Does Goal Setting Work?

tl;dr There’s some disagreement over whether setting goals is a good idea. Anecdotally, enjoyment in setting goals and success at accomplishing them varies between people, for various possible reasons. Publicly setting goals may reduce motivation by providing a status gain before the goal is actually accomplished. Creative work may be better accomplished without setting goals about it. ‘Process goals’, ‘systems’ or ‘habits’ are probably better for motivation than ‘outcome’ goals. Specific goals are probably easier on motivation than unspecified goals. Having explicit set goals can cause problems in organizations, and maybe for individuals.


I experimented by letting go of goals for a while and just going with the flow, but that produced even worse results. I know some people are fans of that style, but it hasn’t worked well for me. I make much better progress — and I’m generally happier and more fulfilled — when I wield greater conscious control over the direction of my life.

Steve Pavlina

The inherent problem with goal setting is related to how the brain works. Recent neuroscience research shows the brain works in a protective way, resistant to change. Therefore, any goals that require substantial behavioural change or thinking-pattern change will automatically be resisted. The brain is wired to seek rewards and avoid pain or discomfort, including fear. When fear of failure creeps into the mind of the goal setter it commences a de-motivator with a desire to return to known, comfortable behaviour and thought patterns.

Ray Williams

I can’t read these two quotes side by side and not be confused.

There’s been quite a bit of discussion within Less Wrong and CFAR about goals and goal setting. On the whole, CFAR seems to go with it being a good idea. There are some posts that recognize the possible dangers: see patrissimo’s post on the problems with receiving status by publicly committing to goals. Basically, if you can achieve the status boost of actually accomplishing a goal by just talking about it in public, why do the hard work? This discussion came up fairly recently with the Ottawa Less Wrong group; specifically, whether introducing group goal setting was a good idea.

I’ve always set goals–by ‘always’ I mean ‘as far back as I can identify myself as some vaguely continuous version of my current self.’ At age twelve, some of my goals were concrete and immediate–“get a time under 1 minute 12 seconds for a hundred freestyle and make the regional swim meet cut.” Some were ambitious and unlikely–“go to the Olympics for swimming,” and “be the youngest person to swim across Lake Ontario.” Some were vague, like “be beautiful” or “be a famous novelist.” Some were chosen for bad reasons, like “lose 10 pounds.” My 12-year-old self wanted plenty of things that were unrealistic, or unhealthy, or incoherent, but I wanted them, and it seemed to make perfect sense to do something about getting them. I took the bus to swim practice at six am. I skipped breakfast and threw out the lunch my mom packed. Et cetera. I didn’t write these goals down in a list format, but I certainly kept track of them, in diary entries among other things. I sympathize with the first quote, and the second quote confuses and kind of irritates me–seriously, Ray Williams, you have that little faith in people’s abilities to change?

For me personally, I’m not sure what the alternative to having goals would be. Do things at random? Do whatever you have an immediate urge to do? Actually, I do know people like this. I know people whose stated desires aren’t a good predictor of their actions at all, and I’ve had a friend say to me “wow, you really do plan everything. I just realized I don’t plan anything at all.” Some of these people get a lot of interesting stuff done. So this may just be an individual variation thing; my comfort with goal setting, and discomfort with making life up as I go, might be a result of my slightly-Aspergers need for control. It certainly comes at a cost–the cost of basing self-worth on an external criterion, and the resulting anxiety and feelings of inadequacy. I have an enormous amount of difficulty with the Buddhist virtue of ‘non-striving.’

Why the individual variation?

The concepts of the motivation equation and success spirals give another hint at why goal-driven behaviour might vary between people. Nick Winter talks about this in his book The Motivation Hacker; he shows the difference between his past self, who had very low expectancy of success and set few goals, and his present self, with high expectancy of success and with goal-directed behaviour filling most of his time.

I actually remember a shift like this in my own life, although it was back in seventh grade and I’ve probably editorialized the memories to make a good narrative. My sixth grade self didn’t really have a concept of wanting something and thus doing something about it. At some point, over a period of a year or two, I experienced some minor successes. I was swimming faster, and for the first time ever, a coach made comments about my ‘natural talent.’ My friends wanted to get on the honour roll with an 80% average, and in first semester, both of them did and I didn’t; I was upset and decided to work harder, a concept I’d never applied to school, and saw results the next semester when my average was on par with theirs. It only took a few events like that, inconsequential in themselves, before my self-image was of someone who could reliably accomplish things through hard work. My parents helpfully reinforced this self-stereotype by making proud comments about my willpower and determination.

In hindsight I’m not sure whether this was a defining year; whether it actually made the difference, in the long run, or whether it was inevitable that some cluster of minor successes would have set off the same cascade later. It may be that some innate personality trait distinguishes the people who take those types of experiences and interpret them as success spirals from those who remained disengaged.

The More Important Question

Apart from the question of personal individual variation, though, there’s a more relevant question. Given that you’re already at a particular place on the continuum from planning-everything to doing-everything-as-you-feel-like-it, how much should you want to set goals, versus following urges? More importantly, what actions are helped versus harmed by explicit goal-setting.

