Is Goal Setting Pointless?

Lemme ask you a question:  What role does goal setting play in your school’s culture?  

If your building is anything like mine, goal setting is probably a regular part of your daily routine.  There are goals in your school improvement plan, right?  And each learning team has their own SMART goals to pursue.  Teachers write goals for personal development as a part of their evaluation protocols — and goals litter individualized education plans for students with special needs.

That’s why James Clear’s bit titled Forget About Setting Goals caught my eye this morning.

Clear’s argument is worth considering:  Goal setting can be intimidating — and can result in feelings of failure or fear that leave people paralyzed.

Here’s an example from my personal life:  One of my goals is to lose 25 pounds in the next three months.  Frankly, I’ve got a closet full of clothes that I don’t fit into anymore — and I don’t have the cash to buy a “fat guy wardrobe” right now.

But losing 25 pounds right now seems next to impossible.  Mathematically, that’s 87,500 calories I have to lose.  If I burn about 600 calories per workout (which is what the ol’ treadmill keeps telling me), I’ll need 145 workouts to lose 25 pounds — and that’s ONLY if I quit eating like a Buffalonian in the winter-time.

Just reading that paragraph makes me want to quit before my “healthy living” kick even begins — and the minute I miss a workout or down a dozen wings while watching a playoff game, I’m going to feel like I’ve lost.  Those are pretty high stakes, right?  So in order to protect myself, I’m going to either set easier goals or completely ignore the goals that I’ve set to begin with.  That’s human nature.  We are good at self-preservation.

Clear would argue that the solution to my growing waistline ISN’T to set some kind of big, hairy audacious goal for losing weight.  Instead, it’s to concentrate on systems that result in weight loss.  

My attention should be focused on thinking carefully about what I am going to eat for every meal or building time for regular gym visits into my personal schedule.  Doing so concentrates my attention on practical steps that I can take to lose weight — and gives me a thousand opportunities to feel successful.  Each scoop of hummus that I choke down or trip to the gym that I take becomes a victory for me — and victories build momentum that will eventually help me to achieve the goal that I would have set for myself in the first place.

It’s an interesting argument, isn’t it?  

Goals are destinations.  Systems are vehicles that keep you moving forward — and moving forward is essential to winning.   “When you focus on the practice (systems) instead of the performance (goals),” writes Clear,  “You can enjoy the present moment and improve at the same time.”

Now I’ve got to figure out how to apply Clear’s argument to the work that I am doing in my school.  How can I prioritize practice over performance in order to drive my own professional growth, the growth of my learning team, and the growth of my students?



Related Radical Reads:

Three Tips for Building Teacher Buy-In

Does Your School Have an “Avoid at All Costs” List?

Pockets of Innovation = Lack of Focus

12 thoughts on “Is Goal Setting Pointless?

  1. Kevin Meldrum

    Bill, speaking as someone who took years to lose 25 pounds, I hear what you are saying. However, the difficulty is that focusing on weight misses the fact that really you are trying to improve your health. You might become healthier (more muscle, less fat) while maintaining or even increasing your weight. So, my suggestion is to focus your goal on health (strength, endurance, however you want to define it) rather than weight.

    That said, systems, for weight loss or anything else, are totally the way to go. I started my health improvement by taking the time to go swimming, an activity I enjoy. The gains from swimming got me into a triathlon relay with my family, which got me into triathlons by myself. It all started because I committed to going swimming 2-3 times a week.

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  3. californio

    Well *we* at my school have to set goals and the leadership will decide what they are. It’s tough to take goals seriously if they don’t have a basis in reasonable expectations and current realities. Also we don’t meet them and then there’s no consequence when we don’t, it’s as if they never expected us to. Strange.

    As to your weight loss questions, I would have to say if there’s no time to exercise or cook food in the schedule, you have to find a weight loss method that doesn’t take time … if you plan on doing something for which you lack the resources, it’s like buying a car on payments when you don’t have a job. Hello repo man.

    I became a (mostly) vegan because I couldn’t keep the weight off without exercising and I didn’t have time to exercise. It worked. But then if you do that, you’re vegan. I don’t need to tell you all the stuff you have to miss out on. . Then again, as one diet cookbook writer said, “no food is as good as the pleasure of being thin.”

