Yes! You read that right. The heading reads unlike any other you may have encountered in the past; however, it is nothing short of the truth. Goal setting indeed presents a hindrance to higher achievements. You may ask how I know this.
Besides being an entrepreneur, who has been in digital marketing for the past 30 years, I have also trained and coached more than 20,000 top executives to reach higher levels of performance, joy, and happiness for more than 15 years with my coaching side-business.
I’m a secular Buddhist and life coach for high achievers and entrepreneurs. I keenly follow the latest achievements in Neurobiology and psychological research, letting this wisdom and knowledge flow into my work.
My extensive experience has afforded me a deep understanding of what it takes to achieve a successful business and overall self-improvement that covers every aspect of our lives.
This piece is part of my series ‘Mental Tools For Higher Achievement, A Happy Life, And A Calm And Concentrated State Of Mind.’
Instead of goal-setting tips or setting smart goals, I want to show you a different perspective on goals, and especially how it is perceived by our very unbalanced and obsessive achievement culture.
Together we will find a path to achieving what’s good for you while at the same time staying happy, healthy, and enjoying your best life fully.
What Is Goal Setting?
Goal setting is the process of identifying things you want to accomplish and then establishing measurable action plans and time frames to make them attainable.
According to Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business school and top researcher on the topic, research has shown that achievable goals are great for people who want to stay focused and perform. Still, they can lead to unintended consequences and undesirable behaviors.
Why Goal Setting Is Outdated
Initially, when a set goal is met, the excitement from the achievement is motivating but often short-lived. When this happens, new goals are created. The craving causes us to set an even bigger goal until they become even less achievable, finally trapping one in a loop of failure and disappointment.
Adam Alter, a professor of marketing and New York Times bestselling author, describes how defined goals, whether personal goals, short-term goals, or long-term goals, leave the individual unfulfilled. ”There’s a lot of failures before one gets to their goal; and when one does finally get there, they experience a massive anti-climax.”
He explains before referring to the goal-setting theory as outdated. In essence, goal achievement leaves you surprisingly unhappy and disappointed. You begin craving more, similar to a drug junkie.
It’s no wonder today’s society is scattered with individuals who, in their dopamine-filled chase of “realistic goals,” end up as drained individuals with subpar well-being.
You have to ask yourself, is goal setting important after all?
How Your Brain Processes Goals
Understanding the function of the neurotransmitter, Dopamine explains why the goal-setting process is not all that it seems.
Achieving specific goals causes a sudden release of the neuromodulator dopamine, which causes you to feel very excited and energetic. This is why we feel good when achieving our smaller goals and even better after reaching bigger ones.
However, aside from being the reward molecule, dopamine encourages motivation, movement, thriving, and craving. It also gets released in anticipation, so if you have a measurable goal that you want to achieve, you get a huge spike of dopamine that is so big, it’s as if you’ve achieved your goal in anticipation when you think about it.
The flip side of the coin with dopamine is that after the spike of dopamine and the pleasure you feel, you get hit by pain at a much higher intensity. We don’t experience this pain as physical pain, but more as a “craving”.
You then crave, get attached, become very obsessed, and addicted to your goal.
That’s the moment where you get distracted and lose focus since you’re more busy handling your intense emotions instead of doing the hard work and putting in the right effort to get final results.
Anna Lembke, a professor of Psychiatry and Addiction Medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine, says,
“Pleasure and pain work like a balance. It wants to remain level, that is, in equilibrium. It does not want to be tipped for very long to one side or another.”
(Book title: Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence)
The frustrating neurobiology of disappointment
When we anticipate a reward, dopamine is released, and there’s an even bigger spike when we get rewarded. However, if the reward doesn’t happen, it plunges just as big, below the baseline, leaving one feeling intensely low mood. This is what is known as the reward prediction error.
At some point, we have all felt severe disappointment at unmet expectations. This error explains how an anticipated reward that doesn’t happen is worse than one that was never anticipated—leading to intense feelings of frustration, self-doubt, guilt, fear of failing, and shame if you don’t meet your own or external expectations. Negative emotions that could have been channeled to achieving your goals.
Let Go of Goals and Concentrate on the Right Effort
We are so fixated on effective goal setting and the types of goals we set that we do not put in the right effort to reach the goal. Instead of concentrating on what your outcomes should be, you should focus on the effort needed. Anything is achievable if the right effort is applied.
Let’s say you want to take a road trip. You have your destination picked out and plan to drive yourself. Your car is what you need to get to your destination. If you don’t make sure it’s in good condition, you most likely will not make it there. So you’ll need to get your car properly serviced, check for gas, possibly top up on your way and stand a greater chance of making it to your destination, right?
This is what it means to put in the right effort towards getting to your destination, and it’s what you should be fixated on, not the destination itself. Always put in the right effort.
What Exactly Is the Right Effort?
The right effort is to be concentrated and focused while creating time for essential parts of your personal life like leisure, family time, emotional energy, peace of mind, and overall bodily health. You need to be able to thrive all-around in all aspects of your life.
Suppressing or repressing other aspects of your life will end up breaking you down, along with your business. It’s all connected.
Letting go of your goals does not mean falling into apathy and just waiting until something happens. Instead, you need to use your intellect, brainstorm, and develop the ideas needed to achieve positive results and self-improvement.
Set Systems Instead of Goals
Instead of having a set goal that you fail to accomplish repeatedly and for a long time, you should concentrate instead on your input, the hard work required to succeed every day.
Let’s take, for instance, you’re an entrepreneur, and you want to launch a new startup. The number of tasks and relations you build can become overwhelming. What exactly do you do when you find yourself in that situation?
Take smaller steps, create a plan and break it down to daily achievements—this way, the pressure of accomplishing big tasks is reduced.
Concentrate only on what you need to achieve that day; this way, you’ll be practicing effective time management without being time-bound.
Understand that things change, and not everything is under your control.
Know that at the end of every day, you define what’s important for the next day.
With this method, you have daily achievements and get a much lower peak of dopamine and craving (pain) that is much easier to handle than the overly exciting moments associated with long-term and short-term goals.
Finally, as long as you’re going in the right direction, you feel motivated, and the motivation keeps you going.
Instead of failing every day (until you achieve your goal), you succeed every day (with your daily effort).
Give yourself entirely into the work but let go of the outcome. With golden rules like these, you’ll go through the process one day at a time while still keeping your attainable goals in mind, and in no time, your project will be ready to launch.