When Goals Become Counterproductive (And What To Do About It)

Goals, goals, goals. They are the cornerstone of most methods of productivity, and for good reason. They can be great motivators, and they give you a sense of achievement when you reach them. There is a problem that many people unknowingly experience, though, when goals start to get in the way of themselves and start to harm your chances of success.

An Introductory Anecdote

This past fall I began to study kenpo, a martial art not dissimilar to karate. My goals in learning a martial art were to reap physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits of the practice itself, as well as to gain solid, useable self-defense skills. When I achieved my yellow belt (the fist level above the beginner’s white belt), I felt more pride than I had anticipated at the achievement. The feeling of achieving this level relatively quickly made me start wondering about how fast I could progress if I added to my training time, and I began to give myself goals of achieving certain belts in certain timeframes.

Intermediate Goals

Achieving belt levels on the way to useable skills is an example of an intermediate goal, which can be thought of as milestone goals on the way to an ultimate destination. An architecture student, for example, may have an ultimate goal of being a world-class architect, but she will also have intermediate goals of getting a first job, completing her degree, passing this semester’s classes, and getting a good grade on this week’s exam. A contractor with a goal of having his business net $X per year will likely also have intermediate goals of making $Y in sales each month, and finishing each job quickly and profitably in order to increase his capacity.

When Intermediate Goals Become Counterproductive

These all seem like sensible intermediate goals, right? And they are. Unfortunately, sometimes these intermediate goals can actually work against the bigger goal. Let me explain.

If, for example, I set myself a goal of achieving a blue belt in kenpo by X date, the best way to achieve that goal is to focus all my training time on the moves for the belt I am currently studying, then when I achieve it, focus all my training on the next belt. This is the fastest way to progress. However, my ultimate goal of attaining useable self defense skills is better served by also continuing to practice all the moves I have already learned, so that they are so well ingrained that they happen without me thinking about it. The one contradicts the other.

The same applies for the other two examples. The best way for the architecture student to get a good grade on this week’s exam is to cram for it, but because cramming results in short-term memorization, not long-term learning, it harms her chances of becoming a world-class architect. Similarly, the best way for the contractor to get though each job quickly and profitably is to work fast and spend as little time as possible talking to the client. The problem is that this lowers the quality of his work and the level of customer satisfaction, reducing his chances of repeat business or referrals, and ultimately damaging his ability to build his business to the extent of his ultimate goals.

The Solution

This is not to say that intermediate goals are a bad thing. Quite the opposite, in fact; they are extremely important. They can help you stay motivated and give you a way to know that you are on track to your ultimate goal. They just need to be done carefully.

The solution is to carefully frame intermediate goals in respect to the ultimate goal. So, a better goal for my kenpo practice would be to progress though the belts rapidly while maintaining a working skill in all previously learned moves, a better intermediate goal for the architecture student is to get a good grade on the exam while committing the knowledge to long-term memory, and the contractor should have a goal of completing each job as quickly and profitably as is possible without sacrificing quality or level of customer service.

What about you? Tell us about how you use intermediate goals.

(Image courtesy of birddogger under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 generic license.)

Mark is a graphic designer and audio engineer from Canada. He is the editor of Some Design Blog and the author of the soon to be published Encyclopedia of Home Recording.


  1. Mischa Colley on the 6th February

    I think this is a fantastic short post. It is so easy to unknowingly sacrifice or damage your ultimate goal by focusing on your intermediate ones. Its nice to be reminded that learning something well requires maintaining the previous stuff you have learnt. It shouldn’t be but it is easy to forget …

  2. Bryan Thompson on the 7th February

    Good post, Mark. One of the things I’ve seen (and done) is that people set goals for themselves as the ULTIMATE destination. Then, when they get there, there’s no place for them to go but down. They get discouraged and often wind up not doing so great where they are. I think it’s better to be continually planning and strategizing and thinking of new adventures. That’s what life ultimately is. Thanks for posting.

  3. William on the 9th February

    I think you will find that in Martial Arts, everything builds on the fundamentals, so if you do not practice those, it will come back to bite you later on. I think this is the same for anything that you work on – having a solid base is very important.

    “The loftier the building, the deeper must the foundation be laid.” Thomas Kempis

Add a Comment