Why goal setting is broken and what to do instead


While it’s useful to know what you want to achieve and the direction you want to take, goal-setting might not actually be the best way to get you there.
Two women discuss goal setting using sticky notes on a glass wall
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To be successful, you need to set goals and work towards them, right? That’s what all the self-help gurus say. And most managers would agree. Make sure it’s a SMART goal – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound – and then go for it!

Adam Alter, a bestselling author and Professor of Marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, does not agree. While Alter acknowledges that goals can be helpful signposts and they tell you which direction in which to point yourself, he believes the idea of goal-setting is flawed.

“There’s an element of goal-setting that’s a little bit broken for me,” Alter explains. “A goal basically means that until you hit your goal state, you’re inherently failing. When you are working towards your goal, you’re still failing, failing, failing, until you reach the goal and then you succeed. And the way humans work is that we don’t really rest on our laurels, which means we don’t really get much joy from achieving a goal.”

Alter describes this as being true for both big and small goals. When we work towards a goal, we are potentially feeling like rubbish because until we reach it, we are in a constant state of failure. And then, when we achieve the goal, we don’t feel a lasting sense of accomplishment because what do we do? We immediately set a new goal! So we immediately return to our state of failure. It becomes an iterative process of goal-setting, failure state, success, failure state, success. Forever.

While it’s useful to know what you want to achieve and the direction you want to take, goal-setting might not actually be the best way to get you there. Alter tries to sit down for a couple of hours every month and think about what direction he is aiming to go in and how he wants to allocate his resources and efforts.

But he doesn’t set goals. Instead, he sets systems.

“Instead of saying, for example, ‘My goal is to write 100,000 words’, I reframe it and say, ‘My system is that every morning for an hour I’m going to write 500 words’. And eventually that’s going to amount to 100,000 words, but you don’t think of it that way. You think of it as a system. This is my system for achieving that end state.”

If the system is an achievable one, the process becomes self-reinforcing because you can achieve it every day and see clear progress. Systems feel much more fulfilling and, as such, Alter says that people feel more motivated when using systems instead of goals. When our motivation increases, so does the quality of our work.

In the case of writing his next book (Alter has written two New York Times bestsellers, Irresistible and Drunk Tank Pink), he says to himself that he wants to have it written in 24 months, which in a traditional sense could be seen as a goal. Alter then asks himself, “How many words do I need to have written by when? When am I going to write those words? What’s my system going to be for getting there?” So for Alter, instead of making a very general and generic long-range goal, it becomes a daily activity that he will be doing every day. When he adds that up over time, the system produces the outcome he is aiming for. He literally cannot fail.

Professors Gary Latham and Travor Brown actually investigated the effects of using systems instead of goals with 125 students who had just started their MBA. One group of students was asked to focus on applying strategies to learn more effectively. A second group had to set a goal for what they wanted to achieve in the year ahead, such as the mark they wanted to receive, otherwise known as a distal goal. (I secretly suspect that the MBA students who were in the goal-setting group felt they were the lucky ones – after all, we’re talking about MBA students here.)

It turns out they weren’t the lucky ones. The researchers found, somewhat ironically, that students who focused on systems for learning more effectively achieved better marks than those who set the goal of achieving high grades.

So why do people perform better when they specify the systems they will apply instead of the marks they want to achieve? Imagine that your strategy or system is to study for two hours every night. As the evening approaches, this strategy feels achievable – after all, you will achieve it in a matter of just two measly hours. This feels feasible, and things that feel attainable also happen to feel motivating and energising. But if your goal is to get a high distinction at the end of semester, it feels far off and is thus a lot less motivating and inspiring.

Dr Amantha Imber is the author of Time Wise, the founder of behavioural science consultancy Inventium and the host of How I Work, a podcast about the habits and rituals of the world’s most successful people.