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In Defense of Goal Setting

My post 5.5 Self Development Techniques I No Longer Believe In caused a bit of a stir, a few misunderstandings and a handful of death threats.

Even though I listed goal setting as one of the things I had lost faith in, I did explain that I by no means meant it was wrong for everybody.

The reality is, I happen to think goal setting is veeeeery cool and highly useful for a good proportion of the population and as a Life Coach I am not about to abandon it any time soon, although as I said in my post 5 Myths of Goal Setting, I do think the process can be misunderstood.

What percentage of the population it’s great for is the part I’m honestly not sure about. My gut instinct and hands on experience tells me it’s around the 75% mark, but I only have my own anecdotal evidence to support that belief, which is far from scientific or conclusive.

Shortly after the post went live I had a back and forth on Facebook with Tony Bedford about the relative merits of goal setting, with Tony looking to set the record straight and defend the ancient art against my malicious, brutal and unprovoked attack.

Well ok maybe I didn’t quite go that far and we soon concluded we were at cross purposes and hugged and made up. Prior to that however, Tony sent me a guest post stating his point of view and I thought it would be cool to share it with you today because, whisper it quietly, I pretty much agree with everything he says.

In Defense of Goal Setting

Although I agree with most of what Tim says, there’s one area where we seem to disagree strongly, and that’s on the topic of goals. Tim has identified that as one personal development tool that he thinks doesn’t work, but I believe goal setting to be one of the most powerful and effective personal development tools there is.

Why goals are important

It’s too easy to just sit on the couch, watch TV and let life go by. I happen to think that’s a waste. Life is precious and short and we should do our best to make the most of it.

The most important feature of a goal is that it is a call to action, it is a stake in the ground and setting a goal lays down a challenge. Taking up the gauntlet and striving towards a goal can lead to great changes in your life. I have experienced this first hand.

Since I started to set and reach goals my life has been richer, more satisfying and happier. I’ve also noticed where I helped friends to set goals, their enjoyment of life has increased too, and I believe that most people can benefit from goal setting.

Why goals are effective

In life we need feedback. We learn from feedback. If we don’t have feedback to process we can’t really progress in life, because we have nothing to base our decisions on. If you are in a career you hate, and want to switch, but aren’t sure what new career to jump into, you need feedback. Lots of it.

But here’s the thing, feedback is a result of action.

You only get feedback when you take action. You will only find that new career by taking lots of action, such as trying new things, generating lots of feedback and filtering it. So no progress really happens until you start taking action.

It almost doesn’t matter what action you take, because any action generates feedback, even if the feedback is “this sucks”. That’s also why doing nothing never works. So here’s where goals come in handy:

Goals are a call to action.

That action generates feedback, and that feedback helps you solves problems, make decisions and move on with your life.

Goals make it simpler to do the right thing

When you have a list of goals, it makes life simpler. It’s too easy to pass on life’s opportunities. I’m not saying if something isn’t on your goal list you don’t do it, but having goals does help you make the most of opportunities, and keeps you focused.

When I was recently in The Philippines, I had goals of wreck diving and climbing a live volcano (among others).

It would have been all to easy for me to just kick back by the pool, or pour myself another cold beer and chill, but I had some goals and they helped me to make the effort to make the wreck diving and volcano hiking happen.

Those experiences greatly enriched the holiday experience, and my life, and there was still plenty of time left over for eating ice cream and splashing in the pool. So let’s get into how I set goals.

How To Set Goals – Tony Style

Tim has talked in the past about SMART goals and SMARTER goals and it’s all good advice. I have a simple scheme for setting goals. It seems to work for me and others.

1. Goals should be fun

If you set a boring goal that really doesn’t excite you, you aren’t going to be motivated to take any action. This should be something that is fun, at least to you. Running a marathon is not everybody’s cup of tea, but I like running, for me it’s fun.

Maybe some goals will be serious, but you should always try to bring in a fun element wherever possible.

2. Goals should motivate

Hopefully, if you pick a fun goal, that should provide a lot of motivation in itself. But if you pick a goal that directly motivates you that’s even better. Pick something you really want to achieve. If you set a so-so goal that you’re not really bothered about, you just won’t be motivated to take any action. No action, no feedback, no progress.

3. Goals should match your values

This almost happens by default, but it’s plain common sense that your goals need to correlate with your values. For example, one of my main values is health and fitness, so any goal related to that area has a good chance of being acted upon.

Setting a goal to be a millionaire or make a lot of money wouldn’t work very well for me, because money is not an important value for me (Tims note: Money isn’t a value for anybody, even people that think it is).

