The problems with goal setting

I’m sceptical whether it is worthwhile to set up a set of goals for 2013, seeing that I’m annoying myself with not having achieved the goals I set for myself in New Year’s Resolutions 2012.

I became quite good at undertaking face to face interviews in 2012. I’ve learned to routinely establish rapport and professional authority with strangers within a few minutes. I’ve become good at putting on a professional act on the phone and in face to face meetings. I’m calmer and handle most people interactions better than before. I take uncertainty and changes in a calmer way.

Those are ‘life acting skills’ that come in handy – are essential even – in professional and social situations. But they were not on the list… I didn’t quite follow my plan for developing certain specific skills. Neither were any of the other things I gained & learned in 2012 planned and written down in advance. They also were not SMART:





Time bound

which is what goals ought to be according to conventional wisdom; otherwise it is hard to tell if something has been achieved or not.

I earned about 70% of the (low) income goal and worked towards getting better organised with mixed success.

Household chores board
Probably abandoned idea for household chore management

There is nothing wrong with the goals for 2012, except that I didn’t achieve them. They are all still valid and they did help to think through what I need to do and set a direction. That’s useful.

So should I a) congratulate myself for what I have achieved, or b) beat myself up for not achieving the goals I set? Not sure.

What I really want to achieve

I want to stop feeling lost. I want to know what I want. I want life to be meaningful. I want to understand the people dimension of life well enough to make sense and succeed as a human being. I can play roles, apply complex rules and appear perfectly human but underneath it all, I’m confused and busy mapping behaviour patterns and making new rules to fit. I break down the meaning of things meant to be take for granted. What I really want to achieve is clarity and direction.

And like last year and many years before, I need to find out how to develop professionally, find somewhere to belong and solve my income problems. I can think of ideas to achieve it, but I don’t believe in any of them. [— whining over —]

These are the essential issues so they are highly relevant, but as they aren’t quantifiable, specific, measurable or time bound, and maybe not even attainable, they won’t work as practical goals. Goal setting isn’t the right setting for essential goals. So here comes instead:

SMART goals for 2013

(Little steps in the right direction)

1. Read 10 booksI’ve set it up as a reading challenge on GoodReads. I like reading books, but these days the Internet is a major book-rival with its multitude of short-attention-span articles, social media and search functions. I want to read books to wind down some of the Internet flickr, focus in-depth more and over time become a better writer

2. Learn CSS, so I can design and/or tweak website layouts. A website is an essential element of virtually any business today, so I reckon that learning CSS plus spin-off knowledge can be a useful tool as a freelancer or graphic designer-copy writer team. And this time I have a simpler and better plan to carry out the learning objective.

3. Develop musically vocally and on piano. I’ll keep it brief: I’ll consider this objective met by 3 singing lessons and learning to play 3 songs on piano during the year. Ultimately I would like to be able to ‘sing & play’ for an audience on piano and vocal, but that’s a wish, not a goal.

4. Run every day like I used to. Running has for many years been my everyday ‘breathing hole’ that helps to keep everything else in balance. The challenge is to make it relaxing and recreative to run with our two big dogs that are now mandatory running buddies.

That means to keep working with them to make them cat- and dog- and surprise proof, calmer, fitter and faster* . And buy better equipment so I don’t need to hold on to the leashes all the time and fear to be dragged over the ground as after a band of wild horses.

Keeping in mind that these objectives aren’t the essential goals, I think that pursuing and achieving them will bring satisfaction and maybe even help to achieve the essential goals. So that’s it for 2013.

L.A. King and C.M. Burton in an article entitled, The Hazards of Goal Pursuit, for the American Psychological Association, argue that goals should be used only in the narrowest of circumstances: “The optimally striving individual ought to endeavor to achieve and approach goals that only slightly implicate the self; that are only moderately important, fairly easy, and moderately abstract; that do not conflict with each other, and that concern the accomplishment of something other than financial gain.

