Why It’s Time to Radically Rethink Goal-Setting

Tara McMullin: writer, podcaster, producer

Nothing puts a spring in my step quite like setting my sights on a new target. I’m a goal-oriented overachiever from way back. And like many overachievers, I often end up overcommitted and burnt out.

About five years ago, I hit a breaking point when it came to some of my business goals. Things were good but not as good as I had planned. I was working harder than ever, but the results were lackluster at best.

I assumed I was the problem. I had some deficit to fix, some lack of will or discipline to overcome. Or, maybe it was more of a personality issue. Perhaps I needed to be more social, more outgoing, or more accessible to achieve what I wanted to achieve?

So I tried to change. I tried to bend and squeeze myself into the shape of success—mentally, physically, and socially. Or, as Micki McGee puts it in Self-Help, Inc:

To manage this anxiety, individuals have been advised not only to work longer and harder but also to invest in themselves, manage themselves, and continuously improve themselves.

If I was the source of my dissatisfaction and lack of success, I needed some new Big-G Goals.

What’s a Big G Goal? Well, those are the kind of milestone targets we set. At that time, my Big-G Goals were about how many new members I could enroll or what kind of stages I could speak on. At another time in my life, writing a book was a Big G Goal of mine. And before that, completing a Ph.D. was my Big-G Goal.

They’re the kind of goals that make you feel validated for about 24 hours after you achieve them—or make you feel like a failure if you don’t. Big-G Goals give you an external sense of purpose. They become the organizing principle of our lives. When I set a Big-G Goal, I start to see every other part of my life through that lens. Is it contributing to my progress? Or is it keeping me from getting ahead?

It seems like this kind of Big-G Goal-setting has always been with us. But it’s a relatively modern phenomenon that has only accelerated as our economic situations become more and more precarious. Big-G Goal-setting is part of the neoliberal project of understanding our selves as the site of our most essential labor: becoming a better worker or entrepreneur.

The individual’s new identity as entrepreneur goes hand in hand with a new life goal: success. Success is something to be aimed for all the time — not just in exams, but also on holiday, in relationships, and in the workplace.

— Paul Verhaeghe, What About Me?

The psychologist Edwin Locke was one of the first to study goal-setting and develop a theory of how the process works. Locke, who defines goals as “ideas of the future, desired end states,” argues that most human behavior is goal-directed. That is, we eat so that we’re not hungry. We dress so that we stay warm. We work to cover the cost of living. Feeling fed, regulating temperature, and paying for a home to live in are all desired end states that influence our actions. Hard to disagree with that!

I call these little-g goals.

They’re the unstated, habitual, autonomic end states that guide most of our actions. In general, we don’t measure ourselves as a success or failure, winner or loser, based on whether we accomplish these goals because survival is defined by achieving little-g goals.

Locke located the origin of goals in our basic needs, as well as in our deeply held values, beliefs, motives, personality traits, situational factors, and cultural standards. Further, Locke wondered where those concepts came from.

The only motivational concept broader and more fundamental than that of values is that of needs: the objective requirements of the individual’s survival and well-being.

— Edwin Locke & Gary P. Latham, A Theory of Goal-Setting and Task Performance

Our goals are based on what we perceive as needed for survival and well-being.

Looking at my own story through that lens, I can see the questions I wasn’t quite able to formulate when I was overcommitted and burnt out five years ago:

  • Do I have what it takes to “make it” in this world?
  • What if I’m not good enough?
  • What if “who I am” prevents me from accomplishing what I want to accomplish?
  • Will I ever feel confident in my ability to survive?

My Big-G Goals were attempts to answer these questions. Because survival and well-being in the 21st-century economy seem to depend on a particular version of Success, my B-G Goals were inspired by the drive to prove my value to society, climb up the proverbial ladder, and match the accomplishments of those I perceived as peers. In short, I set the Big-G Goals I thought I was supposed to set. Or maybe, I set the B-G Goals that I thought I needed to set.

Later, another psychologist, Albert Bandura, built on Locke’s work. Bandura aimed to understand human motivation better. Bandura’s theories presupposed the human capacity to engage in self-reflection and self-directedness.

In 1990, Bandura wrote, “If human behavior were regulated solely by external outcomes, people would behave like weathervanes, constantly shifting direction to conform to whatever momentary social influence happened to impinge upon them.” As he continues, Bandura dismisses this notion. Don’t be silly, he seems to say; we all know people are internally motivated and base their actions on those motivations.

