Goal Setting Theory and The Real Problem

While goals are often an excellent place to start when finding our direction, at the same time they can cause us problems which affect our daily living. For many years we are often told that to get somewhere, we need to set specific, measurable, actionable, and realistic goals. To lose weight, we are told to exercise more and eat well. To write a book, we are taught to set specific times and write. Goal setting theory often teaches us to think about the future as opposed to the present. I instilled this thought process in my writing, boxing, and personal life. The struggle was real when I had figures in my head. I put a number on how many words I needed to write. I set a goal on how much weight I needed to lose to fight. It makes it hard for us to understand goal setting theory.

Eventually, I understood that my successes came in my systems and learning to enjoy them. If you’re an athlete, your goal might be to win a championship. Your system is how often you train, how well you take feedback from your coach, how you communicate with your team. If you’re a writer, your goal might be to write a best selling book. Your system is how often you write, how you gather research and material, how you edit and how you sell your work.


goal setting theory


But what happens if you completely forgot about the goal and started to only focus on the system? Would goal setting theory still be applicable? What if, as an athlete, you stopped focusing on winning a championship, but focused on training often and communicating well with the team. Would you still get results? I think so. While goals ensure direction, systems provide progress. The key is not to get caught up with the end goal but to focus on your systems instead. Progress and success will follow.

The Problem With Goal Setting


We often have a “Once I reach this goal; I’ll be happy” mentality. We assumed happiness is waiting for us, when in fact, it should be with us every day. I’ve fallen victim to this many times. I’ll be happy once I lose this amount of weight. I’ll be satisfied once I get to the end of the working week. For many years, my future self was always waiting for happiness. Goals also provide conflict. You either reach your goal and become successful, or you fail and become a disappointment. Putting yourself in an ‘all or nothing’ position narrows your happiness and restricts your ability to enjoy the process. Focusing on your systems will provide the remedy to overcome an outcome, only mentality and promote daily happiness as opposed to working to reach it.

The Yo-Yo Effect


Having a mindset that focuses only on a goal can create a “yo-yo” effect. You see it all the time in professional combat sports. Athletes would train in an eight-week camp, make the weight required, fight, then stop training for some time. Once the fight is over, the weight comes back on, and they go through the pain and suffering all over again, where they would often revert to old habits. Boxer, Ricky Hatton was famous for his yo-yo dieting. He would drop twenty kilograms in twelve weeks most training camps. Once the fight was over, he would overindulge, putting weight back on again. The brutal weight cuts arguably shortened his career. When you set goals, you set them to achieve the outcome. When you set your systems, you set them to continue performing the outcome.

Forget Goal Setting Theory. Just Focus On Improvement


A focus on a single accomplishment makes it challenging to sustain the work you put in every day. Your focus should be on the cycle of continuous improvement and committing to the process. A goal is great to have when planning, but your systems are what gets you progressing. This type of goal setting theory exposes what to look out for when you start feeling like you’re so far from reach.


Related: An Extremely Simple Way To Achieve Your Goals

Related: 5 Stage Plan To Set Goals Like An Athlete