Does Goal Setting Actually Work?

by Simon Hartley.

Founder, Be World Class.

It seems ironic that a sport psychology consultant should question whether goal setting actually works. Goal setting has been a staple of sport psychologists, performance coaches, business consultants and personal development gurus for decades. I suspect that the vast majority of personal development books ever printed have extolled the virtues of setting goals. Conventional wisdom tells us to set targets for ourselves; whether it’s a sales target, a turnover or profit target or a win : loss record. But does it actually work?

A few years ago business people probably thought that it did. Commercial leaders often set targets for sales, growth, stock value, profit level, etc. When the going is good, there’s a good chance that you’ll hit these targets and meet your goals. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that the process of goal setting actually contributed.

Imagine a business leader who has just been to a motivational conference and finished reading the personal development book he picked up at the airport. He’s drawn up his vision board, illustrating the life he wants to live. It shows the big house, the car, the boat, the helicopter and the tropical holidays. He gets back into the office inspired, and decides he’d like to grow his company by 20% in the coming year to bring this vision to reality. He believes it’s an ambitious target, but he’s fired up! So, he sets the goal, shares it with his team and off they go. It is a bumper year for his industry. A year later, the company has grown by 23% and he’s delighted. Interestingly, his closest competitors all grew by over 30% and the industry overall by almost 50%.

Did the goal setting exercise work? Did it contribute at all? The fact is; it’s tough to tell when everything is going well. If everything is working, how do we know whether the goal setting is actually working or not?

When we set outcome goals, such as growth targets, sales targets, or results, we often create a trapdoor for ourselves. This ‘goal’ becomes our own personal high jump bar. If we clear the bar, we’re happy and give ourselves a lovely pat on the back. If we fall short of the bar, we tend to feel as if we’ve failed and consequently we don’t feel good about ourselves. How we feel about ourselves tends to impact on our confidence, motivation, focus and therefore our performance. The problem, often, is that our high jump bar was set at an arbitrary level. Have you ever noticed that the target always seems to be a round number? Why don’t people aim for £6.752 million turnover this year… or growth of 8.543%? The targets we set, and the high jump bars that we create, are often products of our imagination. Therefore, they are fantasy. If we then judge our success or failure according to whether we clear this fantasy high jump bar, we leave ourselves in a fragile position.

Double Olympian, Chris Cook, once said to me, “I’m not sure about this whole goal-setting thing. If I have to come up with goals, surely they can’t be real. Real goals will come to me; I don’t have to find them”.

Chris began to understand that his job, and his goal, was the same. Although he was a competitive swimmer, his goal was never to win. Equally, his goal was not to achieve a certain time. He was a 100 meter swimmer, who swam in a 50 meter pool. His job (and goal) was simply to swim 2 lengths of the pool as quickly as he could.

Here’s an excerpt from, “Two Lengths of the Pool; Sometimes the simplest ideas have the greatest impact”, by Simon Hartley (available from June 2013)

All athletes want to win. However, Chris’ job was not to beat the guys next to him. The simple truth is that if Chris swam as fast as he could, and someone else swam quicker, they would win. If he swam as fast as he could, and nobody swam quicker, he’d win. That’s it. It really doesn’t get any more complicated than that.

Equally, if the fastest he could possibly swim was 60.1 seconds, why would we say “under 60 seconds”? If the fastest he could possibly swim was 58.7 seconds, why would we say “under 60 seconds” rather than “under 59 seconds”? The aim was always to swim as fast as possible. I am currently preparing to embark on an endurance challenge in aid of three charities (we’re calling it Challenge 2014). It’s a 40 day challenge that will take us around Great Britain. I’ve been asked how much money we’re aiming to raise. The answer is “as much money as we possibly can”. The response from most people is, “yes, but how many pounds?” My answer is, “as many as we possibly can”. There is no other answer. Why would there be a different answer?

Does this all mean that we shouldn’t plan?

Absolutely not! Equally, it doesn’t mean that we should abandon measuring and evaluating our progress. However, I would argue that we should focus on our processes, rather than results. If we have a simple, clear focus on what we need to do, as opposed to what we hope to achieve, we’re more likely to excel. If we stay focused on delivering our processes to a high standard we’re far more likely to get the results we’re looking for.

Olympic swimmer Chris Cook found that this mentality enabled him to become a double Olympian, an Olympic finalist and a double Commonwealth Champion, who finished his career as the 7th fastest athlete in history in his event.

Find out how you can adopt this mentality, by reading “Two Lengths of the Pool