Creative Goals

As Paul Graham points out, a lot of the cool things that have been accomplished in the past weren’t done through self-discipline:

One of the most dangerous illusions you get from school is the idea that doing great things requires a lot of discipline. Most subjects are taught in such a boring way that it’s only by discipline that you can flog yourself through them. So I was surprised when, early in college, I read a quote by Wittgenstein saying that he had no self-discipline and had never been able to deny himself anything, not even a cup of coffee.

Now I know a number of people who do great work, and it’s the same with all of them. They have little discipline. They’re all terrible procrastinators and find it almost impossible to make themselves do anything they’re not interested in. One still hasn’t sent out his half of the thank-you notes from his wedding, four years ago. Another has 26,000 emails in her inbox.

I’m not saying you can get away with zero self-discipline. You probably need about the amount you need to go running. I’m often reluctant to go running, but once I do, I enjoy it. And if I don’t run for several days, I feel ill. It’s the same with people who do great things. They know they’ll feel bad if they don’t work, and they have enough discipline to get themselves to their desks to start working. But once they get started, interest takes over, and discipline is no longer necessary.

Do you think Shakespeare was gritting his teeth and diligently trying to write Great Literature? Of course not. He was having fun. That’s why he’s so good.

This seems to imply that creative goals aren’t a good place to apply goal setting. But I’m not sure how much this is a fundamental truth. I recently made a Beeminder goal for writing fiction, and I’ve written fifty pages since then. I actually don’t have the writer’s virtue of just sitting down and writing; in the past, I’ve written most of my fiction by staying up late in a flow state. I can’t turn this on and off, though, and more importantly, I have a life to schedule my writing around, and if the only way I can get a novel done is to stay up all night before a 12-hour shift at the hospital, I probably won’t write that novel. I rarely want to do the hard work of writing; it’s a lot easier to lie in bed thinking about that one awesome scene five chapters down the road and lamenting that I don’t have time to write tonight because work in the morning.

Even if Shakespeare didn’t write using discipline, I bet that he used habits. That he sat down every day with a pen and parchment and fully expected himself to write. That he had some kind of sacred writing time, not to be interrupted by urgent-but-unimportant demands. That he’d built up some kind of success spiral around his ability to write plays that people would enjoy.

Outcome versus process goals

Goal setting sets up an either-or polarity of success. The only true measure can either be 100% attainment or perfection, or 99% and less, which is failure. We can then excessively focus on the missing or incomplete part of our efforts, ignoring the successful parts. Fourthly, goal setting doesn’t take into account random forces of chance. You can’t control all the environmental variables to guarantee 100% success.

Ray Williams

This quote talks about a type of goal that I don’t actually set very often. Most of the ‘bad’ goals that I had as a 12-year-old were unrealistic outcome goals, and I failed to accomplish plenty of them; I didn’t go to the Olympics, I didn’t swim across Lake Ontario, and I never got down to 110 pounds. But I still have the self-concept of someone who’s good at accomplishing goals, and this is because I accomplished almost all of my more implicit ‘process’ goals. I made it to swim practice seven times a week, waking up at four-thirty am year after year. This didn’t automatically lead to Olympic success, obviously, but it was hard, and it impressed people. And yeah, I missed a few mornings, but in my mind 99% success or even 90% success at a goal is still pretty awesome.

In fact, I can’t think of any examples of outcome goals that I’ve set recently. Even “become a really awesome nurse” feels like more of a process goal, because it’s something I’ll keep doing on a day-to-day basis, requiring a constant input of effort.

Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame, refers to this dichotomy as ‘systems’ versus ‘goals’:

Just after college, I took my first airplane trip, destination California, in search of a job. I was seated next to a businessman who was probably in his early 60s. I suppose I looked like an odd duck with my serious demeanor, bad haircut and cheap suit, clearly out of my element. I asked what he did for a living, and he told me he was the CEO of a company that made screws. He offered me some career advice. He said that every time he got a new job, he immediately started looking for a better one. For him, job seeking was not something one did when necessary. It was a continuing process… This was my first exposure to the idea that one should have a system instead of a goal. The system was to continually look for better options.

Throughout my career I’ve had my antennae up, looking for examples of people who use systems as opposed to goals. In most cases, as far as I can tell, the people who use systems do better. The systems-driven people have found a way to look at the familiar in new and more useful ways.

...To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose 10 pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary.

If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize that you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or to set new goals and re-enter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure.

I guess I agree with him–if you feel miserable when you’ve lost 9 pounds because you haven’t accomplished your goal yet, and empty after you’ve lost 10 pounds because you no longer have a goal, then whatever you’re calling ‘goal setting’ is a terrible idea. But that’s not what ‘goal setting’ feels like to me. I feel increasingly awesome as I get closer towards a goal, and once it’s done, I keep feeling awesome when I think about how I did it. Not awesome enough to never set another goal again, but awesome enough that I want to set lots more goals to get that feeling again.

