Goal Obsession

In the pursuit of success and self-improvement, setting ambitious goals has long been hailed as a key driver of achievement. However, as the intensity of our aspirations grows, there exists a delicate line that separates healthy ambition from the potential dangers of goal obsession. While being obsessed with goals may fuel exceptional outcomes, leaders also need to be aware of its potential pitfalls – and learn how to strike a balance between relentless pursuit and mindful self-awareness.

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What is Goal Obsession?

Goal obsession refers to a state in which one becomes excessively fixated on achieving a specific goal – often to the detriment of their overall mission or well-being. Its greatest problem lies in the potential to lead us down a tunnel vision path, overlooking the broader context and long-term consequences.

While ambition and determination are essential traits of success, an unhealthy obsession with achievements is what causes many to lose sight of the bigger picture, neglecting other important aspects of their lives or the organization they represent.

This destructive behavior is not limited to any specific group; that said, it is commonly observed among successful people, especially those who are driven and highly achievement-oriented. Success makes us addicted to the feeling of accomplishment – as a result, we push ourselves to set even more ambitious goals, sometimes at the expense of our own health, relationships, or even ethical principles.

For example, a talented and promising young athlete might strive to win a specific championship. In their relentless pursuit, they push themselves to the limit, sacrifice proper rest and expose themselves to more injuries. In this case, their determination to succeed in a single event prompts them to neglect their long-term development of a sustainable career.

Goal obsession

Goal Obsession – The Ultimate Interpersonal Flaw

In its broadest form, goal obsession is the force at play when we get so wrapped up in achieving our goal that we do it at the expense of a larger mission.

Marshall Goldsmith

In his bestseller ‘What got you here won’t get you there‘, renowned executive coach – Dr. Marshall Goldsmith – goes over a list of 21 bad workplace habits that hold us back from reaching greater heights in life. The first 20 are common flaws that most high achievers possess – including: winning too much, passing judgment, failing to give proper recognition, etc.

The last one – ‘goal obsession’ – is a behavior that Goldsmith places a significant emphasis on (in fact, it is analyzed within a whole separate chapter in his book). This habit pertains to those who become so fixated on achieving grand accomplishments – such as securing major deals, attaining prestigious positions, or meeting ambitious company targets – that they disregard everything else around them.

Goal setting and careful planning provide us with the motivation needed to effectively work towards success. However, excessive focus on a specific objective that leaves out other aspects of life is definitely not a good thing.

Imagine running towards a destination. When you are moving too fast, your eyesight automatically turns into ‘tunnel vision’, which means you can only see the final destination – but are not able to observe your surroundings.

The same thing applies to goal obsession. When you are too fixated on achieving a goal, you are likely to ignore other elements, which may help you to visualize the bigger achievement.

Marshall Goldsmith discussing the problem of goal obsession

The Good Side of Goal Obsession

  1. Enhanced focus & commitment

Goal obsession, when channeled positively and in moderation, do offer several advantages. It can be likened to a laser beam, honing in on the target with unwavering precision.

Imagine an aspiring athlete training relentlessly to compete in a prestigious marathon. Their obsession with winning drives them to prioritize training sessions, resist distractions, and stay dedicated even when faced with obstacles. This intense commitment significantly increases their chances of achieving their desired performance level during the race.

  1. Increased motivation

Being fixated on a goal supplies us with the “internal fire” that propels us forward. Consider an entrepreneur who is passionate about launching a sustainable fashion brand. In this case, the desire to emerge triumphant fuels their drive to conduct extensive research, design eco-friendly products, and align with ethical manufacturing practices.

The intrinsic motivation derived from their obsession keeps the entrepreneur inspired, even during challenging times, and pushes them to take proactive steps towards creating their envisioned brand.

  1. Greater resilience

It goes without saying that those who are intensely focused on achieving their objectives are more determined and persistent in the face of setbacks. Failures are viewed as learning opportunities rather than insurmountable obstacles – their relentless pursuit of success drives them to analyze what went wrong, understand the root causes of the challenges, and learn from their mistakes. This process of self-reflection and learning allows them to bounce back stronger and more prepared to tackle future challenges.

The Dangers of Goal Obsession

  1. Forgetting about the greater mission

Being overly fixated on a specific goal may make us lose sight of the larger purpose of the organization. As a result, we lose the ability to make decisions that align with the overall vision – and may prioritize short-term gains over long-term sustainability.

Consider this scenario: A marketing manager responsible for a beverage system sets the ambitious goal of enhancing brand awareness. However, being prudent with time and resources, the manager opts for a shortcut rather than investing in substantial social media and public relations endeavors. Regrettably, this choice involves deliberately sparking controversy with a customer regarding the product’s quality, leading to increased attention for the brand, but at a high cost.

