It’s a pretty common sense notion that in order to achieve success, you need to work toward a goal. As you delve into research and advice regarding goal setting, however, you may find several points against it, arguing that goal setting is not a useful or even effective tool for business planning.
Which perspective is the right one? We’ll discuss both sides of the issue in a two part series in the blog. This post will be the first of two and will explore the reasons why goal setting may not be a useful practice for your business. Be sure to weigh in below in the comments section!
One of the most vocal proponents for a goal-free lifestyle is Leo Babauta, creator of the popular website Zenhabits. Leo’s work is well-known, as Zenhabits is one of the top 50 websites in the world. Zenhabits is a blog about “finding simplicity in the daily chaos of our lives.” A very worthy goal, if you ask me. But why does Leo think goals are bad?
In his explorations in simplifying his life, Leo Babauta found two things. (See: Achieving Without Goals).
- Goals are not consistent with contentment. Meaning, the desire to improve is not consistent with being happy with where you are.
- Goals are not necessary. Being a minimalist, Leo thus decided that they should be eliminated from his life.
As Leo did “experiments” without goals, he discovered the following:
- Goals are actually not necessary to achieve something
- There are many positive outcomes from a given situation, why focus on only one as the “right” outcome?
- Goals are made up versions of how we want the future to be, and we can’t control the future, so goals are thus unrealistic
- Fixating on goals causes people to shut out other opportunities that may present themselves and miss the chance for several other good outcomes
- When we do not achieve our goals, we feel negatively
- When we fixate on goals, we are by definition unhappy with where we currently are; we are motivated by one possible future outcome instead of the moment we exist in right now
- A goal or future-oriented mindset causes an endless cycle of goal setting; we never get a chance to enjoy reaching a goal, we simply move on to the next one
It’s not just Leo Babauta touting a goal-less plan for business and life. A recent Forbes.com article explores the notion that goal setting can actually be harmful to organizations and businesses.
Researchers from four business schools have collaborated on a paper regarding the “side effects of over-prescribing goals,” and they found the following negative aspects of goal setting:
- Focusing on a goal can distract from other necessary activities in the organization and cause failures
- Focusing on a goal (especially one with incentives and/or punishments) leads to higher rates of cheating and other unethical behavior
- Goals and goal setting are a dysfunctional system with predictable failures
The final question in the article’s interview with one of the researchers is, “If not goals, what?” The given answer encourages organizations to create environments where people want to achieve, want to help the organization, and want to be ethical about it. Intrinsic motivation has a stronger effect on performance and productivity than goal setting does.
These ideas are echoed by Babauta’s guiding principles for achieving success without goals.
Maybe we can open up and see things from this perspective. After all, it is true that most of our lives are spent in a series of goals, and many times we do focus and race toward our goal with blinders on. Sometimes that can be beneficial (if you’re working on a deadline for work, for example), but other times it can really burn you out and cause a productivity backslide.
4 Steps to Goal-less Achievement
The point of goal-less achievement is to let your values and principles guide you. Obviously one person’s values will vary from the next, but Leo outlines his four main principles:
- Love what you do. Avoid tasks that you hate and try to focus on doing the things that you love to do.
- Help others. For Leo, the motivation to help other people is a key principle in his life and guides everything he does.
- Build relationships and trust. Everything that you do, for yourself and for your business, is building a relationship.
- Be curious. Genuine curiosity and interest makes you a better listener and better at building the relationships in point #3.
How do these principles apply to you? If you are self-employed with a home-based business, do you need goals? Well, according to Leo, you don’t.
Love What You Do
For you, and I, as work-at-home individuals, we must really love what we do. People start businesses for a variety of reasons, including escaping a corporate job that is slowly sucking the soul out of them. Why did you start working from home? If it was to do something you love, you’re already 25% of the way through Leo’s principles (and remember, you can evaluate and decide your own guiding principles, you don’t have to follow his).
Unfortunately, not everything we have to do when we work from home is something we love. So how can we continue a goal-less framework for our business when it comes to crunching numbers, making phone calls, filing paperwork, or other mundane minutiae that doesn’t light a fire of joy deep within us?
You’ve got two options – either cut those activities out or find a way to make them more enjoyable. To cut out an activity that is necessary for your business but isn’t something you necessarily love or want to do, you might evaluate if you can hire someone who does love that type of work. For instance, if you can’t stand completing sales reports or making a spreadsheet, see if you can hire someone who really enjoys Microsoft Excel.
In an example from my own life, I turned something that bored and frustrated me (keeping track of a written budget) into something I enjoyed – converting my budget into a spreadsheet that automatically updated with each debit and credit. It is more fun for me (yes, fun! With a budget!) to see my balance adjust in real time as I adjust the budget. In this instance, I took something I didn’t like doing and turned it into something that I did enjoy. Thus, I am now motivated by wanting to see my budget balance and completing the task with enjoyment (fun) rather than dread as I try to balance a budget on paper (no fun).
Whatever your motivation, on some level you are offering a service or product designed to help or benefit people. After all, if people didn’t need your service or product, you wouldn’t be selling it.
Without goals, you would get up and work every morning because you are motivated by wanting to do work that helps people, rather than just because you have a list of things to accomplish on any given day. You would make the calls, do the research, write the reports, schedule the meetings, etc. – because you are intrinsically motivated to do so because it aligns with your values.
If you are doing something you love and you are motivated by a desire to help others, you’re halfway to Leo’s recipe for goal-less accomplishments.
Building Relationships and Trust
Business is about building trust with your clients, customers, and colleagues. You build relationships and network in order to grow your business and become more successful. Imagine how far your business would get if you didn’t feel the need to build relationships. No relationships means no clients, no marketing, no partnerships. That sounds a lot like “no business.” Building relationships is a no-brainer in business, so you have all the incentive in the world to get out there and make yourself a trustworthy name in the marketplace.
If you’re genuinely curious with regard to your business you can open up a whole new world of opportunities. Research others in your field, and learn about them and their success. Explore your client base and become a better listener. Do everything you can to become an expert in what you offer. All of those actions are fueled by curiosity.
The Four Principles
Whether you follow Babauta’s principles or your own set of values for intrinsic motivation, it seems a perfectly viable option to let those values guide your business decisions, opening yourself up to the possibilities outside a narrow set of goals.
The bottom line of this path of thinking about achievement is that goals are artificial motivators that put undue pressure on us to achieve things we may not even care about. Arguably, goals set us up for failure and are constant reminders that we are currently not good enough.
A Balanced Approach
Perhaps a more balanced approach to goal setting is in order. Next time, we’ll talk about the other side of this coin, the pro-goal path to achievement and success. Perhaps we can find a happy medium between the two.
If you do decide to reject goals and instead learn to go with the flow of life and work, be aware that it will take time. Goals are ingrained into our collective psyche as a necessity for success and it’s not feasible to just stop setting goals one day. It is very tempting to give up goals in favor of a more simple approach driven by passion.
Are you intrigued by this approach? Do you find yourself more productive with or without goals?