It’s not a good motivator. I do have a goal to create £1000 a month passive income, but that’s more because I’m interested in the mechanics of how that’s done, it’s not the money itself that motivates me.

If you take a look at my goals page, you can probably work out what my most important values are for yourself. If you are not sure what your values are, that’s something that Tim can definitely help with. Don’t set goals that don’t correlate with your values, you will run into conflict.

4. Goals should fit into the bigger picture

I think it’s really important to have a “big picture” of what you want your life to look like. I have that worked out in my head, and if you ever look at my goals page you’ll get a good idea of what that looks like.

5. Don’t be afraid to set sub goals

When I set the goal to run a marathon I didn’t start working directly on that. I split it down into sub-goals of being able to run 4 miles, 6 miles, 10 miles. When I got to 10 miles I entered and trained for a couple of half marathons. You’ll get frustrated if you set a ginormous goal and start working on it directly. Most likely you will abandon the goal.

Goals are a journey, not a destination

In many ways, when you set goals, it almost doesn’t matter whether you achieve the goal or not.

Many who set goals and subsequently don’t achieve them believe they have failed. Usually, they haven’t.

They only failed if they took no action, since it’s the action that provides all the benefits, not the goal itself.

Last year I set the goal of running a marathon in less than 4 hours by my 49th birthday. I still don’t know whether or not I will achieve that goal.

It doesn’t matter!

I’ve already received many benefits from setting that goal. I took lots of action and I’ve generated lots of feedback, and enjoyed the process. I’ve trained by running some beautiful trail runs, once running 23 miles across the South Downs.

I’ve completed two half marathons, with more scheduled. I’ve made new friends, faced new challenges, and learned many new things about diet and training, and about myself and what I am capable of.

It’s helped to keep myself fit and lean, while relaxing my mind and energizing my body. It all happened because I set a goal.

I wish you all the best with setting your goals. Remember, with goals, the journey is the reward. Good luck!

Tony writes about his journey to freedom at Regards From The Balcony


As I said in the intro, I actually think Tony makes some great points, and I would love your feedback to his method, or any methods that work well for you personally.

I think he encapsulates a lot of what I talk about in SMARTER goals, but uses different terminology. Maybe the only thing I would definitely want to add would be the second ‘E’ of ecology. If you have no idea what I mean, check out the video below.

36 comments to In Defense of Goal Setting

  • Tim & Tony,

    In full disclosure, I’m a goal “junkie.” Having written goals gives me a road map and the inspiration to keep going every day – no matter the obstacles.

    Glad we are on the same page,


  • Hi Tim and Tony–

    Love the line: But here’s the thing, feedback is a result of action.

    I need to tighten up the goal setting. Or rather, I need to work the CRO…gettin’ a bit lax, here.

    This weeks (highly unoriginal and boring) goals:
    ~hit the bottle less when stressed
    ~practice patience when supervising the 9 y/o’s homework
    ~stay actively engaged w clients and my online peeps

    Oh yeah, take yoga classes instead of kickboxing…OMMMM

    TY for reminder to keep it fun:)

  • Goal should be broken up into 3 parts. Main goals, sub-goals and immediate action. With passion and enthusiasm, you should arrive at your destination when the time is right!

    • Oh crap that means I’m not doing it right! I have no sub-goals with the rich and happy giveaway.

      Joking aside though, I think sub-goals are useful a lot of the time although I’ll always stay away from the word ‘should’ as I do think it’s down to the individual.

  • Great points. I definitely have yo-yo’d on this topic. On one hand, goals can keep you in an unhappy state of mind as you’re always comparing your current life to a better, future one. On the other, it’s very very easy to watch life go by as you said if you don’t set goals. The best way is to make the process of achieving the goal fun, enjoyable and all there is. Who cares if you achieve the goal or not? It only gives you a brief sense of achievement and gratification. The process is much more important.

    • I think you summed up my ambivalence, because some people get too wrapped up in the goal and not enjoying the process. I do think Tony covered that aspect off well though.

  • Ok, so I’m just about to do a talk on a trip Kite trip in Brazil, so this is timely. One of the leanings was that is no F SMART. Actually I was thinking of shorting it to FART. I like the smarter approach though.
    My take is that the F should be for flow. If you find where flow is that will be where the p for passion will be. Much easier to achieve goals in there is Flow and Passion.
    Here is my take on flow.

