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

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.