Goal-Setting: Three Common Mistakes

Three Common Goal-Setting Mistakes

Mike Armour

When it comes to setting and managing goals, most of us have considerable room for improvement. I see this weekly as I coach entrepreneurs, small business owners, and executives. Let me share three common goal-setting mistakes which many of them are making.

Confusing Intentions with Goals

In general, people intend to do good. They know what they want to accomplish. They know what's required to achieve it. And they intend to do these things.

But how many things have you intended to do for years, but they remain undone to this day? I could list a ton of projects like this. Books I intend to write. Furniture I intend to refinish. Vacations I intend to take.

To be motivating, goals need a good intention behind them. But good intentions are not goals. A good intention is to lose weight. A goal is to lose ten pounds in the next 60 days by exercising four days a week.

Having Too Many Goals

We can only focus on a finite number of things simultaneously. This is wired into us. The conscious mind can track about seven elements of information at once. For some people this number is as low as five, and with a few it's as high as nine. But whatever our own number, we all contend with this limit.

That's why we have no problem remembering a sequence of six or seven numbers. Or a shopping list which is limited tofive or six items. But once we are asked to remember a sequence of 11 or 12 numbers or a shopping list of ten items, most of us struggle to do it. We either find items on the list slipping from memory or we resort to some mnemonic or other memory aid to recall them in their entirety.

In a similar way, we have a finite number of commitments that we can hold constantly before our eyes. Our commitments, moreover, encompass many areas of our lives, goals being only one component of them. This therefore sets a limit on the number of goals that we can manage well.

You know that you have too many goals when one of two things is true. First, if you find that you can't stay focused daily on your priority goals because there are too many of them. Or second, if the sheer number of goals that you have, and the work required to achieve them, leaves you feeling overwhelmed.

The hazard of too many goals is a pronounced one for encore entrepreneurs. They are generally the kinds of people who are inclined to read self-help books, listen to self-help CDs, or attend self-help seminars.

Without exception, self-help resources like this emphasize the importance of setting goals. In response, many people sit down and develop an extensive list of goals, only to end up with a list that is excessive in length. Inevitably some of the goals, or even most of them, quickly become neglected, making the entire goal-setting enterprise a general waste of time.

Failing to Categorize Goals Contextually

For goals to serve us well, we must cluster them around our various spheres of existence. That is, we should not intermingle goals about our career or business with goals about our health, our family life, our community service, our pasttimes, or what have you.

Our daily lives are structured around what I call "contextual markers." These markers are like thresholds which separate one sphere of our existence from another. A morning commute can be a contextual marker that signals, "I'm now stepping into the world or work." Walking through the front-door at home in the afternoon can be a contextual marker that "I'm now entering the world of family life."

Respecting these various contexts, and developing our goals within them, allows us to maximize the number of goals that we can manage overall. Let me elaborate.

If set twelve priority goals for myself, then expect to stay on top of them all simultaneously, I've created a daunting task for myself — indeed, one that's probably impossible. The sheer number of goals leads to the overload that we described earlier.

But what if I distribute a dozen goals across various contexts of my exsitence? Perhaps I have four priority goals at work, three in my family life, two in my community and social life, two more in terms of my personal self-development and health, and a single goal for my recreational life. And what if I conditioned myself to focus only on goals that are relevant to the context of my present moment?

Now as I make my morning commute, I mentally pull out my four work goals and park the other eight goals that I'm working on. Approaching the front door that afternoon, I mentally file away the four work goals and pull out the three family goals. When I'm in one context, I pay no regard to the goals which belong to another context.

Admittedly it takes a bit of self-discipline to practice this regimen. We are far too prone to deprive our family of its due attention because we are mulling over our challenges and goals at work. But when we learn to work singularly on family goals at home, singlurly on health goals at the gym, and singularly on work goals at work, we can effectively manage a significantly larger number of goals than we I treat all goals as part of one big mix.

This article first appeared in Encore Entrepreneur inbox magazine on February 19, 2015.

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