been thinking about goals – how having goals can sometimes make us feel we’re doing something important to ‘improve’ ourselves but actually, sometimes, goal setting can get in the way of change.

At first glance my comment may seem strange. After all, it seems to be a natural part of the personal development process to have goals, as it also often is in our work life or our hobbies.

But while goals can be a helpful way of motivating ourselves, they can also bring their own limitations. 

Think of new year’s resolutions – how often do we start out with great motivation but then gradually let them fade?

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear argues that goals have several limitations. These include the fact that they provide a temporary satisfaction, when we meet them, but don’t always change the underlying beliefs and assumptions that underlie the behaviour. 

He adds that goals also create an either/or situation, in which either I meet this goal and am a success or I don’t and I’m a failure.

While Clear argues that it is not goals but systems that are important in achieving improvements, I prefer viewing this subject through the context of values. In a way systems, in the way that Clear uses the term, are similar to values, i.e., the quality of action or behaviour that we are choosing to value.

Therapist Jenna LeJeune talks about this in her book Values in Therapy, noting that it is our values that determine our direction in life and that goals can be the milestones. But without values, goals can become arbitrary and sometimes even damaging, believes Lejeune.

She says: “Behaviour focussed on outcomes (goals) often has a more instrumental quality – it’s more of a means to an end. A glow such as working to obtain money or dressing a certain way to be admired often functions as a means to an end rather than something important in and of itself.”

For example, I have had a goal of getting up early to meditate and reflect before breakfast. It’s a useful goal and it has helped me develop a positive habit that nourishes me. But the goal emerged from work on my values. 

One of my values is giving myself space and time to connect with myself and to reflect. This helps me feel more centred and satisfied in my life. The goal of an early morning meditation is an expression of that value.

This means that on those days when I don’t achieve the goal I don’t beat myself up. Instead, I focus on the general direction of travel and may try and find a space later in the day for reflection. 

Despite the limitations of goals, I do find that they can be helpful in focusing attention and as a motivation in creating positive habits. We just need to acknowledge that they must be linked to deeper values or desires.

Image creative common licence, https://utechod.com/beyond-smart-goals/

LeJeune, Jenna, (2020), Values in Therapy, Context Press, Oakland, CA.

Clear, James, (2018), Atomic Habits, Random House

By Patrick McCurry

I'm a psychotherapist based in Canary Wharf, London, and Eastbourne, UK.

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