SETTING GOALS IS GOOD, RIGHT?
We all grew up with the idea that setting goals is a great way to become better at something. It provides motivation and a reward for achievement, even if it’s just personal satisfaction. I set a lot of goals last year for my fitness activities, had fun pursuing them, and achieved most of them (see my Quest 2012 page). So why shouldn’t I do the same thing in 2013?
Well, 2012 was a special year I’d planned all the goals for specifically, and although I will continue running, cycling, Aikido, etc. this year, I will be adjusting the frequency and intensity of those activities. But an article by Peter Bregman in the Harvard Business Review blog also got me thinking. Titled, “Consider Not Setting Goals for 2013,” it points out that focusing overmuch on goals can lead to counter-productive behavior.
The authors of a Harvard Business School working paper, Goals Gone Wild, reviewed a number of research studies related to goals and concluded that the upside of goal setting has been exaggerated and the downside, the “systematic harm caused by goal setting,” has been disregarded.
They identified clear side effects associated with goal setting, including “a narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas, a rise in unethical behavior, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation.”
In other words, the benefits of setting a goal can be lost if you focus only on the goal itself and not how you get there. You may do unhealthy or dishonest things to “make your number” rather than work on improving your skills. Peter is referring mainly to business-related goals, such as sales targets, but I think his points apply equally well to any kind of activity.
Consider Kip Litton, a Michigan dentist who has a son with cystic fibrosis. He’d set (and announced in a blog) a goal to run a sub-3-hour marathon in all 50 states to raise money for CF research. Did he become a better runner, or better person? Apparently not. Instead, he cheated in the races he ran, and even invented a marathon, listing himself as the winner. Having set a goal he could not meet with his training level and talent, he chose to fake the results rather than put in the work required or adjust his goal to something more reasonable. He wound up getting a lot of attention, but it wasn’t the kind he’d been hoping for, and no money was raised. You can read an excellent account of his sordid tale here, in this New Yorker online article.
Another problem with goal setting is relying on things outside your control. Should I set a goal of winning my age group in the Road Ends 5 Mile, a local trail race I run each year? Based on past race results, it’s possible. But my chance to win in any particular year depends not only on my fitness level, but who else in my age group shows up. I ran the 2011 Road Ends four minutes faster than in 2010 – and I finished in sixth place both times. I did win it in 2012, and I expect to run it even better this year, but my goal will be a time improvement, with winning a nice bonus if it happens. Meb and Ryan can go ahead and set goals to win races; when I have a fat Nike contract, maybe I’ll rethink my position.
All that said, I do have some new running goals:
- Run a mile in 6 minutes or less (current PR 6:16)
- Run a half marathon in 1:30:00 or less (current PR 1:36:59)
- Run a 50 mile ultramarathon (current longest race: 50K, 31.2 miles)
Only the 50-mile race is a firm 2013 goal, set for September at Run Woodstock. My coach agrees it’s doable, if I put in the training this spring and summer. I want to achieve the other two at some point. She’ll put together a training program that will improve my speed, I will continue the strength workouts also needed to get faster, and we’ll see how it works out in race results.
So hopefully I have set challenging but achievable running goals, and they will help me continue to improve as a runner. For Aikido, on the other hand, I will also work on improvement but will not be setting goals this year. I’ll explain why, and what I’m going to do instead, in an upcoming post.