Two Unexpected Goal-setting Traps You Can Avoid by Acting Crazy

No matter how smart we are, it’s easy for us to fall in traps of all kind of things, especially when we think that we are doing what logic dictates. This is how goals may transform from a tool that generally increases our performance, to one that actually hinders it.

I am a Stanford Engineering grad, an MBA, and I am no exception. I use goals extensively, but I recently fell into two traps that seemed logical and made sense, but they were actually giving me problems.

Surprised Man On CouchNow, it’s not that I believe that goals are no good. On the contrary, I am all about goals, otherwise I would not be where I am. And it’s not just me – wanting to improve our lives is only natural for everyone on this planet. We all aspire to expand and grow. That’s what goals help us to do.

Effective goals are SMART goals. Goals that are specific and measurable. I agree. Specific, measurable goals keep you on track and help you compare your progress. They give you a clear target to go after.

But reality is not rose-colored and it is not as simple as it seems. Danger lurks in the bushes. We must watch out for traps all throughout our path, even in those corners masked as “logical, sound, and making sense”. Acting a little crazy may be all we need :)

Goal-setting trap #1: Deadlines.

I am not against deadlines in general. They are supposed to help us focus, and they do… sometimes. Some other times they are nothing more than roadblocks.

Through 2011 and 2012 I was doing research on why we don’t do the things we want to do. For example, most of us care about our health, yet why do few of us actually take steps in this direction, like eating right and exercising more?

In July 2012 I decided that it was time for me to write a short guide about a few of the things I learned about health and behavior change. I aimed for 20 pages.

Then, 20 pages became 40. 40 pages became 80. 80 pages became 120. In the end, I wrote more than 200 pages.

Similarly, my initial “deadline” was in early August. Early August became late August. Then, late August became early September. Early September became late September… I published the book “Surprisingly…Unstuck” in October. Phew!

In the meantime, I felt bad about my progress. Even though I recognized that the scope of “Surprisingly…Unstuck” was changing, from a “short guide” to a comprehensive book, and that was why I was devoting more and more time to it, I detested the deadlines that I “missed”. This whole deadline thing made me feel unproductive. Deadlines made me spend time worrying about my progress rather than focusing on my work.

But I was not unproductive. I wrote a 200-page book! I should have felt proud instead!

I did not realize I had fallen in the deadline-trap until after I published the book. Better late than never to be less rational and more crazy :)

Goal-setting trap #2: Grandiosity.

Grandiosity is about goals that sound wonderful but bring no or poor results. They transform from motivational on day one to terrifying on day two.

Many people fall into this trap. Companies do too. When the reward of achieving a certain goal is great, or maybe too great, then there are actually fewer chances to achieve the goal. Counter-intuitive? Yes. True? Yes.

Behavioral Economics Professor Dan Ariely in his book “The Upside of Irrationality” details how high executive bonuses actually hinder than encourage performance. Ariely tested high and low bonuses and the respective employee performance at companies. He also measured scores NBA players achieved in low- and high-pressure situations. The result was the same: When the stakes are high, performance drops.

Obviously, I am no exception to this rule.

When I first set out to build my new web-based service “Exercise Bliss” I was exhilarated. I would be teach people how to exercise more without pressuring themselves but by being kind and gentle! I would help them be happier and healthier! I dreamed about the online community, the exercise videos, the “happiness drops” all throughout the platform, and felt amazing.

Then, I spent the rest few days being stressed and oversensitive. Even though I wasn’t really thinking about Exercise Bliss, as I had a lot of other projects to finish before I started building the Exercise Bliss platform, Exercise Bliss was somewhere in my mind. It manifested through my irritable behavior and the nights I didn’t sleep well.

Things changed once I put things in perspective, and instead of focusing on the big reward of that one moment of the launch (how happy I would be of having everything in place and people coming in), I focused on the smaller rewards after accomplishing each step (how happy I would be after creating the first membership program, after creating the website design, after creating and editing the exercise and habit-related videos, etc.).

Once I switched from the one-time big reward to frequent smaller rewards my irritability went away. And my sleep improved. Big rewards were hindering my performance, while smaller rewards improved it.

Rational or not, I choose results.

We love logic and reason. Yet sometimes we fail to look at the actual facts and get misguided by our logic.

If the facts show that performance slows down, then we should examine the rewards dependent on it. But it seems so counter-intuitive that smaller rewards could increase performance, and that higher rewards hinder it, that we refuse to even examine this possibility.

Similarly, deadlines are supposed to keep us focused. They are not supposed to increase our time spent worrying. If deadlines act against our best interests, then we might as well drop them? Woo, no deadlines?! It sounds so liberating but so crazy at the same time, don’t you think?

Regardless of whether something sounds rational, or irrational, I opt for the method that brings the best results. If that’s acting crazy, then doing so is okay by me. What about you?

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About Maria Brilaki

Maria is Stanford Engineering and an MBA graduate. She is the founder of FitnessReloaded.com, where she helps people get results that stick in way that feels good. She is the author of “Surprisingly…Unstuck”, the bible of creating healthy habits.

Comments

  1. Very interesting thoughts here, I guess grandiosity can trigger feelings of unworthiness of the pay-off is too big.

    • Hi Fredrik,

      I believe grandiosity triggers the fight-or-flight response of our brain…and that’s why it has the opposite effect of what we would expect.

  2. I love how you focus on the little rewards that happen as we progress step by step towards our larger goals. That’s such a fantastic way to look at things.

    I’m personally not a fan of developing action plans in order to reach my goals. It’s never worked for me. Maybe I just don’t plan well. Who knows?

    What does work, however, is to change myself into the type of person that accomplishes those goals. It may be a slow and difficult process, but the results have been fantastic. They are a natural byproduct of living as one who achieves those specific goals. If that makes any sense.

    And enjoying all the little successes is what helps to cement that change. After all, if you’re not enjoying the process, then you’re not following the right path.

    Cheers!

    • Trevor,

      You just spoke magic. I totally agree with you. If you live like someone who has already achieved what you want to achieve, then the results will follow :)

  3. Hey Maria,

    Great article!

    Completely agree with deadlines and grandiosity. For me, the key to these is two things:
    1) Your goals need to be stretching enough to drive your performance while sustaining motivation (too stretching hinders motivation), and secondly;
    2) Your goals need to be flexible.

    As you mentioned above, deadlines can be shifted if the wider goal has changed. No issue with that! In regards to bonuses, that is absolutely true. Small, frequent rewards tend to have a greater effect that one large bonus at the end of a year.

    Brendan

    • Hi Brendan,

      Thank you for your comment. Indeed deadlines can be shifted. It’s us that we sometimes find it hard to accept that we need to do that…

  4. Good article Maria. What you are explaining in therapy terms is called ‘Chunking Up’ or ‘Chunking Down” – depending upon the size of the goal we are setting it is good to take it in the direction that suits the personality – the person dealing with the goal will know themselves which direction suits them – as you found out for yourself.
    ‘Chunking Down’ is used a good deal when issues are stressful. The therapist will ask the client to divide the problem into smaller portions and then deal with each one individually. The smaller the issue the smaller the problem.
    Goals are always considered good material for the subconscious mind, if we plant seeds in the correct way there, then great results will follow, our conscious mind then relinquishes its power and as we all know the subconscious mind holds the real strength.
    Well done on realizing what was good for your personality type.

  5. Hi Joan,

    Thank you for your comment. I didn’t know the terminology in therapy.

    It’s true that sometimes big goals are inspiring and motivate us to follow through. Some other times big goals are scary and make us fall into self-sabotage.

    It depends on the situation and the person.

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