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The Dangers of Setting Yourself Goals

Posted on 10 July 2020

Some thoughts about one of today’s fetishes: setting clear life and career goals.


The conventional wisdom is that we all need clear and challenging goals for our lives; that life without goals is leads to failure and dissatisfaction. I wonder if this is correct? After all, many people give up on the goals they have set themselves. From New Year’s resolutions to ‘new me’ decisions, it’s goal setting that seems to lead to failure more often than to success.

Why should this be? Why should people find that giving themselves something to aim at leads to being in a worse position than when they started? Setting goals seems to be such a simple process. You take a look at yourself, decide what you want to change most, think about how to get started, then do it. What is it that goes wrong?

Here are some thoughts about potential pitfalls. They don’t happen to everyone, but they are definitely common enough to be worth avoiding.

Being unrealistic

I think this is the most common reason why so many people fail to meet their chosen goals and end up feeling worse than when they started. Their goals were never realistic. The targets demanded more effort, more motivation, more determination, more ability than the person had to offer. They were based either on wishful thinking or on whatever targets were fashionable at the moment.

Setting yourself unrealistic goals is the equivalent of picking a fist-fight with a professional boxer twice your size. There’s only ever going to be one outcome. What’s uncertain is just how badly you’ll be hurt.

One of the greatest benefits of goal setting ought to be the opportunity to stand back and take a long, slow, realistic look at yourself. It’s odd how often people fail to do this. Instead, they get swept away by the nonsense about ‘big hairy, audacious goals’ being somehow the best kind. They believe the myth that aiming for the moon will somehow call up the skill and resources to get there.

Until you know exactly what you can do, and whether ’stretch’ goals motivate or intimidate you, it’s surely best to stick with things you know are within your capabilities. Far better to build success slowly and surely than risk everything on a single throw. Big bets lead to big losses — maybe on a scale you can’t really afford. If failure hurts badly enough, you may never try giving yourself a target in life again; and that would be far too high a cost to pay for getting it wrong once.

Who are you trying to impress?

It’s foolish to set yourself a goal that’s chosen mostly to look good or impress other people. It’s equally foolish to go along with whatever is fashionable, rather than stick to what truly matters to you. You’re setting goals for yourself, right? So who are you trying to impress?

Dieting probably offers the best example of what I mean. Many folk are overweight — I know I am. They ought to lose a few pounds, if only for the sake of their health. Yet the fashionable target for body size and shape is set by the media, especially for young women. The reality is that people’s natural body sizes and shapes vary as much as their height. Some are genetically programed to be tall and skinny, other smaller and more bulky. But when some super-model is the ideal being aimed at, the ordinary person is pretty much bound to fail.

The consequences of that failure can be anything between giving up on weight control totally to suffering eating disorders like bulimia or anorexia. In the same way, setting yourself a target that doesn’t fit who you are and what you can reasonably achieve is always going to lead to tears. You either won’t get close to making it or you’ll do so and be wretched as a result. Besides, creating goals aimed at impressing others will probably never get you sufficiently fired up to achieve what you say you planned. Guess what? Those other people weren’t impressed or even interested. They knew it was only hot air.

Keep quiet about your plans

I suspect that one of the worst mistakes you can make is to talk too much about what you aim to achieve. Some people say you should enlist friends to help keep you on track, but sounding off about your plans has much greater drawbacks.

First, talking about your goals is a wonderful substitute for action. Talk about your goals enough and it feels like you’re already there — only minus the effort. Of course you’re not; you’re no further forward, but lots of people manage to spend a lifetime talking about what they plan to do, yet do nothing at all.

Second, it encourages you to make statements that come back to haunt you. It draws attention to setbacks along the way. Rather than face the humiliation of admitting they went off track, many people prefer to give up. If they’d kept quiet, they could have put things right and pressed on, minus the embarrassment.

Third, it gives lots of people the chance to start in with their own stories, problems and advice. You have enough to cope with. You don’t need to hear how it went wrong for others, or how brilliantly they coped (with the silent suggestion you will never do as well as they did).

Too many goals, too few priorities

People often set themselves too many goals at once. They see everything as a priority, throwing themselves into change full of enthusiasm and excitement. When that wears off — as it surely will — they suddenly come up against the reality that have taken on much more than they can manage.

