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Why setting goals can backfire

From Sunday’s Boston Globe, “Ready, aim…fire” by Drake Bennett, an examination of the downsides of goal-setting. Within a historical framework, the author points out that while goals often work, sometimes “success” involves a few unpleasant side-effects.

While Bennett focuses primarily on the corporate landscape, we can transfer his points to a creatively relevant scenario. For example, let’s say your goal is to complete three canvases this week. You manage to complete those three canvases, but you weren’t able to enjoy the process because you were so focused on completing them — and in the end, you weren’t happy with the work you did, because you cut corners to just get finished. You met your goal, but you can’t sell the paintings for as much as you’d like because they aren’t that great. In this scenario, you met your stated goal — but what did you really accomplish?

Two excerpts from the article:

It is a given in American life that goals are inseparable from accomplishment. President Kennedy’s 1961 promise to put an American on the moon by the end of the decade is held up as an example of a world-changing goal, the kind of inspirational beacon needed to surmount immense societal challenges. Among psychologists, the link between setting goals and achievement is one of the clearest there is, with studies on everyone from woodworkers to CEOs showing that we concentrate better, work longer, and do more if we set specific, measurable goals for ourselves.

Today, as the economic situation upends millions of lives, it is also forcing the reexamination of millions of goals — not only the revenue targets of battered firms, but the career aims of workers and students, and even the ambitions of the newly installed administration. And while it never feels good to give up on a goal, it may be a good time to ask which of the goals we had set for ourselves were things we really needed to achieve, and which were things we only thought we should — and what the difference has been costing us.

You can read the full article here.

What do you think of this premise — perhaps in light of the February Finish-a-thon experience for those who participated?

Perhaps shorter-term goals are better; more achievable and more inherently flexible. What about having a group goal of the most basic currency and commitment: spend on hour this week being creative. Is that too little to be of value? Does it still become the trap that Bennett describes?

I do like the idea that goals (and priorities) need to be reassessed from time to time. There’s nothing worse than waking up one morning and realizing that you’ve been busting your a** for something you don’t really care about anymore.

Clearly, we need to make sure that our goals are really serving our larger intention, whatever that is.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. cathy #

    i believe it is the very nature of art and inspiration to buck up against goals. i may set a goal to write 3 mornings this week for 2 hours a piece, but even with baby c’s good nap days – rare, i can look at what needs to be written and be stifled for all three days, then inspired on the day after those three when it wasn’t scheduled in. that is exactly what happened for my latest good writing session on the ms 2 fridays ago – i had a scheduled thing that got cancelled, and with the pressure to write off, it came pouring out, even with squirmy on my lap and crawling under the desk.

    i have two good creative friends i’ve known about 20 years. both started off as writers and have turned to primarily street photography in their mid-years, as a creative outlet. i have been speaking with them both about the process of writing a lot recently. great conversations, as one in particular can push my buttons by saying things like, ‘if you are not writing everyday, you can’t call yourself a writer.’ i can easily fire back, ‘i may not write in ms everyday, but i am writing something everyday.’ then he sends me the bukowski poem about writing that basically says don’t do it if it doesn’t come pouring out all the time.

    then i speak with the other who hears me very well when i say, ‘c’mon, joe. you’ve watched me write for 20 years, and it has always come in fits and starts for me.’ and he agrees and understands as he experiences the same. all three of us are old henry miller fans who writes somewhere in tropic of cancer, i think, about how sometimes the inspiration is too intense to write, like a fire raging rather than a warm glow, which must be backed away from. i am seriously paraphrasing here, maybe even making up the simile, however, that’s where iv’e been for the past month or so. the feeling of what i want to write is so intense, i can’t set it to paper very easily. i can only approach it when the embers are glowing, and then only in short bursts of writng, before it starts to rage again and i feel emotionally, physically burned by it.

    it really strikes me that they both turned from writing to street photography in their 40s, while i turned from photography to writing in my teens to 20, and stayed there, even more intensely now, as i am finally finishing a novel. aren’t both mediums ultimately about catching the moment as it happens?

    sorry this comment is so long, but this has really been on my mind lately.

    March 16, 2009
  2. cathy #

    *mediums should read media. sorry, dog barked all night on top of the usual source of sleep deprivation.

    March 16, 2009
  3. Liz #

    I agree about reassessment. EVERY time you set out to create a piece of art in any fashion, it starts becoming it’s own thing. Some writers and I were talking about this at the Jodi Piccoult book signing yesterday (no, I haven’t read any of her books, but since hearing her speak – I am intrigued.)

    If you set out to write “The Great American Novel” and you outline (aka set a goal) that the plot will go from point A to B to C, you better believe your characters are going to take you in another direction. You might still get to C, but it won’t be B that gets you there – it’ll be Q. Some unexpected turn that comes naturally as your protagonist starts interacting with his scene.