Psychology Today: Why goal setting doesn’t work by Ray Williams

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*How it is now: they love to come on the runs but quickly tire and then tow after me like giant snails with legs. Until they eye a cat and suddenly explode… or their leashes get tangled, in which case they stop and wait to be untangled (happens a million times on each run).


17 thoughts on “The problems with goal setting

    1. Mados

      Thank you! I read your post and can relate to what you write very much. Especially about focusing intensely to the exclusion of everything else and having a sprinter-type attention to tasks. Tasks with many steps over long periods of time are the problem tasks because they require many starts and stops while still keeping track of the sequence. Like this:

      Tasks like budgeting and housekeeping are particularly problematic because there is no clear beginning or end. They continue on endlessly with no finish line in sight (the ultimate marathon). There is no conclusion, I cannot sequence, prioritize, organize with enough competency to make these tasks a normal second-nature part of my life. I would then have to focus intently on them to the exclusion of everything else—indefinitely, which in reality is not possible.

      Actually it is this type of difficulties and the outcome of them in my life that make me experiment with goal setting and task management systems in the first place.

      I don’t agree with your conclusion (in your post)… I can see where you are coming from, I was thinking the same – That it is better to not make any goals than to set oneself up to fail with a list of goals that one isn’t motivated to pursue in the first place (=passionate about), because they won’t work. And if the passion is there, then the goals aren’t necessary anyway!

      However, I think the best approach to goal setting is Springtiger’s in the comment below. ‘One should not be tied to one’s goals, as long as they have motivated us they have done their job’. And I can see now that last year’s goals were useful to me even though I didn’t carry them out. They are still in the back of my head.

      As for your advice, they won’t work for me (except ‘Stop beating yourself up’… that one works beautifully:-) and ‘get to know yourself’. But I’m trying to do that anyway). Which I think is due to our different situations. You, surrounded by a noisy family and the demands of having kids, even special needs kids on top of your own issues = need more pauses, pleasures and me-time to recover. I can mostly do what I want, avoid people stress and have plenty of recovery time as for now. Low pressure… Trying to put myself in your shoes, I don’t think I would last 4 hours!


      1. aspiewriter

        Ok, this is start number five!

        I am so frustrating!! I was responding to your reply, was interupted–this time by the puppy. Had to stop three times and come back to type….half the time forgetting where I was and what I was saying. Finally I got to the end of a nice long response and POOF, its gone!!!! (twice now, so this is my last attempt–keeping my fingers crossed)

        I’ve been trying to say that I love reading your work because there is so much I can relate to but enough of a difference in opinion and lifestyle to let me really take a look at a subject from a different view point.

        All my chaos, and start and stops surely makes it difficult to accomplish something small like getting my son to school on time, and makes it nearly impossible for the bigger ongoing things.

        I am not saying not to have goals, I am many many many of them, but I beat myself up over what I do not or cannot accomplish so badly that it is unhealthy. AND many times I work towards things that for me are unattainable.

        Housekeeping for example, I suck at housekeep–really. I am absolutely terrible, and I despise it. I hate hate hate housekeeping, but it needs to be done and every year I promise myself, “this year I will be better, I will be more organized…etc.” Always, I fail. So I would like to work towards being able to hire someone to come a few days a week and help with the task I never get to. If I spend all my time and energy on getting this house in tip top shape I cannot do another single thing, and that will make me miserable.

        Budgeting and paying bills (on time) another area I am awful. I forget, too often. Then I worry, about upcoming due dates, and still miss them. I’m truly terrible. I would like to hire a company to take care of all the bills. Send them the money needed to pay them (once per month) and let someone else get the payments out on time. I actually was impressed to find that this doesn’t actually cost that much money, not as much as someone coming to straighten the house.