But 30 years later, it seems people behave exactly like weathervanes—shifting direction to match new expectations at work, capitalize on a new business trend, or try the latest fad diet. It’s entirely possible to view life as a string of momentary social influences we react to without thinking.

For me, a Big-G Goal—those external notions of success (and survival)—is the wind that keeps me spinning in circles: always trying to stay ahead of the next big thing, always attempting to validate my usefulness, always trying to keep up with the rest of the pack.

At the moment I was considering all the ways I was lacking and what I could do about it, Big-G Goals were failing me. All I could see was the gaping chasm between my strengths and personality and the achievements I thought would finally make me feel worthy.

So I went back to the metaphorical drawing board.

I wiped the slate so clean that I started to consider whether goals themselves were the issue. What if everything I knew about setting and achieving Big-G Goals was hijacking my ability to tune into my actual values and desire? What if my Big-G Goals were about what I was conditioned to want rather than what I actually wanted? What if the very nature of Big-G Goals had set me up to fail?

I started to unpack everything I knew about goals, achievement, and getting stuff done. I wish I could say that it was a systematic deconstruction, but it was more like getting stuck in a pothole every few months and figuring out how to get moving again. Little by little, I started to focus on what I wanted for my life and career rather than what I should want for my life and career. I began to change my relationship with achievement and discipline. I noticed my conflicting priorities and resolved them.

It was not an easy process. Sometimes I felt like I didn’t know who I was or that I’d wasted so much of my life chasing the wrong things. But all of those moments of confusion were worth it. I have a better relationship with myself and my work because of how I rebuilt the scaffolding around my life.

The Big-G Goals we set represent a chance at a better life and a less challenging identity. They’re our means of survival in a broken system that routinely dehumanizes and exploits us. Giving up those Big-G Goals can feel like abandoning an imagined future self that finally has things a little easier.

While Locke’s theory of goal-setting feels sound to me, we have to consider how our broken system hijacks our true values, motives, and even identities to meet the system’s needs. We’re immersed in stories that convince us doing more, achieving more, and working on ourselves more will lead to a happy ending. But the thing is—the story never ends. The plot just keeps on going without resolution.

two light-skinned hands hold a copy of What Works: A Comprehensive Framework to Change the Way We Approach Goal-Setting

If we’re truly going to find satisfaction, we need a different story.

I started to rewrite my story slowly but surely. I gave up my Big-G Goals and set commitments for daily practice. I examined my self-talk and noticed when I wasn’t listening to myself. I focused on completing projects that gave me a chance to practice at my growth edge. My attitude toward my work and my life started to shift.

Earlier this year, I sat down and wrote a book about this journey—why I needed it, what I had to unlearn, how I constructed a new approach to goals and personal growth, and what I’m still working on to this day. It’s my story—but it’s also research, careful observation, and a detailed account of the process so you can use it too.

It’s called What Works: A Comprehensive Framework To Change The Way We Approach Goal-Setting.

The book hits shelves on November 1—but it’s available for pre-order now. You can find it for pre-order on Amazon, Bookshop, Barnes & Noble, Target, or at your local bookstore.

My guess is that, if you’re reading this, you’re interested in approaching life and work in new ways. You think critically about the shoulds and supposed-tos you grew up with (and continue to swim in daily). You notice how it always seems “up to you” to fix yourself rather than questioning whether you’re broken.

You question conventional ideas of success and achievement. You notice when conventional wisdom starts to infringe on your values.

I wrote this book for you.

I can guarantee you that it’s different than any other book on goal-setting—because it’s not really about goal-setting at all.

It’s not a thinly veiled pep talk. It’s not about turning structural problems into your personal to-do list. It’s about recognizing the stories we live in—the good and the harmful—and responding to those stories in ways that support us and our communities.

What Works will change the way you think about goal-setting—but it will also change the story you live in. Life and work don’t have to be structured around the next achievement or milestone.

What Works will help you answer the big questions that bubble under the surface of most advice on success and productivity—the philosophical, cultural, and political discourses that unconsciously shape our thinking.

But in the end, What Works will also offer you a practical framework you can use to discover what works for you.

A Radical New Approach to Setting Goals

What Works is an antidote to the relentless pursuit of “more” and the culture of striving that we live in. It’s an unconventional approach to goal-setting, planning, and execution that prioritizes practice over achievement in both life and work.

Pre-order your copy of What Works today!

Cover of What Works book by Tara McMullin

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What Type of Goal-Setter Are You?

I've explored goal-setting and planning with small business owners, creatives, and independent workers for over 12 years now. That means I've observed many different types of goal-setters. Some confidently choose a new goal and get to work. Others rebel against...

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