SMART goals

When I work with people as their coach and mentor, they often tell me they’ve set goals such as “I want to be wealthy,” or “I want to be more beautiful/​popular,” “I want a better relationship/​ideal partner.” They don’t realize they’ve just described the symptoms or outcomes of the problems in their life. The cause of the problem, that many resist facing, is themselves. They don’t realize that for a change to occur, if one is desirable, they must change themselves. Once they make the personal changes, everything around them can alter, which may make the goal irrelevant.

Ray Williams

And? Someone has to change themselves to fix the underlying problem? Are they going to do that more successfully by going with the flow?

I think the more important dichotomy here is between vague goals and specific goals. I was exposed to the concept of SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound), at an early age, and though the concept has a lot of problems, the ability to Be Specific seems quite important. You can break down “I want to be beautiful” into subgoals like “I’ll learn to apply makeup properly”, “I’ll eat healthy and exercise”, “I’ll go clothing shopping with a friend who knows about fashion,” etc. All of these feel more attainable than the original goal, and it’s clear when they’re accomplished.

That being said, I have a hard time setting any goal that isn’t specific, attainable, and small. I’ve become more ambitious since meeting lots of LW and CFAR people, but I still don’t like large, long-term goals unless I can easily break them down into intermediate parts. This makes the idea of working on an unsolved problem, or in a startup where the events of the next year aren’t clear, deeply frightening. And these are obviously important problems that someone needs to motivate themselves to work on.

Problematic Goal-Driven Behaviour

We argue that the beneficial effects of goal setting have been overstated and that systematic harm caused by goal setting has been largely ignored. We identify specific side effects associated with goal setting, including a narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas, a rise in unethical behaviour, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation. Rather than dispensing goal setting as a benign, over-the-counter treatment for motivation, managers and scholars need to conceptualize goal setting as a prescription-strength medication that requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision.

Goals Gone Wild

This is a fairly compelling argument against goal-setting; that by setting an explicit goal and then optimizing towards that goal, you may be losing out on elements that were being accomplished better before, and maybe even rewarding actual negative behaviour. Members of an organization presumably already have assigned tasks and responsibilities, and aren’t just doing whatever they feel like doing, but they might have done better with more freedom to prioritize their own work–the best environment is one with some structure and goals, but not too many. The phenomenon of “teaching to the test” for standardized testing is another example.

Given that humans aren’t best described as unitary selves, this metaphor extends to individuals. If one aspect of myself sets a personal goal to write two pages per day, another aspect of myself might respond by writing two pages on the easiest project I can think of, like a journal entry that no one will ever see. This violates the spirit of the goal it technically accomplishes.

A more problematic consideration is the relationship between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Studies show that rewarding or punishing children for tasks results in less intrinsic motivation, as measured by stated interest or by freely choosing to engage in the task. I’ve noticed this tendency in myself; faced with a nursing instructor who was constantly quizzing me on the pathophysiology of my patients’ conditions, I responded by refusing to be curious about any of it or look up the answers to questions in any more detail than what she demanded, even though my previous self loved to spend hours on Google making sense of confusing diseases. If this is a problem that affects individuals setting goals for themselves–i.e. if setting a daily writing goal makes writing less fun–then I can easily see how goal-setting could be damaging.

I also notice that I’m confused about the relationship between Beeminder’s extrinsic motivation, in the form of punishment for derailing, and its effects on intrinsic motivation. Maybe the power of success spirals to increase intrinsic motivation offsets the negative effect of outside reward/​punishment; or maybe the fact that users deliberately choose to use Beeminder means that it doesn’t count as “extrinsic.” I’m not sure.


There seems to be variation between individuals, in terms of both generally purposeful behaviour, and comfort level with calling it ‘setting goals’. This might be related to success spirals in the past, or it might be a factor of personality and general comfort with order versus chaos. I’m not sure if it’s been studied.

In the past, a lot of creative behaviour wasn’t the result of deliberate goals. This may be a fundamental fact about creativity, or it may be a result of people’s beliefs about creativity (à la ego depletion only happens if you belief in ego depletion) or it may be a historical coincidence that isn’t fundamental at all. In any case, if you aren’t currently getting creative work done, and want to do more, I’m not sure what the alternative is to purposefully trying to do more. Manipulating the environment to make flow easier to attain, maybe. (For example, if I quit my day job and moved to a writers’ commune, I might write more without needing to try on a day-to-day basis).

Process goals, or systems, are probably better than outcome goals. Specific and realistic goals are probably better than vague and ambitious ones. A lot of this may be because it’s easier to form habits and/​or success spirals around well-specified behaviours that you can just do every day.

Setting goals within an organization has a lot of potential problems, because workers can game the system and accomplish the letter of the goal in the easiest possible way. This likely happens within individuals too. Research shows that extrinsic motivation reduces intrinsic motivation, which is important to consider, but I’m not sure how it relates to individuals setting goals, as opposed to organizations.