When setting goals doesn’t work and what to do about it

by | Mar 18, 2013

3princessesA few years ago I joined a cycling group so I could become a stronger, safer rider. For me that meant comfortably doing 5-15 mile rides tooling around Bainbridge Island without having to walk my bike up hills.

From the very first ride I got my butt kicked, but good. I soon discovered that I was in the midst of a group of seriously competitive cyclists. They were interested in safety, yes, but safety in the context of 30-100 mile rides at averages upward of 20 miles per hour. Including hills.

Perhaps because the coach was a friend, and I wanted to support his business, I kept showing up. Within a year I was a full-fledged member of the Bad Princesses.

[That’s me in the center, celebrating my 50th birthday as a Bad Princess with black boots and a paper tiara. Our coach was appalled.]

Very quickly, my goal dropped away

My initial goal had nothing to do with sticking with the group, and I didn’t replace it with a new one. In fact, the very idea of setting a cycling goal gave me the heebie-jeebies. I just wanted to survive the next ride.

And it turns out that there’s evidence that past a certain point focusing on the goals you set stops being helpful.

How goals work for and against you

Last year a study by Ayelet Fishbach and Jinhee Choi of the University of Chicago School of Business showed that:

* Setting goals is a good way to motivate yourself to adopt the activities and practices that will help you reach them.

* Focusing on a goal after you’ve begun working toward it tends to reduce your enjoyment of and motivation to continue those same activities and practices.

* Focusing on the in-the-moment experience of those activities and practices increases enjoyment and motivates you to continue them.

Enjoying the process is the secret to making a profit

I’m a strong proponent of setting goals in your business. Setting goals focuses your attention and intentions so that you know where you are headed. Goals can be good motivators for starting projects that will make you profitable, and they are useful reference points.

But after your goals are in place, it’s best to shift your focus to the in-the-moment activities and practices of getting where you want to go.

And to cultivate joy in mundane matters such as marketing, getting organized, and selling.

How to cultivate joy in the mundane

Okay, joy may be a stretch, at least at first. But it is entirely possible to find satisfaction and engagement in the mundane activities and practices that will make your business profitable.

One way to do that is to turn daily tasks into meditation along the lines of “Chop wood, carry water.” Break projects down into tiny actions. As best you can stay in the moment as you complete each action.

See if you can expand into the present moment rather than hunker down when you answer email, balance your checkbook, or–heaven forfend–write sales copy.

I’m not saying you should aim to make every moment you spend on your business a peak experience. Just invite instances of ease. Lean into times when you feel good about something you’ve accomplished.

Build on those moments when you are surprised by happiness in the midst of what might be otherwise tedious.

In time the goal and the experience come together

In the course of a year, a new cycling goal did emerge for me. I wanted to feel fabulous. I wanted to feel the way I felt when I had challenged my mind and body to the utmost. I wanted to feel the way I felt when I became one with my teammates.

You could say that my goal and the experience of working toward the goal had become one and the same.

That happens in our businesses when we let down the barrier between how we show up for the work we love and how we show up for the business that supports that work. When we drop the story that we have to be one kind of person in the work we do and another kind of person when we do the business part.

This week see if you can allow feelings of lightness, engagement, and happiness to carry over into the mundane tasks of earning a profit. Think small. Think happy.