art-10The United States Centre For Disease Control estimates that thirty four per cent of Americans are overweight. It also estimates that a further thirty four per cent are obese. So that means that around seventy per cent of the population is unhealthy, some very much so.

The UK is not much better. The Overseas Development Institute study classed sixty four percent of adults as being overweight or obese. The report also predicts a ‘huge increase’ in heart attacks, strokes and diabetes. I am writing this not to delve into into weight or obesity, (although it is worth remembering that weight is a verb – it is not dead stuff we carry round – it is us – living flesh, something we maintain every moment of the day and night), but to wonder how goal setting is clearly not working when it comes to weight control.

There are a huge number of weight loss programs and there are huge people and huge numbers of people using them. All of them feature some form of goal setting.

Goal setting is one of the rock solid bases of coaching, therapy, business management and general life style management. It has a huge influence and a huge literature, and yet the magazine Psychology Today ran an article last month entitled, ‘Why Goal setting Does Not Work’.

Notice that the title is not, ‘Does Goal setting work?’ but instead presupposes goal setting does not work and proceeds to give reasons why it does not work. This might be just an attention grabbing headline, but it is worth looking into their argument.

First off they point out the legendary (but fictitious), study of the 1953 Yale University class. Here is the short version of this urban legend – three percent of the class members when asked about goals, said they had written them down. Twenty years later according to the report they found that these three percent had accumulated more wealth than the rest of the class put together. At best this is a nice anecdote, (proving people who write more, earn more?) but this research actually never took place, there was no such study.

The Psychology Today article draws together some ideas from different management books and case studies and sets out a persuasive case. They focus mostly on setting of ambitious goals. One study they quote showed that when individuals fail to achieve stretch goals, their performance declines. Another study by L. King and C. Burton The Hazards of Goal Pursuit, says, “The optimally striving individual ought to endeavour to achieve and approach goals that only slightly implicate the self; that are only moderately important, fairly easy, and moderately abstract; that do not conflict with each other, and that concern the accomplishment of something other than financial gain.”

Many coaches would take issue with this, it is as passionate as a piece of soggy cardboard and ‘fairly easy’ and moderately abstract’ goals hardly set the heart racing.

The article also mentions that brains are generally resistant to change and move towards rewards and away from pain, so any thinking pattern change will be automatically resisted.

I think the article brings up two questions, but then muddles them together. One is the whole idea of setting goals, and the other is how to think about goals if you set them at all. It seems clear that we all seek to achieve something – at the most basic, we want pleasure and avoid pain. So here are a couple of basic ‘goals’ that motivate us all. Then our prefrontal cortex gets involved and we start to make decisions about what will give us pleasure – either short term and long term. Sometimes we forego the short term pleasure in the hope of getting more in the long term. We also decide what gives us pain and avoid or get rid of those things, (or accept them in order to get more pleasure further down the line). So in a basic sense we are all goal driven.

The problems that can go wrong with goals are the same as those that can go wrong with the way we live our life. We can get too narrow in focus, too much concentrated on the short term. We can ignore the wider implications of the situation and other people in our pursuits. We may be tempted to use unethical methods to achieve them, or lie about our performance. We may become discouraged, demotivated, or on the other extreme, driven and terrorised by our goals. We may achieve something else entirely.

These dangers mentioned in the article are not reasons to give up setting goals, but exactly those things we need to pay attention to, and with the help of a coach work through, in order to be successful.

In some cases, even when people do not achieve goals, the very fact of setting them and striving for them helps them achieve more than if they had not set the goals. Who runs fastest, the athlete who can see the tape at the end of the race, or the athlete who just runs off into the distance hoping perhaps something will stop them eventually?

Two points from the article are important.

First, a clear understanding of the present state and where you are now is essential in goal setting that leads to success. No coach would quarrel with that. Goals are not just about the future, they are about creating the future and then creating the path from now to then.

Second, a distinction between an intention and a goal. An intention is a direction – like a desire to serve. An intention is the equivalent to the direction we run up the pitch in a football match. A goal is a specific achievement that comes from our intention. It is scoring the goal. And you do not score goals by running in the opposite direction. Intentions come before goals. Clarify your intentions first. They are much more important than goals. Then think of some specific ways you can measure how you are heading in the right direction, and with clear intentions, these goals will fall out quite easily and naturally. And a coach will always help.

We are on holiday in August, so this will be the only Lambent letter in August. Have a great month and see you in September.


This post is also available in: SpanishPortuguese (Brazil)