When Goals Get in the Way of Success


Goals are great. They provide a target, something to shoot for and measure progress against. They serve as reminders, bringing our focus back to what matters. They help motivate us, pushing us to accomplish tasks. For good reason, we preach goal setting in everything from athletics to education. Yet, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns when it comes to goals.
That same focusing effect causes our vision to narrow. The goal is front and center in our mind, taking up an ever-growing amount of our mental head-space. The more we commit to our goal, the more everything around it fades away. We become locked in. During crucial periods—mile 20 of the marathon, the final stretch of a major project—this can be extremely useful. But it also prevents us from seeing the world around us, from seeing the big picture. We slowly lose the ability to choose another option: to disengage.
When striving to accomplish a goal, research shows that we have an inner battle between our goal pursuit and goal disengagement. Our ability to shut off the disengagement voice in our head helps during mile 20 of the marathon when fatigue and pain are shouting at us to stop. Our ability to quiet the pull towards disengagement is tied to our commitment to the goal, our perceived progress towards it, and the level of meaning or importance of the goal. (The more of any or all of those three, the more likely we are to trudge on.)
However, that same doggedness backfires when we actually should disengage from a goal. It’s the runner who continues to press onward even though he or she is clearly battling through a real injury, and not just transient fatigue. It’s the boss who continues down a stubborn path, insisting that the rest of the world is wrong (think: Blockbuster vs. Netflix). Quitting is seen in such a negative light, and our pull towards goal pursuit is so ingrained in society, that we often fail to stop, even when it’s the right—albeit tough—thing to do.

Now, think about goal disengagement in relation to decisions being made in our current crisis of COVID. Brilliant plans are drawn up. This is how we’ll open society, this is how we’ll go back to school, this is how sports will return. Politicians, administrators, and executives commit to a plan. When that plan is tied to an identity or an ideology, it becomes even more important to follow through on that pursuit. When the goal means a lot to us—like opening up schools so that our children can be educated; and, let’s face it, so we can have childcare and go back to work—the pull towards getting to the finish line is strong. We commit to the goal. It’s stated to the public. We’ve got a plan, after all! All of those items make it difficult to change direction, to disengage, even if new information emerges.
Wise individuals keep all options in their back pocket, even disengaging. They are able to pause, step back, and evaluate the situation as new information demands. Maybe having an artificial deadline of August for making decision on schools is constraining our thinking. Maybe the pursuit of going back to school at all costs, or having football in the Fall, is limiting us. It’s narrowing our focus, blinding us to other paths, other ways forward.
So as we find ourselves in a world of uncertainty, as we are approaching mile 10 of what could be a marathon, or worse, a 100-mile race through the mountains, let’s not fall for the ‘planning fallacy.’ Let’s not lose the ability to zoom out and gain perspective. Disengaging from the plan has to be an option. We do not want to be the runner who pushes onward until his body literally stops him and he becomes injured and ill. We are smarter, wiser, more thoughtful than that. As we face uncertainty, remember that all of our plans might be thrown out. And that’s fine. Let them go if the situation demands it. When uncertainty is high; pause. Be patient, deliberate, and unafraid to change your mind.

(For more on this topic, check out: The Case for Lowering Your Expectations, The Right Way to Strive, and What to Do When it All Goes Wrong.)

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