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author


      You said something here that really resonates with me: Schools often DO set goals that don’t align with reality. Or worse yet, that have no real connection to kids. I think when we talk in percentages or demographics, I lose my passion for meeting goals.

      I wish that if we talked about goals, we’d personalize those goals by attaching names and faces to them. That would get a heck of a lot more investment out of me!

      Thanks a ton for stopping by and pushing my thinking.

      Rock on,

  4. maryacbyu

    Very thought-provoking post, Bill! When I think of the implications here for students, I can’t help but think our entire system for grades tends to be structured after traditional goal-setting–including the way it lends itself to failure. The goal for high grades is definitely a “big, hairy audacious goal” for many students. Then there’s the extrinsic nature of most of schooling–by the time kids get to high school, any intrinsic desire to learn for the sake of personal passion/interest is usually gone.

    I think achieving the processes approach boils down to student ownership. We help them cultivate a big-picture vision, we give them choice and voice, we let them in on the curricular objectives and focus more on proficiency than on grades (I referenced a great example from ASCD here: The list goes on. After all, can you imagine how much worse working toward our health goals would feel if they were also mandated from “The Man?”

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Mary wrote:

      After all, can you imagine how much worse working toward our health goals would feel if they were also mandated from “The Man?”


      Oh Mary,

      This is BRILLIANT. I hadn’t even considered the notion that the goals that students are working towards in schools aren’t even goals that they’ve set for themselves most of the time.

      Thanks for sharing that. It’s pushing my thinking.


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  6. Philip Cummings

    Hey Bill, it’s funny that we are pretty much on the same wave length here. I’m need to lose about 20 pounds myself, and I’m struggling to get it done. I have found the accountability of my pals on Voxer to be a help. I’m also making myself weigh in every morning when I first wake up, which does keep me more motivated. I agree we need little wins along the way. Big goals are too intimidating, but I can tackle things a little at a time.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Think about that, Philip: The system is weighing in every morning. Making that a part of your every day routine is going to get you to your goal anyway — without the mental angst that goes along with thinking about the hugeness of the goal.

      I’m starting to see systems everywhere that I look. Another example: My kid needs to raise her reading level before the end of the year. She’s a “2” right now and needs to be a “3.” That’s a goal, right? But it’s intimidating and useless to me because it doesn’t clarify how the hell I’m supposed to get her there.

      So my solution: Create a system. We are reading together for 30 minutes before bed every night. It’s tangible. I can do that. And it will lead to improvement in the goal.

      I’m digging it.

      Rock on,

  7. ctuttell


    I totally relate to this post. I have never been one for New Year’s Resolutions instead I spend all year setting goals…most of which I don’t accomplish. My goals have included: losing 15 pounds (going on two years now); complete about 20 house projects (seriously the list just keeps growing); family game nights weekly (really…how hard could that be? Really hard!) and that is just a few of the personal ones. What about school? What about relationships – family and friends… I just get tired thinking about it.

    But…this year I feel like I have the formula – thanks to Dan Gridley @gridleydan and his idea of a game plan. His ideas are much the same as Clear’s. Make daily changes, focused on habits, systems and practices that will get you to your goal.

    Here is how I am building my game plan for 2017 – first, focusing on six areas – physical, mental, professional, financial, relationships and family. From there I am focusing on daily procedures and routines that will get me to the goals. I think this is in line with what you wrote:

    Clear says, “When you focus on the practice (systems) instead of the performance (goals),” writes Clear, “You can enjoy the present moment and improve at the same time.”

    So instead of lose 15 pounds my game plan says: drink 64 ounces of water, complete T25 daily, run 3X weekly, sign up for Nog Run. Instead of make a positive impact on family and friends my game plan says: cook dinner together 2x weekly, write a positive note to a colleague 1x a week, call my Mom 1x week, etc.

    I don’t know if this will get me to all my goals but I definitely feel like it is more manageable.

    I am with you… how do you focus on those daily wins and, with confidence, know they will lead to the achievement of the goals? I would say we need more modeling for kids…and keep circling back to the WHY in all we do.

    Have a great week!
    Chris T.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Love it, Chris!

      I think the only change I’m making in my version of your game plan is focusing on fewer overall areas!

      I’d worry about the progress that I was (or wasn’t) making in each individual area if I were trying to address as many as you are.

      Rock on,

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