10 Common Goal-setting Mistakes

This article originally appeared on Microlearning, our bite-sized online solution for leaders and individual contributors.

If you, like millions of other people, have ever made a grand pronouncement on New Year’s Eve — only to fall off the wagon a few days or weeks later — you know the truth about goals. It’s really hard to set good ones, and even harder to meet them.

Instead of repeating this self-defeating cycle, why not examine your approach and figure out where you’re going wrong?


1. Setting vague goals.

The notion of setting goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant (i.e., central to your life or work), and time-bound might sound like some corporate nonsense. It isn’t. Ignoring any component of SMART goal-setting makes it tougher to follow through, but specificity is particularly important. It gives you something to act on, not just dream about.


2. Setting overly optimistic goals.

A positive attitude is a wonderful thing. But be sure to balance it with a dose of realism, or you could find yourself ill-prepared to follow through. Unexpected obstacles are bound to emerge, so think through what could go wrong and allot yourself some “buffer” time when you set goals.


3. Letting fear drive your goal-setting.

The flip side of too much optimism is fear-based goal-setting. Don’t let your fear of failing keep you down. Your goals should be ambitious enough to drive change and personal growth.


4. Setting too many large goals.

Most experts agree that setting three to five large goals for the year is plenty. So if you want to become your group’s team lead by the end of the year, spearhead a new product launch, represent your company at three key conferences, learn more about marketing, and start a new group for those interested in UX research, hang on!


5. Focusing only on short- or long-term goals.

Many experts recommend setting a few (three to five) big, long-term goals, and balancing those with shorter-term, more tactical goals that reflect weekly or even daily aims (and ideally, some or all of these small goals will feed into your big goals).


6. Failing to follow through.

Goal-setting guru Zig Ziglar once said, “A goal properly set is halfway reached.” True enough. But once you’ve set a great goal don’t pat yourself on the back quite yet. You have a lot of hard work ahead of you to make it happen. Embracing this truth, and creating an action plan, will get you over the finish line.


7. Refusing to recalibrate or abandon goals that aren’t working.

Things change, and sometimes our goals should, too. A new hire could shift your team’s areas of focus. Your company’s finances could suddenly reverse course. Your own growth and learning could spur a new insight. Don’t fall into the trap of ignoring what’s going on around (or inside!) you. Review your goals regularly — weekly is often best for long-term goals, and daily for short-term ones — and make adjustments along the way. You could even decide to abandon a goal — there’s no shame in it if it stops making sense to pursue it.


8. Letting the ends justify the means.

Lance Armstrong wanted to win. Kenneth Lay wanted Enron’s earnings to keep going up. Bernie Madoff wanted to make a lot of money. None of these goals is bad in and of itself. But some overachievers become so invested in their goals they compromise their ethics. You can try to keep things in perspective by checking in with trusted friends if you start to get overly obsessive about a goal.


9. Focusing on becoming the best instead of getting better.

Do you go after goals that will allow you to prove yourself? Or those that will help you improve yourself? The latter approach tends to be healthier. And small improvements can yield huge progress over time.


10. Competing, rather than collaborating, to meet goals.

Achieving goals in a work setting usually takes teamwork. Instead of trying to beat out your colleagues, involve them in your goals, talk through what you’re trying to accomplish, and get feedback on your progress at regular intervals.