FOCUS Beats Goal Setting



You’ve likely long heard life coaches and management gurus espousing the benefits of setting goals. Well, there may be something even more important and better to do, and that’s focus. And this applies just as well to your personal life as it does to an organization.

Somewhere along the line, you’ve been encouraged to set goals, not just any goals, but stretch goals – “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” as they’re known to the goal-setting crowd. Makes sense right? If you don’t know specifically where you’re going, then you’ll never get there. And if you don’t set the bar high enough, you’ll never live up to your potential.

This is accepted common sense in the business world and personal development fields and it’s reinforced by bogus research. Take the study done on the Harvard Business School class you may have heard of in which only 3% of the graduating students wrote down clear goals. Twenty years later, those 3% were worth 10 times the worth of the rest of the class combined. Compelling, right? The only issue is that the study never existed – it’s completely bogus, a pure urban myth and makes for a good story.

It’s not that goals by their nature are bad. It’s just that they come with a number of side effects that suggest you may be better off without them.

The authors of a Harvard Business School working paper, “Goals Gone Wild,” reviewed a number of research studies related to goals and concluded that the upside of goal setting has been exaggerated and the downside, the “systematic harm caused by goal setting,” has been disregarded. They point to the actual use of goal setting harms organizations and individuals in systematic and predictable ways.

Take for example NFL quarterbacks that have been financially penalized for throwing interceptions. While their interceptions decreased as they tended to throw fewer passes, so did their fear increase and their overall performance suffered.

“The use of goal setting will likely shift focus away from important, but non-specified goals, harm interpersonal relationships, corrode organizational culture, and motivate risky and unethical behaviors,” said Max Bazerman, author of the Harvard study.

The Harvard study points out that Sears set a productivity goal for their auto repair staff of bringing in $147 for every hour of work. Did this motivate employees? Sure. It motivated them to overcharge on a companywide basis. Remember the Ford Pinto? A car that ignited when it was rear-ended? The Pinto resulted in 53 deaths and many more injuries because workers omitted safety checks in pursuit of Lee Iacocca’s goal.

It’s practically impossible to predict the negative side effects of a goal.

When we set goals, we are taught to make them specific and measurable and time-defined; characteristics that are precisely the reasons goals can backfire. A specific, measurable, time-bound goal drives behavior that’s narrowly focused and often leads to either cheating or myopia. Yes, we often reach the goal, but at what cost?

This is where FOCUS IS PREFERABLE TO GOALS. In your personal life and also in business, it is still often necessary to drive toward achievements with direction and measuring progress. The use of FOCUS allows us a better way to achieve those things while sidestepping goals’ negative side effects.

First, instead of identifying goals, consider identifying areas of focus.

While a goal defines an outcome you want to achieve; an area of focus establishes activities you want to spend your time doing. A goal is a result; an area of focus is a path. A goal points to a future you intend to reach; an area of focus settles you into the present.

So how to you make this subtle change? It’s actually quite simple. First identify the things you want to spend your time doing — or the things that you and your team decide are the most valuable use of your time. Secondly, spend your time doing those things. The rest takes care of itself.

The key is to resist the temptation to identify the outcome you want to achieve. Leave that open and allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised. I’m not suggesting that this is easy to do. If you are like me, you will never realized how goal-focused you are until you try to stop focusing on goals. Without goals, I found it hard to trust that anything would get done at all, but it does!

In the business world, for example, a sales goal might designate a revenue target or a specific number of new clients won whereas an area of focus in sales, on the other hand, might involve having lots of conversations with appropriate prospects. In operations, a goal might articulate a cost savings in contrast to an operations area of focus might be identifying areas you want to explore for cost savings.

Obviously these aren’t mutually exclusive. You could have a goal and an area of focus. In fact, one could argue that you need both together — the goal specifies where you’re going and the area of focus describes how you plan to get there, but there is a benefit to concentrating on an area of focus without a goal.

The reason for this transition in approaches is that an area of focus taps into your intrinsic motivation, offers no stimulus or incentive to cheat or take unnecessary risks, leaves every positive possibility and opportunity open, and encourages collaboration while reducing corrosive competition. All while moving forward on the things you or your organization value most and doing so in the present. An area of focus offers all the advantages of a goal without the negative side effects.

In my experience, things will get accomplished and not only will you achieve at least as much as you would have if you had set goals, but you’ll enjoy the process far more, avoiding unnecessary stress and temptation.

In other words, focus on the tasks instead of the outcome.


P.S. How many major areas can you focus upon before you lose your effectiveness? I have found that five major things are about the limit before your efforts get diluted.






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