Keep It Simple: The Dangers of Goal Overload & How To Avoid It
In a previous release, we discussed how to make more effective and long-lasting resolutions. Today, we explore what research tells us about goal overload and the harm of having too many unfulfilled goals (Strauman, 2002). Researchers from the Academy of Management state in a 2009 article that, “managers and scholars need to conceptualize goal setting as a prescription-strength medication that requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision” (Ordóñez Schweitzer, Galinsky, & Bazerman, 2009). In light of this call to attention, we examine the consequences of having too many goals, why having too many goals can have an adverse effect, and ways to avoid goal overload.
The consequences of having too many goals
There are a variety of consequences to having too many goals, both mentally and physically. Mentally, having too many goals can contribute to feelings of overwhelm, scatter, burnout, lack of motivation, anxiety, and stress. Physically, having too many goals can contribute to muscle tension, difficulty sleeping, changes in appetite, and poor immune system function.
Mental health consequences
Feeling overwhelmed and stressed
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “overwhelmed” as “to cover over completely: SUBMERGE” or “to overpower in thought or feeling.” Having too many unfulfilled goals can contribute to feelings of being overwhelmed. According to Very Wellmind, “excessive workload” can contribute to feelings of overwhelm. An “excessive workload” can be exacerbated by too many additional goals and lead to other important tasks being put on the back burner; further increasing the workload, stress levels, and feelings of being overwhelmed (Gupta, 2022).
Difficulty prioritizing tasks
Research shows that when multiple tasks are in progress, individuals will perceive the tasks differently based on how difficult and important they are. According to research from Valéry, Matton, Scannella, and Dehais, if a task is perceived as difficult, people examine how important it is to complete the task (2019). According to Ordóñez et al., this indicates that “goals that are easier to achieve and measure (such as quantity) may be given more attention than other goals (such as quality) in a multigoal situation” (2009).
Difficulty focusing on a variety of tasks
When bogged down with too many goals, individuals can experience difficulty focusing on a specific task. Researchers Shah, Frieman, and Kruglanski (2002) indicate that “individuals with multiple goals are prone to concentrate on only one goal” (Ordóñez et al., 2009). Additional research from Watson and Strayer (2010) shows that only 2.5% of adults can multitask with no “decrements” in their performance. According to the Cleveland Clinic, people are “really wired to be monotaskers, meaning that our brains can only focus on one task at a time” (2021). Because of this, individuals with a variety of goals cannot focus on all their goals at the same time. Instead, they do what Dr. Cynthia Kubu calls “task-switching” which according to the Cleveland Clinic can reduce efficiency and increase the likelihood of error (2021).
Feelings of a lack of progress or fulfillment
As goals pile up and continue to go unaccomplished, individuals can experience feeling a lack of fulfillment and/or lack of progress. In a study examining the response of “perfectionists” to failure—which, in this case, can be tied to goal unaccomplishment—it was shown that those with “socially prescribed perfectionism” experienced “increased anxiety, depression, and anger after initial failure and further increased anger after repeated failure” (Stober, Schneider, Hussain, & Matthews, 2014).
Increased risk of burnout
According to Čigarská & Birknerová, burnout has a variety of origins including “unfulfilled goals” (2021). Additionally, research from Lebeau, Gatten, Perry, Wang, Sung, & Tenenbaum indicates that after experiencing goal failure, research participants experienced more “negative emotions” and reduced feelings of “self-efficacy” (2018).
Physical health consequences
As seen above, having too many goals can exert a great amount of stress, mentally. Consider the following ways stress can affect the body from the American Psychological Association.
Shortness of breath
Increased heart rate
Decreased heart health
Increased immune system activation
Poor digestive health
Challenges in reproductive health
Why are there so many negative effects?
The negative consequences to having too many goals comes down to how our brains are wired.
The brain has limited capacity for attention
Research indicates that only 2.5% of individuals can multitask (or have their attention on multiple tasks at one time) without a decrease in performance (Watson & Strayer, 2010). This indicates that pursuing too many goals at once can reduce the quality of the goals that are accomplished.
The brain has limited capacity for information processing
While the capacity for information processing varies from person to person, Jostmann & Koole indicate that unfulfilled and failed goals take up brain space in the working memory of individuals (2009). The working memory is a portion of “information in a readily accessible form” used in “planning, comprehension, reasoning and problem solving” all of which are essential to goal attainment (Cowan, 2015).
How to avoid goal overload
Goal setting is a valuable tool in executive coaching and self-improvement. However, as seen in the research above, having too many goals can have negative effects. So how do executive coaches and individuals prevent this goal overload? Follow the steps below.
Narrow down goals using the ABC and SMART models
Make a list of all the current goals you are pursuing using the ABC and SMART approaches outlined below. Analyze your progress towards these goals. Have any goals been put on the back burner? Consider which goals can be let go and revisited at a more opportune time, so focus can be directed to challenging and attainable goals.
ABC goals: according to Chowdhury of PositivePsychology.com, psychologist Dr. Frank L. Smoll identified three essential components of goal-setting: A-Achievable, B-Believable, and C-Committed.
SMART goals: George T. Doran also created the SMART goals model: S-Specific, M-Measurable, A-Attainable, R-Realistic, and T-Time bound.
Fine-tuning goals: consider the following questions for managers considering what goals to introduce to the workplace from Ordóñez et al. (2009). While not all questions are applicable to the individual coaching scenario, they can be used as inspiration for examining what goals are essential and what goals can be removed.
Prioritize your goals
Now that you have reduced the number of goals on your agenda, consider which goals are the most important. Organize your list of goals in order of most important to least important. Work towards your goals in this order. You can also use prioritizing models such as the Action Priority Matrix seen below. Consider focusing on “quick wins” and “major projects” over “filler tasks” and “hard slogs” (actiTIME, n.d.).
Research from the Journal of Research in Personality indicates that mindfulness can help people set “better goals” that are more influenced by their “personal values and interests” (Smyth, Werber, Milyvaskaya, Holding, & Koestner, 2020). By reflecting on what goals are necessary and in line with personal values, interests, and abilities, we can avoid being overrun by having too many goals.
The main takeaway
While goals remain a valuable tool for coaches, we must also acknowledge the power that they hold. Again, we repeat the insight from Ordóñez et al:
“Managers and scholars need to conceptualize goal setting as a prescription-strength medication that requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision” - (Ordóñez et al., 2009)
Additional research has indicated that having too many goals can cause a variety of negative effects on both the physical and mental health of individuals. Some negative effects include feelings of being overwhelmed, feeling a lack of progress or fulfillment, increased risk of burnout, muscle tension, shortness of breath, and fatigue. Key strategies we can use to avoid goal overload include narrowing down goals by focusing on what is actually attainable. We can also prioritize goals using things like the Action Matrix to determine which goals we should focus on. Lastly, we can practice mindfulness to avoid being overrun by the negative effects and feelings of goal overload. This can help us make better goals in the future, choose which goals we want to pursue, and better identify when we need to reduce the amount of goals we are pursuing.
Interested in learning how to make more effective goals? Visit our recent insight article: How to Make Effective New Year’s Resolutions.
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