The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Goal Setting

I set goals constantly.


  • If I’m spending too much on groceries I set a monthly budget goal.
  • If I want more time for friends in my calendar I set a use-of-time goal.
  • When I spot my next vacation destination I set a travel goal.
  • When a big gig is on the calendar I set some practice goals.
  • As I look at my bank account and retirement fund I set some long-term financial goals.


If it’s something that needs a plan or will have lasting ramifications, you better believe I set a goal for it. But that's because I've learned how to navigate my way through the bad and the ugly sides of goal setting.

The Good

People who write down their goals are 25% more likely to keep them. By setting specific goals gives I have a focus beyond today, a long-term plan and a purpose.


Like nearly two-thirds of musicians I struggle with depression, and there are some mornings that it rears its ugly head and says, “You don’t need to even bother getting out of bed today.” But having a goal reminds me that it doesn’t matter what’s going on today, or what failures I had yesterday, there’s something to keep moving towards.


Delays are not failures. Bad days are not failures. Keeping my eyes on the goal, no matter how distant, propels me through the depression, delays and bad days, one step at a time into success.


Having a goal improves focus, motivates habit, fuels momentum and aligns priorities. It makes it easier to say no to the distractions and weed out what is good from what is best.


The Bad

Sometimes I set goals based on what I think I “need to” or “should” do. These kinds of goals don’t have a priority in my life or seem overwhelming and so they fall to the wayside, getting marked as failures.


Every year I think this will be the year that I get to the gym at least three times a week. I can literally walk to the gym from my apartment and yet it continues to prove difficult to get it into my schedule with any sort of consistency.


Goals that we think we “should” do aren’t usually intrinsically motivated. Intrinsic motivation is something we seek out doing for ourselves because the reward of the activity has become the activity itself.


When I started running it was torture. I went from not being able to complete a full mile without walking to running a whole marathon; a very slow start with a very satisfying finish. And that’s because at some point in time running switched from “ugh, I should probably do this” to “I can’t wait to get out on my run today!”


To keep your goal from falling into the bad, set a reasonable goal based on your own desires. If going to the gym three times a week doesn’t resonate with you either try an attainable goal like, “Go to the gym on Mondays and focus on arms”, or something desirable like, “Enroll in a dance class.”


The Ugly


Please don’t take this out of context but goals can turn us into lazy, outcome-based machines.


There has been some compelling research to show that visualization of goals may actually slow down our progress because our brain begins to believe it has already achieved its goal. The way to combat this is by visualizing the process or plan involved in attaining the goal. This means visualizing where you are, where you want to be and the roadblocks in the way. As you hit each roadblock, visualize the ways in which you can overcome it. This process, known as mental contrasting, keeps you from laziness and lets you tackle the obstacles en-route to your goal with success.


Goals can also shift us to an outcome-based lifestyle by beginning to value product rather than process. This is again where mental contrasting comes to the aid. Goals should be a process or a plan for achievement. Goals should not be stand-alone accomplishments that give us our worth or value.


If my set goal is weight loss, going to the gym three times a week may accomplish it but it will probably be joined by an unrealistic diet, too much focus on the scale number and depression every time I add a pound.


If my set goal is to improve muscle mass, have better health, less pain, improve my overall mood and maybe lose a few pounds then I have a focus that leads process and an open route to my outcome that may include home body-weight activities, yoga, dance, running and hiking.


To avoid the ugly of goal setting, set out with a plan and a process. Check in with your progress regularly and asses how you’re doing, what you can adjust and where you are on your route to your goal. Do this, and you’ll loop right back to the good of goal-setting.


If you’re looking for a way to get started with goal-setting in your music practice, check out, Daily Music Notes, a comprehensive practice journal where you can record a six week journey on the road to your goal through weekly reflections, physical and musical attention and some well-placed rest days.


Health and happiness this new year!


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  • Jan 03, 2020
  • Category: Blog
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