Flatlay of a goal setting diary alongside a gold watch and mug of coffee

Many of us set career goals for ourselves, and at work our performance review sets our objectives for the next six months or year. We are often told to set goals that are specific and measurable, meaning that we will have achieved something finite upon completion, and working towards these can be highly satisfying in ticking off what we’ve done and looking back on what we’ve achieved.

However, they are not the be all and end all, and sometimes goal setting can in fact hinder our performance. So be mindful next time you set yourself career goals. Here are just a few ways they can have a negative effect (and what you can do instead):

They make us unable to see the wood for the trees 

Often, setting goals can make us become overly narrow in our focus in the workplace. A famous example of this is Ford’s fuel-efficiency goals and short timeline in which to introduce a new car in the 1970s. Granted, the Ford Pinto was launched on time, however its fuel system led to a number of avoidable deaths and a "voluntary recall" programme which tarnished the company’s reputation. All because it's employees were too focused on the goals they had been given and not enough time was spend on the bigger picture, namely safety.

This phenomenon is called “inattentional blindness” and we often experience it when we work on something too closely and realise all the mistakes we’ve made when we take a step back. Next time you set yourself career goals, remember to take a step back from time to time - simple measures could include not sending off a piece of work until the next morning when you can give it a reread (and find a multitude of errors or a better way of phrasing something) or getting away from it and doing something completely different, such as going to the gym or immersing yourself in an evening of cooking. 

Kills your creativity

In the 1940s Harry Harlow gave puzzles to monkeys which they happily solved. However, when they gave them a reward for solving them, they were less likely to solve them and made more errors. 

As Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, suggests, rewards can turn a task we would naturally be curious about into something that’s work. And instead of gaining more from the task (especially when it's something completely new), we actually gain less. Because of this, the next time you set yourself a goal, consider the way it makes you feel while you are doing it, and the satisfaction you gain upon its completion rather than giving yourself a treat to look forward to. 

Does your younger self know what your older self will want?

We might be able to set ourselves short-term goals, but who’s to say what our future selves will want? Think back to ten years ago - would the ten-year-old younger you have wanted what you have now? There might be a few similarities, but it’s unlikely that you would have factored in other aspects of your life, especially the personal ones, such as ageing parents, new relationships and children. 

With that in mind, keep your goals to a three-year timeframe, when you have a far better understanding of what you want in the future, what is realistic for you to achieve and where your life is going to take you.

Career goal visualisation is not always a positive process

Psychologists have found that many people who visualise their goals are less likely to achieve them. Instead of getting excited about reaching our goals, we inadvertently trigger a relaxation response that mimics how we would feel if we’d actually reached the goal. This means that, physiologically, our blood pressure lowers and our heart rate decreases, and we never actually take any action to reach our desired goal. 

To stop visualisation from becoming nothing more than a fantasy, mentally rehearse the movements you would do to achieve your goal so your body can mimic that instead. So it may be that you could visualise yourself sitting in the same desk space for hours on end (not something that we would recommend in practice for your health!) and being able to concentrate on a task at hand. Or you could visualise meetings with clients and how you are going to communicate with them and persuade them to buy your products. At the same time, you could imagine your surroundings, the sights and smells and how you would be feeling working on that task. Keeping these at the forefront of your mind is a better way to keep your goals in your consious awareness, create positive physiological responses and meet your goals.

Are you setting goals for yourself?

Woah, we’re into a BIG topic here, but are you working towards YOUR goals rather than someone else’s? Is it you that really wants that pay rise, promotion and more responsibility or is it society telling you that these are the things you need to do to look and feel successful. Are the actually happy with the current life you lead, and would you like to focus more of your energy on your relationships and home life rather than your career?

You don’t know how a goal will make you feel

In working towards a goal all you have to go on is how that goal makes you feel in that moment. You have absolutely no idea, on completion, whether it’s going to make you happy, or whether you’ll be scrambling around for something more to achieve. (Let's face it, for most of us, ticking off a goal is the first step into creating some new ones and wanting bigger and better things.) For many, the pleasure is actually in the process of working towards a goal and in creating a positive mental space rather than the accomplishment at the end. With this in mind, pay more attention to how working towards your goals makes you feel rather than the end result.

Becoming boring Jane

It’s natural to want to work towards goals, but instead of working towards very narrowly defined goals, why not regard them more as a compass? In this way, if your direction in life changes or you find something in you workplace that’s getting you excited that’s outside your area of expertise, you can change your goals to reflect them. This means that you are not forever stuck down a one-way street of ever bigger and better things in a well-defined arena, but have an interesting, meandering story to tell and will more likely reflect back on your career in a more positive light.