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Is goal setting a waste of time?

Updated: Aug 22, 2019

We are told that in order to succeed, you must set goals, but do they work? Intention may offer a more powerful solution.

We are told that in order to succeed, you must set goals to give you focus and direction. But is this right? Does goal setting help you to create the life you want, boost your career prospects, or help you reach your highest potential? Intention setting offers a new more powerful alternative to goals alone.

From an early age at school, I was taught to set goals and work towards them. My teacher told me that goals must always be SMART. In my youth, I remember labouring away to meticulously check that every goal I set was specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. By doing so I believed that this would lead to a more successful outcome. I continued to follow this blind belief as I took my first steps in management.

When working towards my Master's degree in training and performance management I studied different ways of motivating staff to improve their performance and thus their contribution to the company. I discovered that traditional performance management systems with SMART goals rarely have the desired motivational impact. According to researchers "second only to firing an employee, managers cite performance appraisal as the task they dislike the most”.

"second only to firing an employee, managers cite performance appraisal as the task they dislike the most”.

Researching content for my new book ‘Intention Matters’, I discovered some of the reasons why goal setting frequently fails to deliver the desired results.

Whilst SMART goals might help you to get a school assignment in on time, meet a performance target at work or deliver a project, they can also be highly restrictive. Their tight focus is both a help and a limitation, depending on the circumstance—and the intention! Goals keep you on track but often inhibit creativity and innovation. Sometimes, they turn out to be barriers to achieving what’s really important or needed at work, at home or in life in general. Working with intention, conversely, allows you to be more flexible, agile and resilient. Intentions engage the brain more fully than goals. The good news is that intention is increasingly recognised as a cognitive skill that can be learned.

Goals keep you on track but often inhibit creativity and innovation.

Intention Matters uses the I-AM model to explain the key differences in the way that the mind and brain engage with goals vs intentions. The starting point for harnessing the power of intention is a Deep Sincere Desire; this is not usually the starting point for goals. Belief is required to ignite the conviction that things can be different. This is not always the case with goals, particularly if they are imposed. Goals lead to partial or unstructured activation of will and the application of focussed attention. This illustrates why goal-setting can be ineffective, as it fails to effectively stimulate the mind and brain to provide the energy to drive the machinery—both mental and physical—that makes things happen.

So why don’t more companies work with employees to help them set meaningful intentions for their work?

It may have something to do with the compulsion to measure things, fuelled by the old management adage ‘If you can’t measure it, you can't manage it’. As many companies are discovering to their cost, excessive measurement and micro-management inhibits creativity, demotivates staff, and has no benefit to the bottom line. Years ago, when conducting research into the most effective ways to develop leaders, I discovered that companies prefer to deploy leadership development interventions that are easy to measure in preference to those that are proven to be highly effective in developing leadership but may be difficult to measure, and thus justify return on investment (ROI).

Companies prefer to invest in management solutions that are easy to measure in preference to more effective alternatives that may be more difficult to measure.

Forward-thinking organisations are starting to see the value of purpose and intention. Renelle Darr, in leading business magazine Forbes writes “More than ever, people are wanting more out of work than money. They want more meaning and more purpose. They want to be able to see how their contribution to the workplace makes a difference.” The modern day workplace is changing.

Employees feel better and perform better and more sustainably when four basic needs are met: renewal, value, focus, and purpose.

Recent Harvard research suggests that people feel better and perform better and more sustainably when four basic needs are met: renewal (physical); value (emotional), focus (mental) and purpose (spiritual). With the exception of renewal, Intention ticks all of these boxes, whilst most goals at best only tick the focus box.

Further, the research demonstrated that when employees feel that any one of their four needs has been met, they can focus better, feel more engaged and are more likely to stay with the company. If all four needs are met, engagement rises by 125%. Engagement is positively correlated with profitability. In a meta-analysis of 263 research studies across 192 companies, employers with the most engaged employees were 22% more profitable than those with the least engaged employees.

Goal setting involves the development of an action plan designed to motivate and guide you towards a goal.

The problem with goal setting is that once set these goals presuppose that we know exactly what we need to do. But do we?

Sometimes opportunities arise that nudge us in a direction we hadn’t planned on. Intention setting helps us to notice and grab these opportunities.

Goal setting is not a bad idea. It’s just that sometimes, while you’re busy focusing on your SMART goals there may be a much better idea that you hadn’t thought of and never would have thought of without setting an intention. And if you’re focused on goals to the exclusion of all else, you’ll miss it.

Goal setting is not a waste of time, but intentions are more powerful.

More about intention vs goals, and how to work with intention is detailed in my book: Intention Matters: the science of creating the life you want.

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