When good goals go bad: sometimes focusing too much on your goals can be a dangerous thing

Today, after tidying my room, doing a little exercise, and checking my list of goals, I left the house and spent 150 euros on a brand new guitar.

I now have less than 500 euros in the whole world.

I bought the guitar because one of my goals is “play music every day”. This goal is important to me: I learn instruments by trial and error, and it’s only by physically holding them in my hands every day that I can make progress. Before I gave away my previous guitar in Italy, I had been spending a lot of time figuring out some of the less obvious features of the fretboard, and being unable to continue learning has been a minor niggle in the back of my head for the last few weeks.

One of my other important goals is “control your spending”. I’m terrible at maintaining my savings. When I have money, I spend it with wild abandon. It’s only when I’m down to almost nothing that I finally start to discipline myself.

Setting goals is one of the main methods many people use in order to improve their lives. But it’s a method that has a dark side. Here are some of the dangers of focusing too much on your goals.

Danger #1: Achieving a narrow goal while missing the bigger picture

The biggest danger of focusing too much on your goals, is that you’ll forget the bigger picture of your self-improvement.

For example, you might have the goal “I want to go running twice a week”. You may be achieving this goal. But you might also be using it to justify eating fast food much more frequently too. If this is the case, you’re not going to be getting fitter.

Solution: Avoid rationalising negative behaviours after reaching milestones in your goals.

Danger #2: Achieving one goal at the expense of losing progress in other areas of your life 

It’s not always obvious when your goals are contradictory. In order to play music, I had to buy a guitar. In order to control my spending, I had to not buy one. Two separate goals from two separate areas of my life — perhaps there would have been a middle way if I had been mindful of them both.

Another common example might be the shy person who has the goal “I want to make more friends”, and then begins to spend a lot of time smoking and drinking to overcome their social anxiety. They may be successful at gaining a large circle of genuine friends, but have they really succeeded at self-improvement?

Solution: Consider whether any of the actions you take to achieve your goals impact any other areas of your life negatively. If they do, try to find the middle way.

 Danger #3: Giving up when goals are not achieved

Sometimes life gets in the way of your goals. Sometimes we set goals for ourselves that were just too challenging. In fact, it’s important to set goals that you find challenging – but with this comes the risk of occasional failure.

Nobody wants to feel like they’ve failed – and an easy way to divert these feelings is to stop trying. After all, not trying (we rationalise) means we can’t fail. If we’re lucky we don’t stop trying completely – we just start making our goals much easier to achieve.

There’s a difficult balance to strike here: it’s important to remember that failure is a vital part of self-improvement. Mistakes are how we learn. If we aren’t failing, we aren’t trying hard enough. However, long-term changes are made most effectively when we make them incrementally. The goal “I want to stop eating fast food, become vegetarian, and cut my spending on groceries” is challenging, but you’re much more likely to make permanent changes to your eating habits if you tackle each part one at a time.

Solution: Continue to set challenging goals, but remember to introduce big changes incrementally. Treat failure as a lesson on how to succeed next time.

Everybody sets goals. Avoid these dangers, and you’ll find they can be an effective tool for self-improvement. But goal-setting is not always the most effective solution; don’t forget to make use of other methods, such as habit-stacking, as well.

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