  • Hi Tim &Tony,
    As a Life Coach, “Goals/Goal setting” forms a fairly big part of what I do with my clients. To be really effective, the client has to “want this” otherwise no matter what you end up ‘agreeing with’, goal achievement won’t occur. I agree, “fun” is a really important factor and sub goals or “early achievement markers” make the steps to finalising the main goal a lot easier for the client.
    Best Regards

    • That’s interesting David because I rarely use goal setting with clients, although I know I am unusual for a Life Coach in that respect.

      My take is I can teach somebody how to set goals in about 30 minutes and I’m not sure why they’d want to carry on paying me after that, unless that is, they have trouble following through.

  • Rob Collins

    Tim, I can see that goal setting works for a lot of people. I’ve personally not had much success with it though. But goal-setting seems to be directly in conflict with some Buddhist principles like removing our attachment to material gain. Instead, the general aim of Buddhism seems to be to just be happy in the present moment.

    I also agree that it can be quite hard sometimes to “turn failure into feedback” with failed goals – often you just up up feeling a bit crap. Just look at the diet industry and New Year’s Resolutions.

    Is there a way to set SMARTER goals in such a way that they also incorporate more Buddhist-like principles? Perhaps if this is possible, we’d see a best-of-both-worlds system that works for a higher percentage of people and makes them feel less crap if they “fail”.

    Thanks again for a great post. All the best mate.


    • I should ask Bodhipaksa because I’m sure he set goals with his book Living As A River? Then again maybe he didn’t. Thanks Rob I’m all confused now ;-)

      • Hi, Tim. I think goals can be something we cling to inappropriately, and end up giving ourselves a hard time when we don’t meet them, and also fail to appreciate what we have right now (which is *a lot*) because we assume that happiness depends on having a whole bunch of “stuff” and circumstances that we don’t have right now. And that’s self-defeating.

        And as Rob seems to be suggesting, goals can also be very materialistic. That’s not a problem in itself, but frankly materialism doesn’t work very well. There’s plenty of research showing that after an initial bost in happiness when we gain material wealth, we drift back down to a “hedonic set point.” The lesson to take from this is that happiness fundamentally comes from within — from our attitudes.

        But say you make a goal to change your attitudes. Say you make a goal of appreciating the people you lose every day. Or appreciating yourself every day. Of expressing gratitude every day. Of spending some time each day in meditation. Of serving others at least once a week. Then that can change your hedonic set point (which isn’t set in stone — it’s just the end result of the habits you have). If you have those kinds of goals, and make meaningful effort to achieve them, then you’ll be a happier person.

        IF you don’t cling to the goals. That is, if you don’t assume that your happiness is going to arise automatically or automagically just because you’ve set goals, and if we don’t beat ourselves up when things don’t work out exactly as we planned. Happiness, after all, is unpredictable.

        I stress happiness because I think it’s often overlooked. It may be implicit in the thinking behind goals. Explicit is “I will earn $200,000 dollars a year.” Implicit is “and doing so will make me happy.” Of course the question that arises is, will it? If you’re earning 10 times as must as you did when you were a grad student, or 100 times more than that summer you volunteered to work with disabled kids, are you NOW 10 or 100 times happier than you were then? Probably not. So why do you assume that what didn’t work in the past is going to somehow start working in the future? It almost certainly won’t. In fact, you were probably really happy working with those disabled kids because you grew as a person and realized how incredibly lucky you were. So if that worked in the past, why not set it as a goal for the future? That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go back and do that precise thing, but the appreciation and giving and the human relationships worked. So why not set a goal of recreating those elements in your life?

        • Spookily you should mention the hedonic set point as I only gave a talk this week in which I was referring to the hedonic treadmill and what an exercise in futility it is.

          And I agree 100% with what you say about happiness. There are some remarkable statistics regarding the ability of people to adapt to all sorts of terrible conditions and still be happy (and of course vice versa).

          Pretty much EVERYBODY I speak to gets that and agrees with the principle at an intellectual level, and then they go right back to doing what they were doing before and chasing ‘stuff’.

          Human Beings, what’s that all about then? ;-)

    • First, if you define failure as not reaching the set goal, then there is absolutely no way you can always avoid failure. Everybody, and I mean everybody, has set goals that they’ve failed to achieve. Even “successful” people “fail” all the time. For example, do you know how many times Chris Bonnington attempted Everest before he climbed it? He was involved in some truly spectacular “failures” – of course he learned so much from *taking action* that he was eventually able to conquer Everest. Richard Branson has had more than his fair share of business cock ups too. :) None of us can avoid failure in those terms – it’s part of life.

