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Why You Should Start Some Goals In The Middle

Some goals aren’t clearly sequential. Here’s the case for rethinking your approach.

Why You Should Start Some Goals In The Middle
[Photo: Flickr user T Trevor Choi]

Traditional goal setting focuses on the beginning and the end—start strong and keep your eye on the prize. Unfortunately, that process doesn’t work for every kind of goal, says Scott Young, author of How to Change a Habit.

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“A lot has been taught around the classic self-help style of Zig Ziglar or Tony Robbins where you have a clear goal, you visualize it, write it down, and focus on the starting point,” says Young, cofounder of the career development course Top Performer. “Some goals, though, aren’t clearly sequential.”

What Kinds Of Goals To Start In The Middle

The middle can and should be your starting point when you’re setting a goal where you’re unclear of the level you can achieve within a particular timeframe. This is especially the case with daunting, unfamiliar goals where you don’t yet have a strong sense of the big picture.

“If you’re trying to do something you’ve never done before, classic goal setting that focuses on the beginning can misalign expectations,” says Young. “If you’re starting a business, for example. You may not be sure what you’ll be doing in six months. You could set a goal, and then two months in, realize there’s no way you’re going to meet it. Then you feel like you failed.”

Instead, do away with setting the concrete results you want in the beginning. “You can be committed to a certain amount of effort, working on something full time, with a set number of hours, but you don’t have a clear conception of the outcome until a lot later,” says Young. “A few months in, you see what it’s like, and you can set a reasonable goal. It often emerges halfway through.”

Young discovered that the middle can be a better starting point when he was learning to speak Chinese in four three-month projects. “I was serious about learning Chinese, but I had no real sense of a reasonable goal,” he says. “Once we were halfway through, I knew a bit more about how much progress to expect.”

Young says if he had set a goal that was too easy, he may have had a slackening of effort, and if he had set a goal that was too hard, it could have caused frustration.

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“It wasn’t an aimless effort, but I wasn’t exactly sure of the milestones,” he says. “When I looked at the research, it coincidently found that goal setting was actually harmful in particular learning tasks.”

The Science That Backs It Up

While several studies have found that goal setting improves performance, studies published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes and the Journal of Applied Psychology found that the same isn’t always true when goals have complicated tasks that require thinking.

Difficult goals require your full cognitive resources. The act of monitoring your performance, which you do when you measure your goal progress, also requires cognitive resources. The two combined impair your performance, and can negatively impact results.

“You’re worried about the goal versus the task itself,” says Young.

What To Do In The Beginning

Starting in the middle doesn’t mean you don’t plan. “You plan with the variables you have the most control over: overall direction, time frame, level of effort, strategies, and constraints,” says Young.

Also, don’t confuse starting in the middle with testing the waters, says Young. “You still need an amount of commitment and effort, regardless if you’re a working on a large or hard goal,” he says. However, testing the water does apply if the goal is something fun, like learning to paint. In this case, having an attitude of trying could help you decide if you want to commit to larger goals, says Young.

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If you find yourself asking how you can possibly know what’s achievable for you, that’s a good sign you should rethink the beginning and wait to set a specific target. “The more ambitious and outside your past experiences, the more sense it makes to wait to set goals,” says Young.

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