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Common Goal Setting Mistakes

The greater danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we hit it. – Michelangelo Buonarroti, Renaissance artist

John is reflecting on the last goal that he set for himself. Everything started well – he was making progress, he felt great about what he was doing, and he was excited about future possibilities. But then things unraveled.

The goal took longer to complete than he thought it would, and he became discouraged. And, because he didn’t stop to look at what he had achieved, he lost his drive and focus. Before he knew it, the goal – and the opportunities it would have brought – was forgotten.

Sound familiar?

Let’s look at some common mistakes that people make when they set goals. Learn how to recognize these mistakes, so that you can avoid making them yourself!

Mistake 1: Setting Unrealistic Goals

When you’re exploring possible goals, you need to unleash your imagination and ambition, put your reservations aside, and dream big dreams. However, once you’ve decided on a goal, make sure that it is realistic, and that you can actually achieve it in the time frame that you have set for yourself.

For instance, if your goal is to run a marathon, it’s wildly unrealistic to sign up for one next month, unless you’ve already done several months of training. Or, if your goal is to become CEO of a company, but you have no experience, this goal might not be practical – at least not yet!

To set realistic goals, use SMART goal setting strategies: make sure that your goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound.

Mistake 2: Focusing on Too Few Areas

Imagine that you’ve just written your list of goals for the next year. You’ve committed to increasing your sales by 15 percent, applying for a promotion, and reading one leadership book each month.

Although this is an ambitious but achievable list of goals, there’s a potential problem: these goals focus only on your career. You’ve completely omitted goals from other parts of your life.

Many people focus solely on their work when they set goals. However, you can’t neglect activities that bring you joy. Goals like writing a book, competing in an adventure race, or starting a home garden might also be incredibly important for your happiness and well-being.

So, when you set your goals, make sure that you strike the right balance between different areas of your life. And remember that "balance" is different for everyone.

Mistake 3: Underestimating Completion Time

How often has a task or project taken longer than you thought? Probably more times than you can count! You may also say the same for goals that you’ve set in the past.

If you don’t estimate goal completion time accurately, it can be discouraging when things take longer to achieve than you think they should. This can cause you to give up.

So, use action programs and effective scheduling strategies when planning your goals. And always pad your timelines to account for delays and setbacks. If you add extra time into your estimate, you’ll feel less pressure to rush and finish by a certain date.

Mistake 4: Not Appreciating Failure

No matter how hard you work, you will fail to achieve goals from time to time. We’ve all been there, and it isn’t fun!

However, your failures are what ultimately determine your character. They also contain lessons that can change your life for the best, if you have the courage to learn from them.

So don’t be too upset if you fail to achieve your goals – just take note of where you went wrong and use that knowledge to reach your goals next time around.

Mistake 5: Setting "Other People’s Goals"

Some people – family, friends, or even your boss – may want to influence the goals you set. Perhaps they feel that they know what’s best for you, or maybe they want you to take a certain path or do certain things.

Clearly, it’s important that you have good relationships with these people, and you need to do what your boss asks, within reason.

However, your goals need to be your own – not anybody else’s. So be politely assertive, and do what you want to do!

Mistake 6: Not Reviewing Progress

It takes time to accomplish goals. And sometimes it can feel that you aren’t making much progress.

This is why it’s important to take stock of everything that you’ve accomplished on a regular basis. Set small sub-goals, celebrate your successes, and analyze what you need to do to keep moving forward. No matter how slow things seem, you probably are making progress!

You can also take this opportunity to update your goals, based on what you’ve learnt. Have your priorities changed? Or do you need to set aside some extra time for a particular goal activity?

Goals are never set in stone, so don’t be afraid to amend them if you need to.

Mistake 7: Setting "Negative" Goals

How you think about your goal can influence how you feel about it, and whether you achieve it.

For instance, many people have a goal to "lose weight." However, this goal has a negative connotation; it’s focused on what you don’t want – your weight. A positive way to reframe this goal is to say you want to "get healthy."

Another example of a negative goal is to "stop staying late at work." A positive way to rephrase this is to "spend more time with family."

Negative goals are emotionally unattractive, which makes it hard to focus on them. Reframe any negative goals so that they sound positive: you may be surprised by the difference this makes!

Mistake 8: Setting Too Many Goals

When you start setting goals, you may see many things that you want to accomplish. So you start setting goals in all areas.

The problem with this is that you have a fixed amount time and energy. If you try to focus on many different goals at once, you can’t give individual goals the attention they deserve.

Instead, use the "quality, not quantity" rule when setting goals. Work out the relative importance of everything that you want to accomplish over the next six to twelve months. Then pick no more than, say, three goals to focus on.

Remember, the success of your work towards a goal rests on focusing on just a few things at a time. If you limit the number of goals you’re working on, you’ll have the time and energy you need to do things really well!

Thanks to our partners at MindTools for their thoughts on this important topic!