Goal setting: good or bad?

The advice “stop focusing on goals” was popularized in books like How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life by Scott Adams and Four Seconds: All the Time You Need to Replace Counter-Productive Habits with Ones That Really Work by Peter Bregman.

The authors’ premise is that establishing areas of focus and putting our energy into “systems” or habits can lead to better results than setting reach-it-and-be-done kinds of goals. Having goals can lead to myopia and the feeling of discouragement and stress, they say, while instituting areas of focus and routines broadens our perspective and makes the process of improving our situation more pleasant and rewarding.

Numerous other authors take the opposite stance, saying that goals are crucial to accomplishing great things in life. Who is right here? In my opinion, neither group has the answer.

Beal Projects’ two-pronged approach to achieving desired outcomes

In the framework I, Adriana Beal, developed for personal use and to help the participants of my coaching program to reorient their career in a more compelling direction, there are two complementary tactics:

Tactic #1: Finite, “from A to B” goals

Tactic #1 is about defining a specific outcome we are trying to achieve. The idea is to transition something (us, a business, a process, etc.) from point A to point B. A reach-it-and-be-done goal is extremely useful to help us focus our efforts. Instead of just relying on habits and routines (e.g., “I will read a book a month to keep building my competencies”) that may lead to unfocused efforts, a finite goal lets you concentrate on a specific outcome (e.g., “I will master machine learning by the end of the year”) that leverages our positive habits and routines to take your performance to the next level.

An effective “A to B” goal may look like one of these statements:

“Boost revenue by 20% this year”
“Drive down purchasing costs by $1 billion over the next five years”
“Find a repeatable and scalable business model”
“Halve the time it takes to respond to customer complaints”
“Get a job at a Fortune 500 corporation”
“Become more knowledgeable in predictive analytics”
“Lose 10 pounds”

Once a finite goal is achieved, it may need to be replaced with another goal that makes sense after “point B” is achieved. For instance, after achieving the goal of finding a repeatable and scalable business model, a startup would shift its focus to scaling the business, which becomes the next goal.

Sometimes, after a goal is achieved, it must replaced with permanent habits and routines (tactic #2 described below) in order to produce lasting results. For example, after achieving the goal of losing 10 pounds, a person could shift its focus to maintenance, changing the strategy from temporarily food restriction to long-term exercising habits and routines to prevent the weight from creeping back on. Or, after meeting a cost reduction target, a company may shift its focus to making the cutbacks sustainable, rather than risking decreasing quality or service by trying to further extend their cost reduction efforts.

Tactic #2: Permanent habits and routines to keep us on the path to success

In addition finite, “from A to B” goals, we need to identify the habits and routines that can keep us on the path to success, however we define it.

Imagine a person who defines success as living a life free from health and financial worries. They know that in order to achieve this desired outcome, they need to overcome some self-defeating behaviors, such as being sedentary, eating junk food, and failing to pursue skill development opportunities that can be translated into valuable career opportunities. Developing good habits such as packing healthy snacks to bring to work and regularly scheduling blocks of time to learn new skills free from Internet distractions may be key to staying on track with this long-term goal.

The verdict

Rather than picking a side on this fight (“goals are counterproductive” vs. “goals are the key to success”), a better option is to use integrative thinking to incorporate both ideas: well-designed goals that mobilize our efforts toward the removal of obstacles in the way of a desired outcome, and recurring patterns of behavior that are critical for getting us closer to our long-term aspirations.

If you think about it, the chances of success are increased by a combination of positive habits and behaviors that with time-bound goals dedicated to overcoming an obstacle in the way of achieving a desired outcome. The problem with goal setting is not the approach itself, but that it’s often used incorrectly. To quote from goal-averse author Scott Adams,

“A hammer can be used to build a porch or it can used to crush your neighbor’s skull. Don’t hate the tool.”

But how to identify the right goals and routines to adopt?

There is no shortcut to selecting the right goals or the right habits to cultivate: you need to do your homework, starting from your own definition of success and looking for proven ways to get you there. For example, research shows that chess students who study with coaches have higher national ratings compared to those who don’t. If you wanted to become a chess master, it would make sense to first set a goal to do some research to find a good coach, and then  replace it with a routine of deliberate practice under the coach’s supervision.

If you study the trajectory of highly successful business analysts, you’ll notice that while there may be large differences in their career paths, they all share three critical attributes: the ability to generate valuable creative ideas to solve business problems, communicate these ideas in effective ways, and get buy-in for those ideas from decision makers. To elevate your role, get access to the most interesting projects, and build a compelling career, you need to develop laser-like focus on developing the skills that count the most.

Need inspiration for defining your next goal? Download the guide Beyond SMART Goals: Effective Goal Setting for Business Analysts.

Wondering which new habits to adopt to work your way up in the skill ladder? Check out our list of recommended superpowers all business analysts should be developing to remain relevant in a world of constant technology advances. 


Photo: Jonas Hosler (CC BY 2.0)