When everything is important, nothing is. You must prioritize or increase the risk of failure. Focus on what truly matters most — just one thing, if possible — and get it done. Then move on to the next. Success breeds success. Facing a mass of goals is so daunting, it’s no wonder most people give up.

I’m not suggesting that setting yourself goals in life is wrong; nor that some sort of objective can help you have a sense of direction and fulfillment. What I am suggesting is that you should approach both with care and deliberation. It’s easy to get it wrong and waste time and energy on something you’ll never attain. You don’t even need to have a long-term goal, let alone one that sounds tough or impressive.

All you really need in life is to go along, putting one foot in front of the other and doing whatever seems the next most important task. It won’t be flashy and it won’t impress the neighbors, but it might still give you a life worth living. Even small successes feel better than gigantic failures — and they can add up over a long enough time to achievements that you might well be proud of.

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This post was written by:

Carmine Coyote - who has written 293 posts on Slow Leadership.

Carmine Coyote is the founder and editor of Slow Leadership, with a career that stretches from early employment as an economist, through periods in government service, academia and several multinational companies, to retiring as CEO of a US consulting company and partner in a large business services firm. Carmine now lives in Arizona, but is British for all that.

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17 Comments For This Post

  1. Mike King says:

    Great points. I find that goal setting if left to be about normal every day items automatically inherits these characteristics you have written to avoid.

    To me, the key is passion being the main catalyst to identify and make goals around. Passionate topics tend to be the ones you focus on, are willing to share with others, are for a real internal purpose not just a symbol and they are usually more realistic since they fit on topic with a desire that matches.

    Thanks for the inspiring article!

  2. Carmine Coyote says:

    Thanks for the comment, Mike.

    I’m glad you liked the article. Keep reading, my friend.

  3. Tana says:

    Thank you!

    I’m a part of an organization that is very goal oriented. You’re supposed to dream big, reach for the stars! But I would set those big goals and then I would just freeze. It wasn’t until I started setting goals based on daily effort (vs results of any time frame) that I began to find joy in my work. And it really boils down to how much effort you’re willing to make TODAY. Start making consistent effort, and it will build, and then you will go to great places.

  4. Carmine Coyote says:

    Thanks for a great comment, Tana.

    I understand about that kind of organizational culture. It’s easy for those in charge to rabbit on about goals that stretch people to the limit. Talk is cheap. What you learned will be far more useful to you, now and in the future. Thanks for sharing it.

    Keep reading, my friend.

  5. Denise Oyston says:

    Such an interesting subject. Mike and Tanya raise some great discussion points. If it is someones elses goal? There is now way you will maintain any motivation to acheive it.

    For goals to work it has to be in alignment with your core. Wanting the nice house or car. Is all well and good and yet really are they goals worth getting in a sweat over? How about making a real difference and adding some value. Through that the financial rewards always come. I digress.

    I once read that Goal setting is an intellectual process. Where as goal acheivement was something entirely different.

    For once I have a different view to Carmine or is it? Setting a big goal is the way forward. What happens though is we become obsessed with when its going to happen.( what is this thing about time?)We also get so attached and consider ourselves failures if we dont achieve. From my experience as a performance consultant and coach. This is people biggest problem. They set a goal and within minutes are judging themselves about what if they don’t acheive it. So what! the world actually isn’t going to end.

    I have set myself some really big “goals” recently. I know they will happen only I am not attached to when.

    I too want to lose some weight. A couple of stone hopefully before my holiday. In reality though the time frame and three parties two wedding and a family BBQ I suspect will hinder rather than help. Yet a general goal of being healthy drinking more water is more than possible. This allows me the flexibility of knowing I am on the right track and having a fife as well.

    Take Care,


  6. Carmine Coyote says:

    Thanks for your comment, Denise.

    I remain dubious of ‘big’ goals. Many are simply too big and end up by demotivating people and making them feel they are failures.

    It’s not the size of a goal that is the measure of its worth. Sometimes a very small, easily attained goal can have powerful consequences. If people gave themselves 30 minutes a day of quiet thinking time, regardless of anything else, the outcome might be almost revolutionary.

    Keep reading, my friend.