      Having said that I don’t necessarily think not reaching a set goal is a “failure” as such, as long as you took action, because the action will have given you great feedback that you can use to alter your approach and succeed next time around. I once set a goal to lose two stones of fat, and I “failed” again and again, but eventually found a way that made it work, and learned a huge amount about health and diet in the process.

      I “fail” to reach goals all the time, but I would only “feel like crap” if I looked back and realized I hadn’t taken any action. I think if someone has made a genuine effort towards a goal there is no shame if the goal is not actually reached.

      On the question of goals and Buddhism, I don’t necessarily see a conflict – it depends what the goal is. You mentioned material goals, and I agree they might conflict with certain beliefs, but on the whole I don’t see a problem there. Even the Dalai Lama sets goals – free Tibet. The goal of Buddhism is to achieve enlightenment. As I said in the article, goals need to align with your values, but I don’t see goal setting and Buddhism as mutually exclusive. Thanks for your interesting thoughts.

      • Really good post mate, thanks a lot! I’m glad we were at cross purposes and I think fundamentally we’re in agreement with about 99% of this stuff.

  • The whole paradoxical notion that goals are not the destination, but rather the direction of the journey, is easily the smartest thing about goals I’ve ever read.

    It reminds me of Eisenhower’s saying “Plans are useless, planning is invaluable.” I think we could say goals are useless but working towards them is invaluable.

    • You may want to trade mark that before I ‘forget’ you said it and claim it for myself ;-)

    • Thanks Michael, appreciate your kind words. I think life is a learning experience – you learn from both successes and failures, but you only learn if you take action, and I just try and get people to do that. My motto is “just do it”. Tim spanks me over that though as that can cause some clients to “lock up”. Thankfully I’m not a life coach – I would probably damage my clients irreparably! ;)

  • Thanks Tim,

    Precisely! Setting Goals is the easy part, though my time spent with clients is to establish goals with real meaning….however,it’s all in the ‘follow thru’to gain achievement……that takes a majority of my time and it’s worth spending to gain a result.

  • Here’s an interesting viewpoint to throw into the mix.

    What do you think?

    • I like it… a lot! I also think it’s difficult to argue with research done like that. A lot of the conversation around goals reflects peoples own anecdotal evidence and purely what worked/works for them, so any scientific research is really useful imho.

      Thanks for posting the link

  • I’m interested to know what peoples definitions of a ‘goal’ are. Can goals be achieved in a day or are they just longterm things?


    • I think that’s a good question Dominic and really down to the individual. I do think a goal can be achieved in a day, although I also think there is a fine line between a task and a goal.

    • Dom, they can be as long or as short as you like. My friend Barry Eisler set a goal to get a novel published, it took him 8 years. I have goals that could take a day, some might take years, some I don’t even know how long they will take.

  • “Goals are journey”, I like it, this is so true. I would also like to re-phrase it “Goals are direction of your journey”

  • This is the first time I’ve come across the ER at the end of SMART goals. Just watched you video, thank you. The ecology is the item that really got my attention. I’m going to use this for myself and with clients I work with.

    • Marty, it was something I developed/plagiarized.

      I was switching between SMART goals and NLP’s well formed outcomes with clients. The latter is big on ecology and I basically just stole the best aspects of each and merged the, ;-)

      Glad it’s of use to you.

  • I followed Tony over from his site when he mentioned his guest post over here. Tony, wonderful post. Tim, I haven’t read your big controversial post yet so I can’t comment on it yet!

    I’m a huge believer in goal setting. It works for me. That’s why I believe in it. It probably doesn’t work for everyone but I find myself staying much more focused and on track when I have my goals clearly written out and posted on my giant dry erase board. It’s a visual reminder and a call to action that I’ve got somethin’ I want to be doing. It keeps me from heading out and watching mindless t.v. for hours on end. Just my 2 cents. People who hate goals, well, then they shouldn’t bother with them. Me? Love them.


  • Good for you Tanja, stick at it.

    Be good to yourself

  • Like Tanja, I’m a firm believer of setting goals. And being so doesn’t in any way diminish my passion for the process of getting to the goal, as well as the appreciation of missteps as lessons, celebration of all forms of success, and identifying all else that needs to be learned, valued, let go, grateful for…

    Some people just let their life work without goals – or maybe they don’t use the word “goal” and have another term for it? – and that’s fine with us believers. Our point is never to convert but to share, never to provoke but just show that we care. And yes, that’s my goal. :)