The Secret to Why Setting Goals Doesn’t Work

Everyone knows that successful people set goals to get what they want, but why is it so hard for most people to do?  I mean really, there are thousands of books written on this topic, and about 15 million results in Google alone. Hell, I’m the one writing this article, and honestly, you won’t see me sitting down every week to write down my goals like I “should”. For me, the formalities of “goal setting” just don’t seem quite natural, and often times they feel forced.

Sound familiar?

Thousands of people cover goal setting, getting things done, task management, etc – but few talk about why this is even such a big issue in the first place. I assume this comes down to whole “symptoms vs sources” problem of addressing the visible surface issue, rather than a core cause of the problem. So that’s what I plan on exploring here with you today.

Let me ask you this: what if there was a way to get the same results as “goal setting”, but in a way that was more natural, enjoyable, and rewarding? What if there was a better way to get your team to synergize (I know, way overused buzzword) together on a specific outcome? Is this something you might find just a taaad bit valuable?

Yes? Great, I hope so! This should give a new twist to the way you think about setting goals, but first we need to understand what exactly’s going on here. Let’s take a look at this totally hypothetical, made up statistical poll:

It’s so obvious, nobody really pays attention to why people don’t like it.

If I were to ask 10 people if they think goal setting is important, I bet 9 would say ‘yes’. They’d probably  tell me all the great things about it, and even a few would get into things like the Law of Attraction, manifestation, etc. Awesome! …but if I then ask how many of the 9 actively set and wrote goals regularly, I’d be lucky if just 1 replied with an enthusiastic yes.

Now why is this? Sure, maybe it’s just a new habit they need to get into, or maybe they’re lazy and really don’t care – but I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. So I don’t think it’s always the effort, techniques, or willpower; but rather one of the elusive reasons within the approach itself – the actual mental attitude and approachof setting goals. This comes down to a ridiculously fundamental reason:

Most people don’t like setting goals.

Well duh! That should be obvious by now, why even say it? That’s the thing – it’s so obvious, nobody really pays attention to why people don’t like it. They just say it’s so great and you should learn how to do it effectively to be successful – and they’re right, you really need to. But let me ask you this: how often does the enthusiasm and motivation stay when you force yourself to do something you don’t like …your entire life?

I thought so.

If you’re here, still reading this now, then earlier you hopefully said “yes” to wanting a better way to do this whole goal setting stuff. So it’s actually pretty simple, and it comes down to a shift in thinking. So, here’s the secret:

Most people are problem solvers.

Wait, what? Yes, whether they realize it or not, the way their mind works is based a system on solving problems. Rather than saying “this is my goal, let’s just go there”, some (not all) people work better by saying “ok, so this is my problem, how do I fix it and get what I want?”. Now some may even think this way consciously, and these are the type that actually get excited about problems (inventors, programmers, engineers, etc). Where as with most people, it’s unconscious and they don’t even realize that’s what’s going on in the background.

This is more about the process, pattern, or the way their minds function.

Let me clarify a bit. I’m not saying they’re secretly problem seekers or anything, but rather how their mind actually works. Also, this is not about towards or away from motivation either, nor is about focusing on the negative of what you don’t want rather than what you do want. This is more about the process, pattern, or the way their minds function – not the intention behind it (which is also important).

Think of it this way: an assembly line works in the same fashion regardless if it’s pumping out cogs or widgets. You can still be a problem solver while being motivated towards a positive goal. If it makes you feel better, you can try calling it something different like “solution finder” if that resonates with you more. You can also look at it as creating puzzles to solve, explore, and discover. Regardless of what you call it, the process (and the result) is the same.

Solve problems and set goals.

Interesting eh? Deceptively simple, but let’s break it down on the metaphorical goal-setting dance floor. As you’ll see, most (failed) goal setting is missing this logical combination.

  1. Ask your team (or yourself) what problems need to be solved. The first step is always awareness, and is the most critical to get right, right away. If you can’t clearly define your problems, how can you clearly define your solutions or goals?

    For example, instead of saying “I want to make an extra $10,000 a month”, think “What’s preventing me from making $10,000 extra a month? Why haven’t I done this before? What would I have to change, add, or remove in my life that would easily allow this to happen? Who’s done this before that I can model or get advice/coaching from to make this shorter or easier? Is this even a big enough problem for me that I’ll do whatever I have to figure it out?”. Then just take those and make them into simple, solvable, “problems” – or even fun puzzles.

  2. Now that you’ve clearly figured out what problems need to be solved, it’s time to set the goals on actually solving them. This is where the traditional steps in setting goals come into play. This is a topic in it’s own right, but I will say however is this:
    • be specific on the goal you want and exactly when
    • how you know the goal has been reached
    • decide if you or your team really wants it, and is ready/willing to do what it takes to get it
  3. Figure out how to get there. Discover which method works best for you, as everyone’s different. Some people are motivated toward some things, where some other things they’d be motivated away from. Some large and complex goals (and/or people) really need everything spelled out step by step, where others get by with mindmaps and constant agileness. Do what works; there are thousands millions of possibilities found by Google about this step.
  4. Take action, and be prepared (and okay with it) to reassess and change your goals, and even sometimes stop doing things that just aren’t working. Be careful though; don’t confuse this with giving up too soon!

There’s actually some extra goodies in there, but that’s pretty much the gist of it. Step 1 being the obvious secret sauce that’s missing in most angles of attack on setting goals. Also note that some people that are good at this naturally, don’t realize they’re even doing Step 1, whereas others find success in combining Step 1 with Step 3. My suggestion is to try it on and see what works; nothing is set in stone, and you’re welcome throw this away afterwords if you’re positive the problem solving approach/view just doesn’t resonate with you.

Stop doing things that just aren’t working.

Another bonus by beginning with problem solving is found within teams. Uniting together to solve a problem people are passionate about can create a bigger spark in the beginning, rather than trying to aim at some lofty far out goal. And I get it: to your team (and even you), the difference between the two might be subtle semantics, and that’s because it’s almost the case. The two are pretty much the same process in this context, though sometimes it can be beneficial to look at something wearing a slightly different pair of glasses. Try ’em on, won’t you?

This is still a fairly new idea to me and needs to be put through it’s paces, but it makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? I think the combination is killer and has potential. Listen, don’t get me wrong: I know the idea and process itself of problem solving isn’t anything groundbreaking. Rather, I think the realization of how most people behave and how their unconscious patterns run, exposes a subtle awareness and slight reframe of perspective that can be just the right nugget for some people to get this handled.

But remember: there is no more powerful secret than that of taking action!

Finally, I’d really love your feedback on this. If you have any suggestions or other ideas that can help people enjoy successfully setting goals, let us all know in the comments!

Please leave a comment below or on Twitter @steinarknutsen.

Thanks,
Steinar