  7. Frode H says:

    I on the other hand love big hairy goals. Or as I call them; a vision about where you would wish to be.
    I also like to concider goals as lighthouse along a coast. A lighthouse is a guide for you, a goal have a finishline, while you are supposed to pass the lighthouse and set sail for the next. Storms might come along on the way, but the lighthouse stand still. My current lighthouse is to change my eating habits, I lost only one kilo the last 14 days, but I have eaten a more healty diet. I still have 14 days to go, until I pass this lighthouse. The next lighthouse would be to excercise more(Notice: Not much, but more :)). I work with motivation every single day, but the one hardest to motivate is me. When it comes to my work I have big hairy goals and many lighthouses, when it comes to dietting as I am currently trying to self motivate to loose weight, I find your post most interesting. I find this absolutley very motivating for me, and I think I learned something today. Thank you.

  8. Carmine Coyote says:

    If it works for you, Frode, that’s fine. Most ideas work for someone, somewhere. The mischief comes when people assume that what works for them must work for everyone. Then they try to persuade, coerce or bully others into doing what they do. That’s only going to lead to misery.

    Keep reading my friend.

  9. Frode H says:

    Carmine, I agree

  10. Scott McArthur says:

    Not sure about all this….I think the big goal can stretch you and as such can be more rewarding. Also the law of attraction really comes into it’s own in this context!

  11. Carmine Coyote says:

    Thanks for your comment, Scott.

    Naturally, I disagree — especially with your mention of the so-called (and entirely spurious) ‘law of attraction’, for which there exists no credible evidence. Magical thinking has no place in a rational approach to life and work.

    Sorry to be so negative, but the very mention of the ‘law of attraction’ makes me irritated. I cannot imagine why so many otherwise rational and sane people have been taken in by what is merely a re-packaging of some very old and hoary myths,

    Keep reading, my friend.

  12. Mark McClure says:

    The incremental “byte-sized” to approach is very do-able as an effective goal achieving approach. And particularly relevant when no clear ‘BHAG’ goal or vision has yet been chosen.

    As you noted, sometimes the “choosing” can arise because of doors which start to open as action (however small) is taken and people start to notice (that last part is very important in my experience.)

    mark mcclure

  13. Carmine Coyote says:

    Thanks for your comment, Mark.

    What you say is correct, but I still think that goal setting as a whole is far less of an effective tool than it is often made out to be. It isn’t setting goals that matters, it’s what you get done. A big goal, or a vision, can as easily get in the way of achievement as facilitate it, especially if it causes you to feel overwhelmed by what you think you are taking on.

    Keep reading, my friend.

  14. Stacy Gibboney says:

    I agree. There is something to say about doing my best right now and I don’t need to have a goal other than doing my best at the moment.

    Thank you for your very insightful, well written article. It shows so much heart and gives people a few more options to consider before going wild about whatever. It’s as if you are truly reaching out to help someone who really needs to hear that there is hope. Sometimes I am that person.

    Stacy G.

  15. Carmine Coyote says:

    Thanks, Stacy. I’m glad you found the article useful.
    Keep reading, my friend.

  16. Ryan says:


    I’m not much of a fan of goals myself. I think it is much better to look at yourself and find some sort of focus for what you can do better. I feel that the introspection and self-examination is the most important part of any attempt to improve yourself. This will then start you down the road of self-awareness and probably solving the problems you are trying to set goals around, eg. “Why do I over-eat” instead of “I will lose weight”.

    I think this also applies to any sort of organisational improvement. Everyone is usually so keen to set goals for what the organisation will achieve, but rarely does anyone try to get to the heart of any problems with the organisation (let alone try to solve them). Consultants too often struggle to see where the problems really lie, providing suggestions to fix the symptoms and possibly making things worse.

    I was also reading a good book recently about problem-solving that pointed out that you must first define the problem before trying to solve. Now while this seems fairly obvious, the book pointed out that most people do realise that but still rush to a solution anyway.


  17. Carmine Coyote says:

    Thanks for your comment, Ryan. I agree about the need to slow down and inquire carefully into the nature of any problem, before rushing in to ’solve’ it. Not only to many people jump to conclusions about what needs to be done, they very often apply some conventional ’solution’ that may not even affect the symptoms. In my experience, too often the solution is chosen then the problem massaged to fit it.

    Keep reading, my friend.

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