How goal setting can be hindering your progress more than it's helping

One of my major goals was to be a bridesmaid at Corinne's wedding. It was incredible when it happened!

One of my major goals was to be a bridesmaid at Corinne's wedding. It was incredible when it happened!

My goals for recovery
Today I looked up the goals I had set for myself exactly six months ago when I was still housebound and about to start neural retraining. By this point, I had learned enough to be confident that it was going to help me. What I didn’t know was how much it was going to help me. 

I would never have thought I would achieve the majority of the goals I had set in less than six months. And that I would have my life back in so many ways.

My goals were challenging and if I’m completely honest seemed almost impossible at the time. But to have written them down, I must have just about started to believe they could be possible. And I really believe that’s the sort of goal we should always set in life: challenging but not impossible. 

Being goal-oriented
I've always been very goal-oriented. I set objectives at work, in my sports and even in my daily life and I always work hard to achieve them. I also truly believe that the challenging (but extremely motivating) goals that I set for myself six months ago are a big part of the reason that I’m better today. Keeping what I wanted to achieve in mind helped me to step out of my comfort zone much more often than I would have otherwise.

How goal setting can be hindering your progress
So the title of this post must seem a bit ironic. If I believe so much in setting goals, why would I say that goal setting might be hindering your progress more than it’s helping? And the answer is that I really think that happens to all of us at times, no matter what our goals might be in life, work, fitness etc. And here’s why:


1. We sometimes let our goal become the be all and end all. 
When we do this, if something happens to throw us off track, we just end up feeling disheartened. I must admit that this has happened to me a few times in the past in all aspects of my life, but perhaps mostly in my training and racing. My goals at times became so important to me that I started to forget how much I was enjoying what I was doing. If I didn’t accomplish what I had set out to, I felt that it wasn’t worth the effort I was putting in and that to some extent I had failed. 

Instead I learned over time to enjoy the journey – no matter how straight-forward or winding it might be, to celebrate all my accomplishments along the way and to know that if I haven’t yet managed to achieve something, I might be able to achieve it another time or else it may be time to let go.

Dermot approaching the finish line at the IRONMAN World Championships in 2013

Dermot approaching the finish line at the IRONMAN World Championships in 2013

2. We don’t recognise that it’s time to let go. 
In fact I think knowing when to let go is almost more important than the actual goal setting process. And you shouldn’t feel that you’re a quitter or a failure. In fact, letting go may be the hardest but most important thing you do. 

I’ll always remember Dermot telling me that if he didn’t qualify for the Hawaii IRONMAN World Championships in 2013, that was it – he would stop trying and move on. It happened to be the year that he did qualify, but I know from everything he said before and after that he wouldn’t have tried again if he hadn’t qualified. And I really admire him for that. Because I know how much qualifying meant to him. But I also know that it was time for him – and us – to move on. And I sometimes wonder what would have happened to us had he not managed and kept trying and trying.

3. We resist taking a break.
Any athlete reading this knows that recovery is as important as training to achieve results. And I believe it’s the same in life too. We need to know when it’s time to take a break or even take a step back. But I didn’t always know this. At home and at work there were times when I used to want to get so much done that I just wouldn't give myself a break. But it would inevitably backfire because I'd end up exhausted and burned out at times.

Even recently, when I returned to the office, I did a bit too much in the first week and noticed a slight spike in my old symptoms. So last week I took a step back. And this week I’m proud to announce that I managed to work from the office every day as well as carrying on with things as usual without any flare-ups. But I believe this week’s success is a result of taking a step back last week.
4. We resist changing our priorities.
After years of training as a triathlete, I remember how hard it was to decide to stop triathlon and focus on running instead. I did this to cut down on my training time and have more time to enjoy other things like planning our wedding, preparing our home etc. But it’s a decision I’ll never regret. It was time for me to change my priorities. And I think it’s important to reevaluate our goals every now and then to be sure we’re working towards the goals we most want to be working towards.

Running while injured during the  National Triathlon Championships in 2011: not a good idea!

Running while injured during the  National Triathlon Championships in 2011: not a good idea!

5. We chase our dreams even on days when it just doesn’t make sense to. 
During the National Triathlon Championships in 2011 I was injured but had been told it was nothing serious and I could complete the race. The race was a qualifier for a national team race in Sicily and my aim was to qualify. So despite the huge pain I was in (you can see from my grimace in this photo), I kept pushing through. Ironically I did qualify but was then told that I needed to be in plaster and on crutches for 6 weeks. I didn’t go to Sicily and it took me a long time to recover and be able to start racing again. It definitely taught me an important lesson though: that there are days when it just doesn’t make sense to chase a dream.

So I’ll never stop believing in the importance of setting goals and working hard to achieve them. I wouldn’t have recovered from extreme food sensitivities, multiple chemical sensitivity and chronic fatigue syndrome without the challenging goals I worked towards. But I also believe we have to choose our goals wisely, not let them become the be all and end all and know when to take a step back or even let them go. It's then that we'll truly start to see the progress and success that we wish to see in our lives.

Question: Do you have other suggestions of ways in which goal setting may be hindering our progress more than it's helping? If so, please leave a comment below.

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