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Should I set goals for myself?

Should I Set Goals? [and How to NOT Mess it Up]

Jack Cao
Jack Cao
With so many productivity gurus and self-help experts promoting goal setting, we can often overlook scenarios when goal setting goes wrong. Here are the things that I have discovered about the dark side of goal setting and how to counterbalance them.
Table of Contents

With so many productivity gurus and self-help experts promoting goal setting, we can often overlook scenarios when goal setting goes wrong.

If done wrong, goal setting decreases creativity, creates an unsustainable motivation and causes unethical, unwanted behaviors in both our personal and professional life. There are three elements that you can take to make sure goal-setting is on your side.

Here are the things that I have discovered about the dark side of goal setting and how to counterbalance them.

When goals gone wild

Knowing how to set goals can bring in relentless motivation, a laser beam focus and inspire others around us. Not knowing how to set goals, on the other hand, can cause harm in both our professional and personal life.

Killing creative work

We often think that with an exciting pot of gold waiting at the end of the goal-setting journey, we would be more motivated and inspired to work.

However, even with attractive rewards, goals can shoot down our ability to be creative and generate valuable ideas.

In the book Drive by Daniel Pink, he mentioned an interesting phenomenon with giving a reward when achieving a goal:

Rewards can perform a weird sort of behavioral alchemy: They can transform an interesting task into a drudge. They can turn play into work.”

Harvard Business School conducted an experiment to see how reward can affect creativity and an artist’s overall ability to create artworks.

goal setting kills creativity
Image for Illustration (Source)

So a team of critiques was asked to review and rate a bunch of artworks without knowing the background of whether the artist was working with a commission or not. The end result was the majority was considered less impressive and less creative.

As we place extrinsic motivation above, intrinsic motivation decreases. Along with the rewards comes pressure and stress, which is the biggest block to creativity and problem-solving skills.

Creativity comes the most when we are most relaxed, free and detached from the outcome of a project. As the conscious mind takes a break, the subconscious mind continues to work on the problems and connects one situation with different pools for answers.

As we take a shower, taking a jog, going through our gym routine, or even having a good night's sleep, we can spark new ways of solving the puzzle.

Goals that are too specific can cut off this creativity and randomness that are essential for shedding original and new perspectives on the problem.

Generating an Unsustainable Motivation

It’s extremely hard to achieve big and challenging goals. There will always be resistance against leaving the comfort zone.

Without a proper expectation, setting goals that are too challenging can lead to unrealistic estimation of how well we can perform.

Big goals often come with an uplifting vision when we see ourselves as more productive, more capable, and happier.

But we also often overestimate our ability to achieve those goals. We think that initial motivation will last for weeks and months, so we set 5 new habits and expect all of them to stick.

Waking up early, exercising, journaling, meditating, reading every single day.

Of course, the motivation will last for about 2 weeks for most people. January 19th every year is considered “Quitter’s Day” as researchers found that most people will abandon their resolutions in less than 3 weeks.

And the more failures we have, the less likely we are to believe in ourselves. Year after year of failed attempts. We keep subliminally telling ourselves that we simply don’t have what it takes to achieve those goals. 

So we give up. We quit improving ourselves. We accept and resign to our current situation.

Goal setting can give you a quick taste of intense excitement, but it is highly unreliable and will turn its back on you at the first sight of troubles. Motivation alone doesn’t take us very far in this journey.

Causing Unethical and Unwanted Behaviors

There have been numerous cases of how ambitious goal setting can lead to disaster in the professional world.

With a strict deadline, a dreadful KPI handed down to the workers, and an over-emphasis on how they must get it done, people cut corners and do the wrong things.

The Ford’s Pinto has been the prime example of when goals went bad at the workplace.

ford pinto disaster
A Book on Ford's Disaster

In the 1980s, the company claimed that it could make a car that sells for 2000 USD and weighs less than 2000 pounds. Workers, managers, all were rushing to make this happen. And with a fatal flaw in the design that could have easily been tested, the Ford Pinto caused 58 deaths, marking a stain in the company’s brand forever.

Managers at Ford knowingly ignored safety procedures so they can reach their ambitious goals.

Again quoting Mr. Pink from Drive:

The problem with making an extrinsic reward the only destination that matters is that some people will choose the quickest route there, even if it means taking the low road.”

Obsessive over goals can erode our moral compass and stray us away from our values both in our professional and personal life.

We can justify ourselves for neglecting our health, our relationship, our general well-being for the sake of pursuing our goals, rationalizing that it’s okay to cheat.

Even if we manage to succeed in the short-term, this approach would only come back to bite us back in the long-term. As we obsess over one aspect, our entire life is tipped off balance.

Setting the right goals, the right way

Focus on Process over Result

As we narrow down our focus too much in a specific goal, we can risk losing our creativity, our inspiration, the opportunities to grow and embrace change.

