ou wouldn’t know it from browsing the self-help aisle of your local bookstore, but scientists are beginning to question whether focusing too much on goals runs counter to long-term performance and general well-being. In a Harvard Business School report titled “Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting,”a team of researchers from Harvard, Northwestern, and the University of Pennsylvania set out to explore the potential downfalls of goal-setting. They found that overemphasizing goals — and especially those that are based on measurable outcomes — often leads to reduced intrinsic motivation, irrational risk-taking, and unethical behavior.
We see this unfold in the real world all the time: Someone becomes overly fixated on achieving a goal and loses sight of his inner reasons for setting out to accomplish it in the first place. He becomes driven by the external rewards and recognition that he hopes accomplishing his goal will bring, and, in the worst cases, he’ll go to any extreme to achieve it. This comes in many forms, including taking harmful diet pills (need to lose that weight); plagiarizing (have to publish that book); using banned performance-enhancing drugs (must make the Olympic team); or partaking in fraudulent behavior in the workplace (gotta get that promotion). According to the authors of the Harvard Business School report, these are “predictable side effects” of