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It's OK to not have an ambitious goal

Illustration of person at beginning of a journey up a mountain
storyset | Freepik

Opinion by Cecilia Astolfi

There's no problem with having a goal – just as long as it doesn't come at the cost of our mental health.

What do you want to do when you grow up?

What qualifications do you want to achieve?

Where do you see yourself in five years?

How does this job fit into your ideal career progression?

These are the kind of questions asked of young people to prompt them to figure out their goals in life.

The reality is that many young (and older!) people don’t have a set goal. Often, having a goal is unlikely due to difficult life circumstance, while some people are simply uncertain of what their goal should actually be. In this article, I will give a brief outline on the theory of goal setting, then discuss what situations make it unrealistic and possibly damaging to set ambitious goals.

What is the intention of goal setting?

There has been a lot of research focused on the benefit of setting clear goals in order to achieve them. Between the 1980s and mid-2000s, researchers worldwide determined that in various conditions, and across various time intervals, goal setting significantly affects performance. Goal Setting Theory affirms that a specific high goal has a positive motivational effect, as it creates a sense of urgency.

SMART goals are a common form of goal setting across various industries, from school and education to health and fitness. These Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound goals are intended to provide a clear framework of how someone can achieve their desired outcomes. This increases their chances of actually achieving it, and in turn boosting their happiness when they reach it.

Why goal setting isn’t always successful

But, the practical results are mixed.

Researchers note that there are many factors affecting how well goals work as a motivator. This includes feedback, the complexity of the task, effort, personality traits, and conflict with other priorities. For example, the goal of eating more vegetables may clash with having a very low income.

In some situations, having a goal is simply not feasible. Poor physical or mental health, being a carer, a recent bereavement, financial struggles, overwork and recovering from trauma are examples of obstacles that are difficult to manage. If all or most energy and time of a person is directed to basic survival, it is difficult to be accountable to other less urgent goals. In the case of trauma or unsettling circumstances, taking time to just exist may be the best option. If one is struggling already, the inevitable ups and downs linked to working towards a specific goal may be a lot harder to manage. In these cases, goal-setting becomes what is meant to be overcome: an obstacle, rather than a helpful tool.


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The impact of goal setting on students

Scientific studies focus on a single variable: a single goal which impact is measured, and analysed on characteristics such as age and gender of participants. For example, one study investigated the effect on final exam performance of a task-based and a performance-based goal for college students in a particular course.

While this gives insights on the effect of setting one type of goal, it does not apply to a situation where students have multiple goals. But, the latter is the real-life scenario that students live in; so any evidence from research should be considered critically.

From my experience as a teacher and form tutor, SMART goals are a common tool used in schools to help students achieve their academic goals. Targets are often written by teachers for twice-yearly reports. This means that typically, at GCSE, an individual learner may get 40+ targets a year; at A-level, 24+ targets a year. This is a significantly larger amount than what researchers focus on, so it is possible that the positive effects of setting goals are affected.

I have often had conversations with students who were questioning the use of having so many goals assigned. They pointed out that it was a useless exercise because they would forget about them. I remember a quiet girl who told me she was truly fed up with being assigned the same goal by everyone for the full 7 years of secondary school: ‘participate more during lessons.’ In this situation, it seems clear that there is a discrepancy between what the adults in charge considered important, versus what the learner valued and considered valuable to her education. In another case, a dyslexic boy was disheartened to find out what his target grade in science was, as it seemed unachievably high. Most of the time in UK schools, target grades are defined by a statistical method following standardised English and abstract thinking tests, so they are reliable as an average measure over a large population (e.g. the entire year cohort). But for the individual, target grades can be utterly inappropriate, both labelling under- and over-performance.

Despite its good intentions, the enforcement of goal setting fails to account for factors that will affect the chances of students actually reaching their goal: neurodiversity, availability of home support, fear of failure, personality traits, and more. So, I suspect that the extensive use of goal setting in school increases anxiety and unrealistic expectations.

Alternatives to goal setting for better mental health

Focusing on the present may be the best approach to cope with difficult situations. A possible approach is mindfulness, which is a type of meditation or self-care practice where people consciously notice and accept their moment-to-moment experience. This could be noticing physical sensations, e.g. smells and textures, as well as thoughts and feelings.

According to Mind, a simple, accessible exercise is Mindful Moving. While walking (or running, or moving on your mobility aid), pay attention to what your skin feels. Is there a breeze across your arms? Does your nose feel cold? Is there a sunny spot?

Pay attention to what you see, and feel the different textures – the fences, brick walls, hedging plants. Maybe observe the colours of flowers and smell them.

A review of empirical studies showed that mindfulness has positive psychological effects, including “increased subjective well-being, reduced psychological symptoms and emotional reactivity, and improved behavioural regulation”. By being mindful, people spend less time and energy avoiding, suppressing or over-engaging with distressful thoughts. Instead, individuals acknowledge unhelpful patterns of thoughts, and realise that they do not have to control their behaviour.

Some people may feel that mindfulness makes negative thoughts worse because of the focus on them. In those cases, it is perfectly fine to choose to distract yourself! By being mindful on a regular basis, the initial signs of anxiety or other unsettling emotions are easier to spot, and so can be tackled earlier on. Mindfulness is a useful tool, but just like goal settings, it is not a solve-all solution.

Find what works for you

Goal setting can be a useful tool, but it is not the only one. Under difficult circumstances, it can be helpful to take a break from working towards ambitious goals. It is important that set goals are relevant and valuable, otherwise they may act as additional obstacles.

Taking time to simply exist mindfully is a valid method of self-care, just as valuable as setting SMART goals. At the end of the day, you are responsible for yourself, and so I hope you feel empowered to choose what actually works for you, in your specific circumstances.


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