The Pitfalls of Goal Setting

So if goal setting is so good, how can it possibly be bad?

Posted May 07, 2017

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We love goals. For proof, simply type “goal setting” in an Amazon book search, and thousands of titles will instantly pop up. As a licensed-clinical psychologist, I’m a fan of goals too. In my private practice, my clients and I work together to develop strategies that decrease stress and increase peace of mind for them. So if goal setting is so good, how can it possibly be bad? Let’s explore this question in this post.

Happiness Is the Goal

I think you would agree that one of the most important objectives of goal setting is to make us happier. We set a weight loss goal so we’ll look and feel better. We develop an income goal, so we can elevate our standard of living. And we create a relationship goal, so we can meet the partner of our dreams.

But through the process of identifying and working toward our goals, we may actually wind up creating more stress in our lives. In other words, goal-setting gone wrong can actually result in less happiness, which is the exact opposite of why we set them in the first place.

Goals Can Keep Us From Enjoying Life

When we dwell too much on goals, we become preoccupied with their achievement or lack thereof. Rather than focusing on the life that is unfolding before our eyes, our attention is turned inside. That is to say, we become preoccupied with our thoughts. We are thinking constantly about what we have to do more of, what we’re doing right, and what we’re doing wrong.

For instance, imagine your best friend, Sally, has set a goal to find the perfect romantic partner. One night, you’re meeting Sally for dinner at her favorite restaurant.

At the next table is a couple. The two are clearly having a great time. They look lovingly at each other, laugh, and gently stroke the other person’s hand from time to time to demonstrate their affection. While you notice the couple, you’re mainly focused on having fun with your best friend over a delicious meal.

Meanwhile, Sally is struggling to enjoy herself. Her gaze constantly shifts toward the couple. She has difficulty following the conversation you’re having with her. Finally, she confesses, “I’m having a tough time tonight. When I look at the couple next to us, it makes me feel lonely and sad.”

Rather than take pleasure in the meal she’s having with her best friend and at her favorite restaurant, Sally is distracted thinking about her goal of finding a soul mate, and how far away that objective seems.

Or let’s say you’re planning your summer vacation. Your goal is to travel to Italy, which is a country you’ve always wanted to visit. You’ve made arrangements months ahead so that you don't have to worry about making last-minute plans. You have saved the money, made the plane reservations, and have planned your itinerary. But rather than end your planning there and wait for your Italian vacation to come, you find yourself constantly doubting your decisions: Did I find the cheapest airfare? Are there better hotels I should have booked? What if the weather is terrible?

Now, your goal of visiting Italy is stressing you out and keeping you from enjoying the life that's unfolding before your eyes.

Both examples point to the pitfalls of goal setting. Too many of us dwell on our goals. We imagine how our lives should be, and we regret we aren’t where we’d like to be. We create countless what-if scenarios: What if I had that job, that house, that boyfriend or girlfriend, that child?… the list is endless. Instead of appreciating what we have now, we’re thinking about the goals we need to accomplish, and we become frustrated if we haven’t achieved them.

Set Goals and Live Now

So how do you strike the balance between goal setting and living in the present moment?

As you’ve read from the beginning, I’m a firm believer in the power of goals. So once you’ve set your goal and determined the steps necessary to attain it, you then direct your attention to the present moment.

When you’re working on your goal, you focus on it 100%. For example, if you’re goal is to exercise more, you concentrate on it when you’re at the gym, taking a walk, or swimming. But when you’re not exercising, you focus on what is taking place here and now. Rather than engage in mind chatter regarding your goal, you place your attention instead on the delight of living in the present moment.

From New Year’s resolutions to daily to-do lists, goals are one of the hallmarks of modern life. But if you’re setting goals to be happier, then make sure you’re taking time to accomplish them. And when you’re not working on them, then set your thoughts aside and enjoy the life that is unfolding right here and now.