Does setting goals really work?

Goals are good, right? Practically all organisations set goals for themselves and for their people. Goals for sales. Goals for market share. Goals for personal performance. And not just any goals, of course, but SMART ones. Specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bounded. We all have them. And we all grumble about them. But the question is: should we really be setting goals at all?

In his new book, ‘The Antidote’, journalist and writer Oliver Burkeman asks this very question. And his conclusion might surprise, irritate or even horrify you. Because setting goals, it turns out, might not be the key to success after all.


The first problem with goals is what organisational behaviour expert Chris Kayes calls ‘goalodicy’, or the way in which an external target can become part of our own identities. To fail to achieve the goal means to admit failure as an individual. And this can drive us to take ever greater risks, sacrificing everything to achieve the goal.

This unquestioning focus on the goal leads to an unhealthy single-mindedness. Even in the face of mounting evidence that the goal is an unwise one, rather than revise the goal, organisations simply invest more effort and resources in achieving it. So when things inevitably go wrong, they go very wrong.

The second problem with goals is that they can stop us thinking for ourselves. Burkeman gives the example of New York taxi drivers. When it’s raining, he observes, it can be more difficult to hail a cab than when it is sunny. The obvious response is that there’s more demand, so of course it will be more difficult. All the taxis are already full.

But when economist Colin Camerer and his colleagues looked into this phenomenon in more detail, they found that while demand for taxis did indeed go up when it was raining, the supply of taxis actually shrank. It turned out that New York taxi drivers set themselves daily targets for earnings, which they reached more quickly when it was raining, as there was more business.

But rather than sticking around to earn a bit more from people desperate to get out of the rain, the drivers clocked off and went home once they had reached their target. Achieving the income goal for the day took precedence over rational behaviour and, indeed, basic common sense. The drivers had, explains Burkeman, invested in their goals beyond the point that doing so served their best interests.

The third problem with goals is that, contrary to academic experiments in the laboratory, the real world rarely allows us to focus on just one objective. What we do in one aspect of our work or of our lives invariably exerts an effect on other aspects. We can never change just one thing. Striving to achieve a goal in one particular area will inevitably have unintended consequences – and not necessarily positive ones – in other areas.

Burkeman gives the example of an executive who had set himself the aim of becoming a millionaire by the age of forty. He had achieved this goal, but he was now divorced from his wife, had health problems and was not in contact with his children. He had achieved his goal, but had suffered probably irreparable damage in other aspects of his life.

So why do we do this to ourselves? We set ourselves goals, explains Burkeman, in response to uncertainty. We don’t know what the future will hold, so we use goals as way of investing in our preferred vision of that future. Not because they will necessarily help us to achieve that vision, but because they help to us rid ourselves of the uncertainty that we encounter in the present.

What we should do, though, is turn towards uncertainty. We should learn to develop a tolerance for it, or even to embrace it. We should free ourselves from the shackles of the goals we set – and have the courage to face the future as it comes. Uncertainty, argues Burkeman, is where things happen. “It is,” he writes, “where the opportunities – for success, for happiness, for really living – are waiting.”

This post was first published at

Climate Change: Actions speak (much) louder than words

As part of my drive to get fit and to be a bit more healthy, and as regular readers will already know, I’ve recently taken up running. When the sun’s out and I have nothing pressing on my to-do list, I like nothing more than to pull on my trainers and get out for a brisk jog through the countryside. But if the weather is bad or if I have lots of other things to do, my resolve tends to weaken a little.

This plays havoc with my training programme. Especially when I have taken the perhaps rather ill-advised step of signing up for a 10km rather hilly off-road race in just over a week’s time and, quite frankly, need all of the running practice that I can get. So while I started off with plenty of time to get in the desired mileage, with every missed run the amount of training I need to do before race day gets more and more. And the chance of me actually doing it becomes less and less.

For Red Dwarf fans, this will sound remarkably like Rimmer’s revision plan. When preparing for his astronavigation exam, holographic crew member Arnold Rimmer spends so much of the available time developing an elaborate revision timetable that he now has significantly less time for revision itself. As a result of which he develops a new, compressed revision schedule. Which means that he now has even less time. And so on. Needless to say, he fails the exam. Eleven times.

It also sounds very much like our current approach to combating climate change. We start by setting some impressive looking targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a point in the distant future. We then slump back in a chair and feel very pleased with ourselves, forgetting for the moment that setting targets is not the same as actually doing something.