    On another note, I don’t think it is so much the term of goals in which you set, but what goals you are in fact setting for yourself. Setting a goal to get off your butt and write for 20 minutes a day, whether it comes or not, is the kind of goal that works. (Jodi Piccoult said a great thing yesterday, something like: You can edit a crappy piece and make something of it – you can’t make anything out of a blank page) But setting a goal that you are going to write EXACTLY this kind of piece, using THESE specific words with THIS rigid plot is not a good goal to make. In other words – set a goal to work, just don’t set a goal as to what your output has to be.

    And that is where I think a lot of us had trouble with the finish-a-thon. Personally, I had a very easy, simple, open goal. Re-tool each stanza that I had outlined for a short children’s poem/book. That’s why I finished – although even that was hard. When I read some other people’s goals, I thought “WOW!” We’re talking huge edits, novels, chapters …. Big goals. We’re not college kids anymore. We can’t pull all-nighters (unless it involves a sick kid or crying infant) and we can’t ditch work to hang out at the coffee shop all day with our laptops. Either way, though, I think a lot of us revisited work that had been collecting dust and accomplished something – maybe not what we set out to accomplish, but way more than if we hadn’t set the goal at all.

    March 16, 2009
  4. Kristine #

    I agree with regular reassessment, especially when it comes to writing. I learned this through the Finish-a-Thon, where I mistakenly believed I could set goals that were once attainable to me when I didn’t have children. I became frustrated because I was no longer enjoying the process because that big goal hung over my head like a dark cloud.

    I strongly believe in setting goals. I also believe that unless you pursue your art regularly, you may never finish what you set out to accomplish. But for me, short-term (daily) goals work best. We all know that our days are unpredictable. We may be able to crank out five or ten pages one day, and then nothing the next due to forces beyond our control. So while my goal for today may be 10 pages (because I know I’ll have time to do it), tomorrow it may just be one page, a character sketch, or even some tweaking on my outline depending on what other responsibilities are on my schedule.

    But the writing must fit in somewhere.

    March 16, 2009
  5. Kristine #

    Liz…I Love, Love, Love Jodi Picoult. She is one of my favorite authors. If you haven’t read any of her books yet, give them a shot. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

    March 16, 2009
  6. I also think reassessment is the key. But for me, it’s setting the right kind of goal for a project that makes it work. Sometimes, it’s a “must finish this chapter” kind of product goal, other times it’s “must write for an hour” process goal, and sometimes it’s just “must have fun.” I think the difficulty for me comes when I set the wrong kind of goal and end up chafing under my own restrictions.

    March 16, 2009
  7. I know from my Februay Finish-a-thon experience that getting firm and schoolmarmish with myself no longer works. I have a self-discipline issue now when it comes to my creative output. I am so disciplined in every other area of my life that I really chafe under self-imposed restrictions.

    I’ve always been a goal setter and a planner, which, as Kristine pointed out, made me a very successful and productive person pre-kids, but now, post-kids, is a big fat frustrating exercise in futility. It was a very painful lesson for me that right now, my schedule is 100% dictated by the boys’ schedule, and any say-so I thought I had over my own time was merely a figment of my once very-overactive imagination.

    I know better now. Realistically, I have about 2 hours a day in which I can focus on any one of my numerous projects. When the boys take their afternoon naps, I just go with whatever strikes my fancy. Today it was playing with artificial flowers and trying to come up with a cool design for bridesmaids’ bouquets. Some days I write, other days I embroider. Some days I surf the net, looking for inspiration. It really just depends on what part of my creative well I need to fll that day.

    March 16, 2009
  8. Interesting perspectives, as always.

    To Jacqui’s point, I agree–sometimes the process versus output goals don’t always complement whatever’s going on in “real life” during any given time period.

    For me, I fear that not having goals (even tiny ones, like write for an hour this week) means that I will lose sight of my creative dreams altogether. That said, I have definitely figured out that having a goal — say for example the aforementioned “write for an hour this week” — without figuring out WHEN that is going to happen means that invariably, it won’t. Sure, the schedule shifts a lot, but unless I at least draw a figurative X on the calendar somewhere, it simply won’t happen.

    Right now I really am trying to go with the flow, but there are just too many things I have to take care of: a few more remaining “settling in” projects (one of which is unpacking and organizing my art supplies — I’ve claimed what should be the front hall coat closet as my art space); major client work; additional time-consuming financial aid paperwork for college-bound son; training for a 10K in late April and a half-marathon in early June; birthday season around here; all of the driving and domestic and mommy time requirements of five kids; a husband I need to spend time with on occasion (!); bloggerly responsibilities; a lot of work in taking care of a house full of people on a daily basis. This week specifically, my mother-in-law is coming for 4-day visit on Thursday.

