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The Problem with Outcome-Based Goal Setting:

3 Concepts to Consider


Read Time : 5 minutes


Personal and professional outcome-based goal setting has become a way of life for highly motivated and ambitious individuals who want to improve their own lifestyle while adding value to society as a whole. 


With many self-help gurus suggesting that this practice is synonymous with worthwhile achievement and personal progression, the lure of this straightforward procedure is comprehensible.


First an individual must brainstorm possible worthwhile goals before settling on those that will add most value to their lifestyle. One must ensure that the goals are SMART – specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time bound – and that the outcomes are clear. Once a step-by-step plan to attainment has been written and committed to, one must regularly visualize achieving the goal and take action. 


Many may see this type of planning as best practice, and although it is certainly an improvement on aimlessly ambling through life, the latest research literature cites a failure rate of over 80% for those who partake in this style of goal setting. It is imperative therefore, that we look at the flaws of focusing on outcomes to allow us to tweak the goal setting process to reduce this failure rate substantially.


Cost of Achievement


Universally, the typical desired outcomes tend to include some combination of:


- Get in the best shape of my life [Get 6 pack abs/ lose 3 stone]

Become substantially wealthier [Make 1 million by the time I’m 35]

Improve status [Become [insert job title] at work]

- Make a career change [Become an author]

- Learn a difficult new skill [Learn to code/ a new language]

Without exception, those I interviewed on this subject cited that the outcomes settled upon tended to be attractive, extreme in nature and totally transformational. 


‘Afterall, why wouldn’t you want the best possible life for yourself?’


When the focus is on the outcome, we tend to forget about the process involved. As with every process, there is a cost in time, energy and money – something which we do not fully evaluate when jotting down our desired outcomes on a new planner.


Undoubtedly, we all want to be in great shape, but do we want to commit to early morning gym sessions and a sustained calorie deficit?


By focusing on outcomes, we focus on the wrong side of the equation. Before committing to any process, we must assess if we are willing to ‘pay the dues’ required to achieve that outcome. It is only when we focus on the process that we can assess the outcome's viability and the cost to benefit ratio. 

Happy When Syndrome

‘There is perhaps nothing worse than reaching the top of the ladder and discovering you’re on the wrong wall’


J. Campbell

We tend to grossly misunderstand what will make us happy and as result, we often chase the wrong goals. The pursuit of extreme wealth is a common aspiration, but research repeatedly and reliably indicates that more wealth, over a comfortable amount, does not improve happiness. In fact, there is no correlation over this ‘point of comfort’ between wealth and contentment.

For many, the outcome goal is so extreme that other aspects of life need to be sacrificed to reach the intended destination. Stories of business owners who sacrifice their marriage in the quest of building their empire and rock stars whose stardom comes at the expense of their health are all too common. 

For those people who ‘will be happy when’ they achieve their goal, they often find the enjoyment of its arrival short-lived. Goal achievement is rarely as satisfying as expected, and even when it is we get used to it relatively quickly and return to our baseline happiness – Afterall one is still oneself. 

Derren Brown accurately attests to the fact that happiness is largely defined by the balance of your personality:

‘I am no more happy than when I was in my years in Bristol post-university, claiming housing benefit between very occasional magic gigs’


D. Brown

And suggests that ‘the trick’ to happiness is to enjoy the journey. With this approach we create a win/ win scenario where happiness is present irrespective of whether we attain the desired goal.

The Diagonal

Outcome-based goal setting suggests that we have control over every occurrence, event and happening in our life. The keys to success lie firmly in our hands. Although this idea is one which provides solace and comfort for many in a chaotic world, it is ultimately a false one. In fact, the contrary, as highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic, is true and almost all that happens in life is totally out of our control.

Arthur Schopenhauer masterfully describes this phenomenon in his Counsels and Maxims;

‘Events and our chief aims can be in most cases compared to two forces that pull in different directions, their resultant being the course of our life’


Recessions crush businesses, injuries end athletic careers and illness halts professional progression. Fate has no respect for your SMART goals. 

The sporting arena provides the perfect analogy to illustrate this point. Each team enters the field of play with a proposed plan of attack but the actions of the other team, the officials, the weather, the crowd and any other number of variables affect this plan.

In order to be successful, the plan must be modified constantly, to the point that, as it is executed, several of its fundamental principles are unrecognisable.

To adhere stringently to the plan, as our SMART goals suggest, would deny that a second, totally independent team share the field with us.

These 3 concepts; The Cost of Achievement, Happy When Syndrome and The Diagonal highlight just some of the many issues with outcome-based goal setting. If transformational change is what we really seek, 'Process-Centred Goal Setting' must become our tool of choice and next week’s article will focus on just that.

I will be sharing further tools, tactics, and strategies, including my template for goal setting, in an upcoming newsletter, so if you’re not currently subscribed, click the link!

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