So we make some plans. We analyse where our greenhouse gas emissions are coming from and who the main polluters are. We produce reports explaining what will need to change if we are to meet our new emissions targets. We even create depressing scenarios of what will happen if we don’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But still concrete action remains elusive.

Rather than direct our efforts to things that reduce our carbon footprint, we devote our time to finding ways to look like we’re doing something without actually having to make any of the difficult decisions. We develop complex emissions trading schemes that allow us to do what we’ve always been doing. We export carbon intensive activities to other parts of the world. We encourage each other to ‘offset’ emissions rather than reduce them.

And we get mired in arguments about technicalities. We go to great lengths to explain why it’s OK to continue to burn fossil fuels, while dismissing the potential of renewable technologies. We quibble with the way greenhouse gas emissions and atmospheric carbon dioxide are measured, as if the damage we are doing to our planet is but an artefact of the statistics we use. We wring our hands and question whether it’s even our fault at all.

Yet with each day that we do nothing, the challenges that lie before us become greater. We have more and more to do, but less and less time to do it. Our targets, once so full of promise, become a constant reminder of our inability to change our ways.

We cannot combat climate change by doing nothing.  We cannot hide behind our spreadsheets, our statistical analyses and our economic forecasts. We need to make difficult decisions. We need to change what we do and how we do it. We need to be willing to make sacrifices in the short term, so that we can ensure our longer term survival.

Our grandfathers knew all about hard work and sacrifice. Our fathers taught us that nothing good comes without great effort. But today we live under the fatal assumption that we can live without diligence and endeavour. That our technological prowess insulates us from the consequences of our actions. That our mastery of our world is such that the rules under which we have lived for millennia no longer apply. Well, we are wrong.

Whether it’s running, revision or reducing greenhouse emissions, unless we actually make an effort and do something, we have no hope of achieving our goals. Success does not come to those who sit quietly and hope for the best. Rather, it comes to those who have a goal and who give their all to achieve it. If we really want to protect our planet – and ourselves – from the ravages of climate change, we must all take action. And we must take it now.

The buck stops here

Two weeks from today, things are going to get a lot more serious. Because in fourteen days time I will go to the office I’ve worked in for the last decade and hand over my laptop, my blackberry and my corporate credit card… in short, everything that the respectable corporate clone could possibly need. I will be well and truly on my own.

But far from being a calamity, this is a time to rejoice. Because this situation is entirely of my own choosing. That’s right. In this time of recession and rising unemployment, I have decided to leave my respectable, relatively secure job and start out on my own. Goodbye, regular pay check. Scrimping, saving self-employment, here I come.

The Buck Stops Here - Harry S. Truman Presidential Museum and Library - Independence, Missouri

(Image: Marshall Astor/Flickr)

The idea of setting up my own business started a few years ago, when I found that I wasn’t as engaged with my job as I used to be. I worked hard, but found it more and more difficult to drum up the enthusiasm that used to accompany me on my way to work. And I found that, despite rising up through the ranks of the company, I had less and less freedom in what I did and how I did it. The company wasn’t going to change, so it was clear that I had to.

So now I’m going to be my own boss. I’ll find the clients and I’ll do the work. I’ll make the decisions and I’ll pay the bills. I’ll fix the printer and I’ll make the tea. If I have an idea that I want to try out, then I can do it there and then. If a decision needs to be made, then I can make it without consulting with anyone else first. And if it all goes terribly wrong, then I’ll only have myself to blame. The buck truly does stop here.

So here I am. Standing on the brink of possibly my most daring venture to date. Leaving the swish office and IT support for the kitchen table and a laptop. Trading the certainty of a salaried job for the excitement and anxiety of being my own boss. And with a massive grin on my face.

Help! is at hand

I’ve just finished reading a book that does exactly what it says on the cover, no more and no less. Which is quite refreshing in these days of media hype and rash promises. Sufficiently so, in fact, that I just had to tell you about it.

Help! by Oliver Burkeman

Help! by Oliver Burkeman

Subtitled ‘how to become slightly happier and get a bit more done’, Help! by Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman brings common sense and scientific evidence to the world of self-help books. It guides readers through the maze of hyperbole and seeks out things that may actually be useful in our personal, work, social and emotional lives.

