You Suck At Goal Setting (or How To Set Your Goals)

I feel a little bit odd writing this article. It’s not revolutionary by any means, but enough people set absolutely useless goals it had to be written.

Let’s start by assuming this: setting goals, having something to strive for, is a good idea. Let’s forget about the debate of lots of goals vs one goal vs no goals for a second.

In my experience with people who set goals (for examples, New Year’s Resolutions) I’ve noticed a glaring problem. If you think about it for a minute it’s quite easy to spot. But maybe you’re the type of person who can see flaws in other people’s thoughts/ideas quicker than your own. I get it. So let me spell it out for you.

That glaring goal setting problem is specificity.

If you’re setting non-specific goals you have no way to judge a success or failure. It’s the ultimate goal setting cop out. “Ahh, I’ll set a goal that’s impossible to gauge! I will never fail because there’s no way I can tell if I’ve failed!”

That’s no good for you. You’re better off not setting goals than setting non-specific unquantifiable goals.

A few examples of very typical non-specific goals:

  • I’m going to learn Spanish.
  • I’m going to lose a lot of weight!
  • I’m going to study harder.
  • I’m going to learn computer programming.
  • I’m going to learn to play guitar.

You should now see how useless these goals are.

Let’s take those same goals and make them success/fail quantifiable specific goals:

  • I’m going to learn how to order food at a restaurant in Spanish.
  • I’m going to lose 10 pounds.
  • I’m going to study X (something you don’t understand) for 30 minutes today.
  • I’m going to learn how to build a PHP form that takes a user’s information and inserts it into a MySQL database.
  • I’m going to learn how to play Smells Like Teen Spirit on guitar.

These are all success or fail goals.

  • You can either order in Spanish or you can’t.
  • You either lost 10 pounds or you didn’t.
  • You either studied for 30 minutes or you didn’t.
  • You either built a PHP form and MySQL connection or you didn’t.
  • You either learned the song that killed hair metal or you didn’t.

It’s scary setting a goal that has a definite conclusion.

“What if I fail?! I’ll feel so bad.”

Maybe, but we judge our future feelings much more poorly than we think. Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling On Happiness speaks to this at length and it’s worth a read if you want to delve deeper into this type of thing. And on the flip side, how will you feel if you succeed? Probably not quite as amazing as you think you will (sorry!), but you’ll feel good.

An interesting snow-ball effect happens with goals as well. Once you get into the habit or reaching goals it gets easier to reach your goals. Even when you’re setting seemingly impossible goals you’ll be able to see them from a, “you know, it won’t be easy, but I can figure this one out” angle.

On the flip side, you’re not going to reach all your goals, but by being in the habit of setting and achieving goals a few failures aren’t going to sink you into a pit of despair.

How to make every one of your goals better: time constraints.

One hour, one day, one week, one month. Set a time frame for your goal. I think shorter is better so break your big goal into smaller chunks. As mentioned in One Thing Self-Improvement I prefer one goal per day.

Like I stated, this wasn’t revolutionary, but it was necessary none-the-less. If you’ve already set a useless goal (maybe as a New Year’s Resolution) it’s not too late to make it specific.


Leo Babauta (the guy who kickstarted my blogging career a few years ago) launched a fun program called Sea Change that might help you with this whole goals thing. This month is Unprocrastination month and I think that’ll be especially beneficial. (I don’t get paid to mention this. Yes, I’m a member.)

18 Responses to You Suck At Goal Setting (or How To Set Your Goals)

  1. There’s also a different approach to goal setting which Michael Neill presents in his book “Supercoach” — and that is to not set goals at all.

    He argues that if we replace goals with projects, it increases peace of mind and productivity.

    A project most differs from a goal in this: if you pursue a goal, you’re a failure until you’ve achieved success, while if you’re working on a project, you are successful until you fail.

    This is similar to what Leo Babauta’s been talking about when he was writing about life without goals: do what you want to do at the moment, it’s less stressful and you won’t think if you’ve failed to achieve your goal or not. Pretty similar to me.

    I’ve tried it myself and I have to say this is really effective :) It’s essentially replacing the name of an activity (goal to project), but it means worlds.

  2. Yikes…what happened to the no negativity stuff? Had a visceral reaction to my email with the subject link of …you suck at goal setting. This is lacking in congruence with your recent writings.

    I do believe that are thoughts create our reality. The goals you set out while more specific are lacking in scope. For example – I am going to learn how to order food in Spanish at a restaurant – for myself, I would change that to: I am fluent in Spanish. For I am going to loose 10 pounds, I would change that to: I am healthy and fit.

    I believe when I change my thoughts, I change my life.

    • I won’t say those general non-specific goals don’t work for you, but they definitely don’t work for most people. They’re the exact kinds of goals most people set and immediately fail at achieving.

      Also, who ever said I was ever “congruent”? And who ever said no negativity was supposed to last beyond the December challenge? ;)

  3. Karol, I was so offended by the subject line of the email that I almost unsubscribed from your site. It’s your site, and your call, of course, but it’s really antithetical to your positivity efforts.

    Thanks for listening,

  4. LOVE IT! We all need to hear when we haven’t done the best that we could at something. Thank you for having the courage to call us on it.

  5. Not offended at all here; the title is just a good headline writing. I read Karol’s blog because he is honest and gives actionable information. And in all honesty, 99% of people do suck at goal setting…because no one ever told them that defining their goals (then reverse engineering them) is the first essential step to achieving them.

  6. So true, and definitely applicable to what I said on the Jan 13 page. Problem may be that I have no idea where I want to end up with it though(not trying to make excuses though), But I have now learned how to do basic layouts of elements and basic pages using HTML and CSS, so now its beginning the jQuery section to make the page look better (considering I probably wasn’t expecting to reach this point until end of the month I happy with my lack of goals). To now revise my goal(not to your level of specifics though)- to learn HTML/CSS/jQuery and basic PHP server backend by August(time constrained) to build a fully functioning site for a client that the client is happy with to work with multiple versions of browsers including IE8 and backwards. (either fail or don’t on that goal)

  7. Karol,
    Thanks for saying that making resolutions that most people make fail at in a very clear manner without being too rude and heck if some folks think you are then, ah well I say.

    I really have only two goals that I know I can do which are to at least try a blog site for one year and make a “success” out of it and my second is to pay off a loan as quickly as possible. Not exactly resolutions but, I think It will be somewhat doable.

  8. You’re right about insulting many (if not most) of your readers because we probably do suck at goals. If we didn’t suck we wouldn’t need to be reading these insults and lapping them up. However, this time it was sufficiently abrasive to get me past the first couple of lines… and for a start I’m definitely going to learn how to order a meal – and shop for much of my vegetarian and bio foodstuffs – in Esperanto.

    Oh, and FFS change that lousy header photo of yourself… the two Polish pre-Communist era factory chimneys in the background make a mess of your casual-cum-cool portrait!

  9. Exactly. It’s so easy to measure quantifiable targets, because the answer is always binary!
    I read everywhere about goals being S.M.A.R.T i.e. Specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely.
    The acronym somehow makes me remember those!

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