Some targets ARE bad for my productivity, what about yours?

What happens when you miss?

This is a reaction to a very interesting question raised by James at 3 Month Thesis. His question was, are targets bad for your productivity?

It’s interesting because it questions the conventional wisdom (always a good thing!) that setting goals and targets automatically help you be more productive and achieve what you want. There is a problem with this though, and I know from experience that…

Thoughtless targets kill your productivity and your ambitions, whatever they may be

I regularly used to set big goals for myself. Work related, fitness related, whatever. The bigger the goal the better. My thinking was that it is simply better to aim high, even if you don’t reach your target you will get closer to the end result.

I also used to set off on the goal with a mountain of enthusiasm. This enthusiasm and energy would always dictate how I planned my goals, and how I would anticipate the end result.

Now these are not unreasonable things to do, nor are they uncommon. However these two things caused me to abandon more goals over the past few years than I want to imagine.

The problem

First of all, starting off with energy and enthusiasm is normal. It is also normal for this to tail off over time. By letting the energy I had at the start dictate my target outcomes I was doomed to fail because I would never have enough energy to finish. The next problem was setting goals that were too big, over a large time line when I didn’t have the enthusiasm to sustain them. I would inevitably fail. But that’s not too bad, because even if I failed, I’d still be closer to the goal and then I could start again…

Oh No

You would think getting closer to a goal then stopping means that you stay at that distance from the goal, then you can pick it up later and get even closer. This DID NOT happen for me. Once I stopped, I went backwards. It’s like trying to get to space in a rocket and then suddenly taking your foot off the gas, you fall back – all the way back. This is demotivating to say the least. The problem is that it takes time to recover from something like this and after it all, you are no closer to achieving your desired targets. In fact in many ways, you are worse off. This is compounded if the goals are set over a long time frame, because it tends to take you a multiple of that time frame to start again. If you wanted to write 10,000 words in a month, if you fell behind, you probably wouldn’t want to start until the next month, or the month after or the month after that. It’s easy to see how this quickly becomes a painfully demotivating spiral.

The Cure

Stop making targets? I don’t think so. Despite the tone of this post, targets are still a very important tool that I use to get things done. I’ve learned to manage my goals a lot better by doing essentially, one simple thing…

…Break everything down into smaller goals.

Take your large targets over long periods of time and break them down. Make sure that you have small, daily goals that are small enough to focus on and achieve. This is what I do now. If I don’t achieve my goals, I can simply do it tomorrow. However the fact that the goals are small means that the finish line is always in sight. This is very motivating and it means that I rarely miss one. It also means that my goals are much more flexible. I can change small components that will ultimately affect what amounts to a large goal after completing several small ones.

Making small goals is a skill in itself and does take time and planning. Try and set aside time every month and week to plan your small goals, and work out how they will add together to create something bigger. Also set aside some time (15-30 minutes) each day to review your goals, make important adjustments and get them clear at the front of your mind.

Does this resonate with you? If so, please leave a comment here, or head over to 3 Month thesis to see my comment on the original article and to add your own.


  1. says

    I think it’s more important that we learn to set ‘appropriate’ targets rather than just set any targets. I agree that breaking down to smaller goals is good. It always helps me move forward. Just have to make sure the bigger picture is always on the background so that we don’t lose track of our final destination. Another important lesson I’ve learned is there’s no one right way to get to our targets. Sometimes we set ‘impossible’ targets without actually knowing at first. Just learn from mistakes and never give up. Eventually we’ll get there :)

    • says

      Good point Jen. I don’t think we should be afraid of setting impossible targets, but we need to be prepared to change and modify them as necessary to make sure we don’t fall off the proverbial wagon.

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