        Now, all I need to do is working on getting things done to make the money to pay for these services. If I had the bucks, I would already have someone here. LOL

        I have many many many goals, and deadlines, but when I am working on these other impossible ones, I cannot focus on the important ones. Yikes! Time to get the little man up for school….


        1. Mados

          Thank you, I am very happy to hear that my writing is useful to you.

          I can so very relate to what you write about housework, bills paying, driving your kids to school and other loose, spread-out activities. Your out-of-the-box idea with simply outsourcing some of them sounds like a potentially good way to solve it.

          We had a door seller today from a grocery home delivery service (Aussie Farmers Direct). My husband was trying to shoos her away when I came out and was instantly keen on the offer! I hate shopping, especially for groceries. With the service, besides not having to physically be in the supermarket, I like that there are fewer decisions to make. E.g. fruit & veggies = a ‘veggie box’ with a few choices between pre-determined combinations, and the decisions I do need to make can be done in the peaceful & quiet simplicity of my home. There is no delivery fee (when buying more than 3 products), and most of the goods are almost same price as where we shop for groceries. So why not!

          I am not saying not to have goals, I am many many many of them, but I beat myself up over what I do not or cannot accomplish so badly that it is unhealthy. AND many times I work towards things that for me are unattainable.

          It sounds like your set goals become just extra stress factors added on top of all the other impossible demands, just adding extra complication and guilt… So probably in your case goal setting would need extremely strict rules to be useful. E.g. ‘Max. 1 goal at any time’. Or maybe just no goals setting…

          The one thing I don’t understand is why you add a puppy to the mix of challenges. Raising a puppy requires an enormous amount of work… training, consistency (by everyone), and a calm well structured social environment. Unfortunately dog training can’t be done in focused ‘blocks’ of time, because timing is vital…. it needs to be 5-10 minutes here and there whenever it is needed (often)… and is typically required at times when something else is boiling over, because that’s when the puppy gets aroused/upset/thinks the usual rules don’t apply because it is a new situation (dogs don’t generalise well).

          Thinking about it from a puppy’s perspective… it is just a baby, and it has to learn to fit in as a family member of the innermost social group of a totally different species! with different physical properties/fragility, way of thinking, sensory perceptions and interests and whose world is complex, abstract and interconnected in ways the dog will never figure out how works … The only thing that can make it work out for the dog is to learn a solid set of simple, relevant and 100% consistent rules for how it should behave so that it doesn’t piss the humans off (too much). And that is what takes all those hours of training and correction and interaction… because it really is an amazing achievement that dogs can learn to get along in human families.

          This might sound like I am against having dogs as pets… that is not at all the case of course. I have two dogs myself as you know, and I love having them around. But I do think dogs are very high maintenance compared to virtually all other common pets, and an extremely high responsibility with their big teeth, predatory instincts, potential aggression and so on. Even though our dogs are well behaved 97% of the time, the bad 3% when they are not in control is a source of anxiety. What if they run off (has happened a fair number of times) and scare someone (has happened some times), push a fragile person over (could happen) or kill someone’s cat (could maybe happen) or a dog enemy? As therapeutic as they are to have around with their fun antics, genuine ways, friendships and soft fur, they are also high-worry animals.


  1. Pingback: Executive Dysfunction and Goal Planning 101 for Autistics | Aspie Writer

    1. Mados

      Yes! Although, looking at the empirical evidence (= what happened with last year’s goals), not necessarily compelled enough…

      I like Springtiger’s approach in the comment below: what is important about goal setting isn’t to achieve the objectives but what it does to your thinking while you make them.

      The same principle applies to making a business plan… You know while you make it that you can’t predict the future and that your objectives are blind, but the real value is the side-effects of making the plan: the brainstorms, scenarios, bringing assumptions and contradictions out in the open; all that the activity that forces you to systematically think through all the key aspects and objectives of the business and bring your mind into business mode.


