We all know that goals can be a positive, inspiring tool to achieve success in life, regardless of whether you're pursuing career advancement, physical fitness, or some other kind of greatness. The most successful people in the world use goals to define success on their terms and motivate themselves, and they're regularly described to us as a way to increase our odds of success.

But could your goals actually be working against you?

Recent research and investigation has cast doubt on long-accepted studies that goal setting necessarily correlates with higher levels of success. And as you might imagine, most goals never get met.

Once you start digging, it's not that difficult to see how goals can potentially do you more harm than good. So how can you find out whether your goals are helping or harming your aspirations?

The Destination Over the Journey

Remember, success isn't necessarily a destination. It's tempting to pin your hopes of success on a specific milestone, such as achieving a particular level of wealth or earning a specific promotion.

But if you use a singular milestone to define your success, you risk missing out on some of the key experiences and lessons you may encounter along the way. Setting a goal that holds your full attention can blind you to the worthwhile events you'll experience on your way to arriving at the destination.

"Bad" Goals

You might also be ill-served if you set "bad" goals. These can demolish your motivation; or they may not give you the tools you require to become successful. They may even lead you to settle for weaker final outcomes.

If you want to set "good" goals, try following the SMART criteria. Though the exact words within the acronym have changed from time to time, the most recent definitions are as follows:

  • Specific. Goals should be as specific as possible, so you clearly know when you've achieved them.
  • Measurable. Your goals have to be measurable; ambiguity or lack of specifics could tempt you to relax into inactivity.
  • Achievable. If you set a goal that's completely out of your reach, an impossible goal, you'll only be discourage when you're eventually forced to recognize you're not going to achieve it.
  • Relevant. Setting goals that are too far outside your realm of expertise or interest can also be detrimental.
  • Time-bound. If you don't set a time limit for yourself, you may give yourself too much freedom to procrastinate or ignore the goal altogether.

Narrow Focus

Successful people often work in multiple areas simultaneously. While advancing in one area of their career, they may be pursuing and acquiring an entirely different set of skills.

This can be advantageous for the same reason that diversifying your investment portfolio is a smart idea: It limits your exposure to risk, but maximizes your potential gains. Setting goals in only one area of your career can impose tunnel vision, which could discourage you from seeing or following up on opportunities in other areas of your career and life.

That narrow focus can effectively reduce your full potential.

Performance Floors

Goals can also limit your potential in another key way: by setting a performance floor for your personal achievement.

Let's say your goal is to make $60,000 a year, and you've started out at $45,000. You'll work hard, fighting for promotions and pushing your limits until you get the promotion that nets you that coveted $60,000 salary.

What then? Some people will continue to push their limits no matter what, but some of us may start resting on our laurels. Rather than seek out an even higher-paying position, we're content to ease up and coast at the initial milestone we set for ourselves.

Thus, if you set simple and unchanging goals, you run the risk of becoming complacent and accepting a outcome that doesn't encourage you to achieve your true potential.

Risky and Unethical Behavior

One study published by Harvard Business School found that overprescribing goals can lead to risky or unethical behavior. If you're committed to achieving your goal no matter what, you might start to become desperate if it looks as if you won't be able to make it happen.

For example, you might be tempted to sabotage a coworker's efforts to get his or her own deserved promotion. In the short term, such tactics might help you cross the finish line, but they undermine your ethics and can create enormous risk.

Does this mean you shouldn't set goals as a tool for motivation, or that if you set too many goals, you'll sabotage your own chances of success? Not necessarily.

As long as you understand the true nature of goals, as well as their potential limitations and pitfalls -- and you choose to implement yours in a productive, positively motivating way -- you can take advantage of the benefits goals can offer you ... without succumbing to their dark side.

Published on: Jun 27, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.