There are 3 types of goals:

Outcome goals - in which we focus on the result. Ex: become the number one basketball player in the league

Process goals - in which we focus on the behaviors. Ex: eat healthily, go to the gym, get a consistent sleep routine, practice shooting, dribbling…

Performance goals - in which we focus on the standard of our action. Ex: eat 2500 calories a day with a Keto diet, hit the gym 3 times a week for cardio and conditioning, go to bed at 10:30 and wake up at 6:30, do 100 times free throw shots a day… 

No matter how much we try, we cannot fully control whether we will be the best basketball player or not. It’s beyond our control of how many talented players are out there and how hard they work. What truly is in our control is what we are prepared to do and how well we can execute our plan.

Obsessing over the number one title doesn’t bring a magical edge. All Olympian athletes want to get the gold medal, but the one who has been the most consistent with their habits and preparation is the one who will likely get the Gold.

Focusing on the process also leads to more enjoyment in our life. Every minute we are present during practice, we are witnessing growth and change happening. Every minute we think about how we haven’t reached the destination yet is a moment we feel loss, unappreciative of what we currently have.

 “We ought to use goals as a compass, not a GPS,” said Lisa Ordonez, Professor of Management and Operations at Arizona University. 

Thus, setting an outcome goal should be a direction rather than a fixed destination. What we must do is to build the best habits, remain consistent and preserve through the obstacles.

Start small and be patient

When we set sail on a new journey, we can often get carried away and overestimate how motivated we truly are.

The result is we try to change too many things too quickly. When the motivation burns out, we slide back and return to the starting line.

The opposite approach is trying out the Mini Habit and the Two-Day Rule.

Mini Habits – choosing to build a habit from a series of activities that take no more than 2 minutes to do every day. Example: start running is putting on your running shoes every day; start exercising is trying for 5 push-ups a day; start eating healthy is writing down what you eat everyday…

Two-Day Rule – no matter your habit, you cannot skip two days in a row. So if you forgot to put on your running shoes on Monday, your top Tuesday priority will be to put on that Adidas or Nike. This will be our contingency plan to guarantee that we will be consistent and accountable with our habits.

The biggest obstacle to changing our lives is making a habit stick: we lack the willpower to commit to the habits days, weeks and months. But with the mini habits, we don’t need to rely on our willpower to build our habits.

This may seem absurd and ridiculous but it’s the most guaranteed way to make a habit stick. As we have momentum in our side, just being 1% better than yesterday will make you mathematically 33 times better than we started out.

the 1 percent rule
James Clear’s illustration on mini habits.

The key is to be humble in the beginning and remain patient throughout the process.

As Bruce Lee said: “I fear not the man who has practiced 10000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10000 times.”

So don’t underestimate the power of small actions over the long game, my friend.

Embracing Failure

The modern lifestyle has successfully demonized failure as an evil force to be avoided at all costs.

We all hear stories of famous entrepreneurs and established athletes, marvel at how exceptional they are. The media and our culture at large avoided the mundane, drudgery and failures of those same exact stories.

For all the success that those extraordinary people have, they also have an extraordinary number of failures.

From where I’m from, Eastern Asian proverb has a saying: “Failure is the mother of success.”

Failure and success are two sides of the same coin, completing each other. When we fail, we are given the opportunity to reflect and grow ourselves. Through failure, we can attain a key insight or a kick-in-the-ass motivation boost.

Avoiding failure to remain an image of competency and perfectionism is the surest way we will never grow and reach our challenging goals. For the goals to be challenging, it means that we are only capable of achieving those goals through a series of self-improvement. And only through accepting that we are not enough, and embrace the certainty of failure can we make the most effective plans to grow ourselves.

Thus, planning failures into our goal setting strategies is necessary to achieve big and challenging goals.

Practice premortem thinking – layout multiple bad scenarios on our goals to see where we will likely fail and how to minimize those chances. Prepare the plan B, C, D, E… in case things didn’t go accordingly.

Develop a thicker skin –sometimes, failure is inevitable, no matter how well you plan. Especially when we are just starting out on our journey to achieve great things. Take your failure on the chin and remind yourself that this is not the end of the world, you have had similar failures like this in the past. And you are still fine.

“Does this matter in 10 years?” – most problems disappear through a long-term lens. Not getting caught up in pettiness will spear us the energy to focus on things that we can control and worthy of our attention. Free ourselves from the short-term narrative.

Growth over Fixed mindset – adopting a new set of mindset can be the key to turn failures into learning lessons. With a growth mindset, you take it easy on yourself when you mess things up, make improvements and move on. With a fixed mindset, you see failure as the crippling proof of your imperfection and agonize over the smallest missteps.


Setting goals can backfire on us when they are too specific or too challenging, making us more likely to quit, limiting our creativity and high performance in the long run, causing a great imbalance in our lives that can lead to lower self-esteem and self-loathing.

Focus on the process over outcomes, start small and be patient with acceptance toward failures are the three ways we can counter this problem. Balancing goal setting to have the motivation, focus, and direction without the unwanted side-effects.

Check how Habitify can help you form better habits and follow through with your goals.