  2. springingtiger

    It is often only as one takes action towards a goal that one’s priorities become clear. To a very great extent they should be seen as intentions or as signposts indicating a desired direction. one should not be tied to one’s goals, as long as they have motivated us they have done their job. We are allowed to change our minds, failure less not in not achieving one’s goal, but in not having taking action towards it.


    1. Mados

      That is a wise approach to goals and I totally agree with you, actually. The goal setting activities last year weren’t wasted at all even though I didn’t achieve the goals. The value is in the process of clarifying priorities. Thank you!


  3. brittany220

    Congrats on all your progress in acquiring interview skills! I had my first actual interview for a job on Friday and it went well. I was more nervous for it the evening before than I was the day of, though she said I did great so that made me feel good.

    Wonderful reflections, it’s good that you know what it is that you really want to achieve right now. To stop feeling lost is a broad goal, but I definitely think there are some ways to flesh out that aspiration and break it down into manageable pieces. And I think the goals you listed below will be helpful to you as well since they are fairly simple and reachable if the desire is there. Maybe to stop feeling “lost” though, you could check out some volunteer organizations or read some inspiring books to see if anything sparks your interest. Sometimes I feel lost too, especially when it comes to thinking about a future career or what I want to do with my life, so I’ve read a lot of inspiring books that have motivated me to try and live my life to the fullest. I had some extra time last semester though so I have decided that I want to get more involved in volunteer work and other work this semester. I’m hoping to learn some new skills and connect with some new people. This may change my outlook on some things, or may provide me with a better idea of what it is I want to do with my time here.


    1. Mados

      Congratulations with the job interview, and good luck with getting the job! (what is the job?)

      And thank you for your comment.

      Maybe to stop feeling “lost” though, you could check out some volunteer organizations or read some inspiring books to see if anything sparks your interest.

      There is plenty of things that spark my interest and I’m prone to spending 24/7 on pursuing interests if I can get away with it (I can’t), so sparking further interests would just increase the pressure on time.

      Volunteering: I’d love to be off to volunteer work tomorrow, and I know exactly which type of volunteer programme I would want to do: dog health programmes / animal management programmes in remote communities in the NT. They use volunteers for vet assistance and general practical support et.c.

      However, my big problem is lack of income, … for bills, mortgage and even things like pension and health care, so volunteer work would be very unpopular here. My husband would see it as yet another competition to me getting a proper job and pulling home a decent income…. Going to NT would be a bit extreme of course, but even a local volunteer job wouldn’t be looked positively at… Anything that competes with the paid work I ought to have is basically considered a step in the wrong direction.

      That’s also because of my age (43). The income/career/professional development problem isn’t just about here and now, it is also about the future as I’m not getting younger and haven’t built up an ability to get and maintain relatively high paid jobs (long story).

      Anyway, the ‘feeling lost’ thing isn’t just about work, it is an essential soul-like thing and a very old, basic problem. Maybe it can’t be any different. I hope I’ll work it out over time, maybe sorting some of all the other issues will help on that too.

      Ps. I love reading, and I find the book I am currently reading very inspiring… it is about animal behaviour, brain development, evolution et.c. However, I suspect from what you write that you mean personal development type of self-help books, and actually find it hard to find interest/inspiration in that genre (at least the ones I have tried to read)… It is maybe not specific enough, so I can’t relate to it.


      1. brittany220

        I see what you mean then, sounds like you don’t have a lot of free time right now and the majority of the time you do have has to be put to finding a well-paying career. That is difficult then, but I know it will all work out for you. And as for reading, I didn’t necessarily mean self-help books, just books that share interesting or possibly inspiring experiences other people have had, or books that dive into subjects you have a passion for like the animal one you wrote about. So I think it’s great that you’re reading that. 🙂 And I interviewed for a tutoring position at my community college but didn’t end up getting it. I wrote up the post on that experience today and will be posting that in a few days I imagine.


        1. Mados

          Thank for your reply.

