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How Setting Goals Hurts Productivity

If your eyes are squarely focused on the big picture, you might be liable to spend less time working toward it.

Setting a big lofty goal, conventional wisdom has it, will lead you to put your nose to the grindstone and push to achieve it. Conventional wisdom, however, might have it wrong.

A new study, explored at the 99U.com, showed that this sort of intense focus on end results might actually come at the cost of productivity. People who take on the activity for the sake of the activity itself spend more time practicing it than those who do it to accomplish a goal.

Missing the Trees for the Forest...

The study cites three examples: groups setting long-term goals in exercise (to lose weight), origami (to improve hand-eye coordination), and dental flossing (to prevent tooth decay).

On the opposite side of each of these were groups who approached the activities with a different mindset: Rather than set goals, were told to focus on the more immediate experiences (enjoying the stretching, the art, and the feeling of cleanliness).

The research--published jointly by the University of Chicago and the Korea Business School--showed that the latter group for each activity was far more engaged in them.

The exercisers who were more focusd on the experience ran, on average, for 43 minutes, compared to just 34 minutes for the goal-obsessed. Those focused on the experience of origami, rather than increasing their hand-eye, were more likely to buy an origami set. And those more interested in the cleansing process flossed longer than those who wanted to ultimately prevent tooth decay.

"(The researchers) think that staying focused on our goals detracts from the inherent pleasures of the activities we need to pursue to achieve those goals," the 99U article says.

But Businesses Need Goals

Any direction to abandon goals and just focus on the day-to-day of your business operations invites an obvious counter: "How, exactly, does one run a business without goals?"

That's why such a direction will not be made. In fact, the study notes, forming a goal is actually beneficial to getting people off their keesters and initially engaged with a given process or activity.

So the key is to set goals, and look around, smell the roses, and try not to focus on them. That might mean communicating about those goals less with your team during actual execution processes, and limiting visual or audible reminders about them in the workplace.

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