    I was really looking forward to creating something for this week’s contest prompt (“map”) but I can’t really do what I wanted to do until I get those art supplies out of their plastic bins. Right now I need to finish preparing a client presentation for this afternoon — run, shower, do the pre-school pickup, supervise plumber, carpenter, and electrician who are all due today, Mom down painting again too, pump, drive 60 minutes to client meeting and back, pick up son at tennis tryouts, make dinner, do the bedtime routine, stage blog post for tomorrow. There’s also a list of phone calls (ones that I can’t make from the car) and small to-do items that I wanted to knock off today.

    Unfortunately a day like today isn’t that unusual. Given those parameters, what kind of creative goal is reasonable? Maybe I can stay up late tonight and work on my map project?

    Honestly, I can’t always see it — and this is why my posts to the Monday Page have petered out since moving. I only have two days of babysitting a week, and those are largely eaten up by client work, with a little time stolen for running once in a while, and other time lost to the pre-school pick up (45 minutes) and ferrying older kids when my oldest son isn’t available to drive.

    Maybe I should say “stop thinking about working on your book” right now, but I get mad every time I consider it. Just as I wrote last week in reference to mothering, there really is no “later on things will be different.” Sure, it will be different when all of my kids are in school all day, but I’m not going to let my manuscript gather dust for five years.

    What can I cut out? I watch almost no television at all (and when I do, I’m only half listening while working on the blog or responding to e-mails). These days, I’m only reading while nursing the baby in his room. I do spend a few minutes on Facebook during transition times or when I’m procrastinating — I suppose that could go.

    So, when you’re pretty sure you’ve narrowed things down to the essentials, but the essentials take up every nook and cranny, how do you integrate your creative goals so that they actually happen?

    Perhaps by getting off your dear blog and getting to work! LOL….

    March 17, 2009
  9. cathy #

    you read books?! that essential of mine has seriously been twarted with wiggle worm’s presence. i can read blogs online while i nurse or whatever with her, but trn pages in a book? forget it. she’s too interested, and if she’s off my lap, she’ll get ito trouble if i have my nose in a book. at leat now she usually hands me ‘poopies’ from the floor instead of sticking thm in her mouth….

    however, miranda, i think it’s important that you particpate in these conversations, especially the ones you start. you brought the topic up for a very good reason, and it obviously meant a great deal to many of us. not that you’re responsible to us, but that in participating you can figure out what works, or just vent as needed, as the case may be.

    March 17, 2009
  10. catching up so i’m late to this. maybe i’m the rebel of the group here, but i have never been a goal setter. reassessed or otherwise. there, i said it! 🙂 i’ve popped in on the monday page once or twice, but honestly it felt forced. i think my last post on the monday page said it all.

    i just “do”; i don’t “plan to do”. good, bad or otherwise, that’s how i live my life and it seems to work for me. sure, i have to make sure certain things get done–like my day job and i guess by the nature of the job, i do have to plan in order to carry out a fully fleshed programming schedule and the budget to go with it–but in my personal life, i have never been a planner. heck, i rarely even plan vacations. i just take them at the last minute if the opportunity arrives and drag my family along. maybe that makes me more of an opportunist, but i don’t really like that word.

    and i really don’t like setting creative goals. there’s just so many things i like to explore creatively that setting goals feels confining to me. i’m a certified trainer in both myers briggs and true colors. i use true colors the majority of the time because it’s just much easier to understand and apply to every day life, and my color spectrum is very telling in that vein. i think it would be interesting for you all to take the assessment. if you’re interested, contact me through my website ( and i’ll email you the assessment and the instructions for taking it. you can read about true colors in general at

    and i read books in the bathtub. 🙂

    March 17, 2009
  11. A goal is something that gets cheered when the ball hits the back of the net… or a piece of writing gets done before real or imposed deadlines (although when is a piece of writing ever really done? I’m a perpetual editor, hence still on chapter 3!). But in Ireland there is a word that sounds the same but is spelt Gaol (the Irish for jail) – a slight flip of a letter and goal becomes a prison, somewhere you are confined and punished.

    and so it is… we need them to keep focussed, but they limit our energies. I’m a list writer – cannot survive a day without a list and there is nothing (barring Ben & Jerry’s cookie dough ice-cream) that satisfies my heart like a red tick at the end of the day. So our goal is to keep the letters in the right order… and if that fails, i personally recommend the Ben & Jerry’s.

    March 18, 2009
  12. Yeah, venting is always good. I did manage to do the weekly prompt piece, but I was so under the gun doing it that I can’t say I enjoyed myself as much as I would have if I wasn’t trying to fit the project into my schedule with a shoehorn. Still, something is better than nothing.

    March 19, 2009

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