          I interviewed for a tutoring position at my community college but didn’t end up getting it. I wrote up the post on that experience today and will be posting that in a few days I imagine.

          That sounds like a great type of position for you actually (just based on the impression from your blog), I’m sure you will get another one. And every job interview is an experience… I look forward to read your post about it.

          With books: aha, yes I agree, that is generally a good idea. I read a lot on the Internet, but I want to read more books actually, because it is a different and deeper experience to read a book due to the tactile aspect, the option to underline and put hand written notes in the margins, and the deeper, uninterrupted focus. A blog about a topic can be almost like a book if one reads all the posts… but reading online or on the computer screen has a more brief and impatient ‘feel’ even if the content is similar.

          I see what you mean then, sounds like you don’t have a lot of free time right now and the majority of the time you do have has to be put to finding a well-paying career.

          Unfortunately it is not even that simple… I guess you can say that I have plenty of free time, but my time is just always highly prioritised/ear marked for specific projects / topics / activities, so I’m always feeling my time is extremely scarce and am very reluctant to spend it on things that may be a waste of time and are uninteresting. So the time scarcity is more of a personality issue than imposed by demands from other people, so it is a chronic time scarcity… I don’t mean to say that I refuse to pay attention to anything that isn’t on my own personal agenda (well, than can be a problem but I am fighting it… daily) but just that new/more interests is the last thing I need!

          Unfortunately I am not currently spending any time on finding a well-paying career, because I have no idea what sort of career I can sort of fit into/manage. I sent a lot of applications out until more than a year ago, applying for jobs that theoretically match my education (marketing). I didn’t get them, and didn’t genuinely believe I could do them in the first place, although I tried to pretend that I did. Job search is very frustrating, and it was depressing and disheartening to see that the desired personality traits listed in most of the jobs I could apply for looked like a recipe for disaster with me in those roles. I have specific problems that makes it more tricky too, such as high sensitivity to ambient noise, socially slow in large groups (a bit lost for what’s going on socially, aloof), and my tendency to get deeply absorbed into things is something I always have to watch out for so I don’t waste time paid by an employer on activities that are of no value to that employer!

          Noise sensitivity may not sound like a major thing, but if you think about how many ‘normally expected social activities’ that take place in noisy environments – such as noisy halls, malls, cafes, restaurants, cantinas, even just some very noisy street environments, then that can quickly become a daily issue. So when I browse job ads I also worry about things such as whether the workplace is located in the CBD, if it is located close to a mall (so it might be the custom for the employees to go over there for lunch and expect me there too), or whether the office is an open plan office with ringing phones, chatter, noisy servers, frequent high frequent beeps from an elevator et.c. Which the job ads obviously do not mention anything about.

          Eventually I decided that spending all my time mindlessly applying for jobs I don’t genuinely believed in and being depressed because I didn’t have time to spend on things that interested me, and seeing that I got no job out of it anyway, was a waste of time. I thought that maybe the way to go for me was to try to work freelance with a part time job on the side to ensure the bills get paid.

          That’s where I am now… I have a part time job as a research interviewer, which doesn’t require me to meet up in a workplace but it doesn’t pay well, and finding viable freelance projects isn’t so easy (and probably I don’t do enough, or the right things). I still think self-employment may be the best option, but I have a lot to work with on that front too. Many things that are obstacles for employment, are obstacles for self-employment too, and the absence of a predictable paycheck to pay the bills is a major stress factor… I hope I didn’t make your head spin with all this! I’m probably any career advisors’ worst nightmare!


    1. Mados

      It is probably a good sign that they are not:-)
      Superficial goals are often easily measurable such as “eat 10 doughnuts in 2013”, while complex, deep goals tend to be impossible to measure – e.g. self-acceptance, wisdom or developed relationships. It feels nice to achieve goals and it is important and empowering in its own right, but probably the measured achievements in themselves are rarely really important compared to complex changes that aren’t so easily measurable.



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