There’s something in the book for everyone, no matter how organised, focused, gregarious or balanced you already are. Here are the eight things that I, for one, am definitely going to try to remember.

1. Goals aren’t always a good thing. We tend to set ourself specific objectives that we want to achieve (indeed, in many big companies, we have SMART goals forced upon us at every turn), but these can act as blinkers when it comes to recognising changes in the world around us or identifying interesting opportunities that may come our way. As Burkeman says, we can have a direction in our lives without obsessing about the specific destination.

2. You regret what you don’t do, not what you do. This pretty much says it all, really. So if you want to do something, just go out and do it. You’ll only kick yourself if you don’t. I can think of few things worse than reaching old age and thinking I’d wasted my life. Having no money and living in a box I could just about cope with, but regrets: not so much.

3. Cut people some slack. When we’re rude to someone or drive like a muppet, it’s because we’re having a tough day or because we’re in a hurry to get home. But when someone else behaves the same way, it’s because they’re an obnoxious so-and-so. Isn’t it possible, though, that they’re also a fundamentally decent person who’s also responding to less than perfect circumstances? So cut people some slack sometimes.

4. Meetings are (usually) the biggest waste of time on the planet. As Burkeman points out, meetings proceed at the pace of the slowest mind in the room. So all but one attendees are wasting large chunks of their time. If you have information to share, then write it down and email it to people. Only organise a meeting if you genuinely need people to bounce ideas off each other. Otherwise, don’t bother. Most people just want to get on with their work, not sit around and jabber about it.

5. Play to your strengths. People spend a lot of time trying to improve in the areas where they are weakest, but they’re only ever going to be mediocre at best. This is particularly the case in large corporations, where a uniform ‘skill set’ is seen as desirable. But we’re not uniform. Instead, why not play to your strengths? Take something you’re good at and get even better. And don’t care if you’re less than perfect at other things.

6. Don’t put off important tasks. When I have a large or important job to do, I have a natural tendency to put if off until I have a big chunk of time that I can devote to completing it. But you and I both know that this just isn’t ever going to happen. So the task remains not just unfinished, but unstarted. Burkeman’s response is to just get on with it, working on the task every time you have a few minutes to spare. Clearly, this won’t work with things that require a lot of set-up time, like painting the living room ceiling. But for most tasks it should do just fine.

7. Make collaborative decisions. Burkeman suggests a useful way for two people to choose between several options, such as which pizza to order or which film to watch at the cinema. The first person chooses five ‘potentials’. The second person narrows this down to three. The first person then picks the ‘winner’. This is great. My wife and I tried it last night when we were trying to decide which DVD to watch, and it worked a treat.

8. It’s OK to give up. We’ve had it drummed into us since we were kinds that once we’ve started something, we should see it through. But how many half-read books, for example, do you have lying around that weren’t as good as you thought they would be, but which you’ve convinced yourself you’ll finish when you get the time? Burkeman’s answer is simple. Just give up. Don’t do things simply for the sake of doing them. Instead, use the time to do something that you actually want to do. And take the books to the charity shop.

Some simple priorities

Step one in sorting out my life is to set a few ground rules; some simple priorities for how things are going to work from now on. So I’ve had a think and have decided on three things that I can do to get the ball rolling.

Firstly, I’m going to eat more healthily. I’m usually pretty good at eating the right sort of things, but when I get tired, worried or stressed I do have a distinct propensity to munch on stuff. And when things get busy, I tend to grab a packet of crisps rather than rustle up a salad. So I’m going to try harder to prepare proper meals and snacks, using fresh food and lots of things that I’ve grown in the garden.

Second, I plan to take more exercise. I already walk for a couple of hours a day with the dog, but I want to do more to improve my strength and fitness and – if we’re being honest – to shift a few pounds. I used to do yoga in the mornings, and I’d like to get back to doing that every day. I also used to run quite a lot when I was younger, so it’s time to dust off my trainers and get back out there.

Finally, I want to write more. I really enjoy writing; the act of putting pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard) and working out how best to communicate what I want to say. And the more I write, the more I enjoy it. So I’ll try to make sure that I write something every day, whether it’s a post for this blog, an article on something that interests me or part of a longer term project.

I’ll start with these and see how things go. They’re not revolutionary steps, but some simple things that I can do to be a healthier, happier and more balanced individual. And once I’ve got them sorted, they’ll provide me with a solid base from which to move on to other, more ambitious goals.