Consequently, the campaign’s outcome is that numerous consumers now associate the brand with inferior quality, tarnishing its image in the market. Despite achieving short-term recognition, the manager failed to grasp the broader perspective of brand image, which now suffers from a negative perception.

  1. Turning into a robot

Excessive focus on goals often results in a mechanical and rigid approach to work. Specifically, we become so goal-driven that we neglect flexibility and adaptability, reducing our ability to understand and respond to others’ emotions accordingly. Social interaction has no formula, it’s something that you can only feel.

Most of the time, goal-obsessed people are too focused on achieving targets – which causes them to forget all about human factors.

  1. Creating unnecessary stress

Placing a deadline on your vision and being enthusiastic about its realization is commendable. However, we must be mindful that such intense focus on goals might inadvertently build up stress for those working alongside us.

While some may find inspiration in our high standards, in a team or corporate setting, this may cause others to feel an unspoken pressure to match our level of dedication. Consequently, a divide may emerge among team members, as the unspoken expectations permeate the workplace, affecting the dynamics and cohesion among employees.

  1. Developing ‘hurry sickness’

Hurry sickness” as described by San Francisco cardiologists Dr. Meyer Friedman and Dr. Ray Rosenman, entails an incessant struggle to achieve more tasks in less time, accompanied by symptoms such as:

  • Rushing through everything.
  • Unable to relax even during holidays.
  • Impatient with slower-paced individuals.
  • Frustrated by unavoidable delays.
  • etc.

Renowned author Edward Hallowell, in his work “CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap!” asserts that working at breakneck speed for prolonged periods hinders productivity rather than enhancing it. The constant rush induces the stress hormone cortisol, linked to heart attacks and strokes, while exhaustion from perpetual haste results in more workplace errors. Over time, continued disregard for the body’s limits leads to declining performance.

  1. You change… for the worse

The relentless drive to achieve an ever-increasing amount within a limited timeframe has a profound impact on one’s personality. Gradually, we may find ourselves becoming less sensitive, increasingly impatient, prone to easy anger, and failing to demonstrate empathy towards others.

This incessant pressure also takes its toll on your energy levels, leaving you feeling perpetually exhausted and emotionally detached, despite faithfully adhering to your exercise routine. Eventually, you change for the worse.

It is goal obsession that holds us back from visualizing long lasting changes

Goal Oriented vs Goal Obsession

“Goal-oriented” and “goal obsession” represent two distinct approaches to setting and pursuing objectives. The former means having a clear focus on setting specific, achievable goals and working diligently towards attaining them.

Goal-oriented individuals use their objectives as guiding stars, motivating and driving them to succeed. They maintain a healthy balance, understanding that while goals are essential, other aspects of life are equally significant. This approach emphasizes the importance of being persistent, adaptable, and learning from setbacks, all while maintaining a broader perspective on personal growth and fulfillment.

In contrast, goal obsession refers to an unhealthy fixation on achieving a particular goal – to the point of neglecting other aspects of life. Those who are obsessed with goals might become single-mindedly driven by their objectives, disregarding the consequences on their well-being, relationships, or ethical principles. This excessive fixation can lead to tunnel vision, stress, and burnout, as they prioritize the immediate achievement of the objectives over long-term sustainability and personal development.

It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.

Paulo Coelho

Reasons for Goal Obsession

Marshall Goldsmith mentions in his book several classic conditions that often accompany goal obsession – such as great follow-through, terrific discipline, and an intense focus on reaching a specific objective. While these qualities may seem positive on the surface, he also warns that if coupled with a short-sighted goal, they may actually bring about a recipe for disaster.

In this context, “great follow-through” refers to the ability to complete tasks and projects successfully, while “terrific discipline” denotes the dedication and self-control to stay on track. When these traits are combined with “awesome goal obsession,” it suggests a relentless fixation on achieving a particular goal without considering the broader implications or potential consequences.

The key problem lies in having a “short-sighted goal”, which implies that the goal being pursued is narrowly focused and lacks consideration for the bigger picture or long-term consequences. In this scenario, people may become so single-mindedly focused on their immediate objective that they overlook important factors, neglect other essential aspects of their life or work, or even compromise ethical principles in pursuit of the goal.

As a result, while goal obsession may lead to impressive short-term results, it also breeds long-term issues, such as strained relationships, burnout, or reputational damage.

Goal obsession

Putting an End to Goal Obsession – How to Strike a Healthy Balance

  1. Take a step back

As a leader, one must learn to strike a balance between the importance of goals for success and the risk of becoming overly fixated on them. The key here is to take a step back sometimes and keep the organizational objectives in mind. While completing tasks brings us closer to our targets, we must be mindful not to prioritize individual tasks over our core priorities and values.

In his book, Marshall Goldsmith gives an example like this:

A group of theology students were given the task of delivering a lecture on the topic of the Good Samaritan. In a rush to reach the waiting audience, the experimenter informed them they were running late.

On their way, they encountered a coughing ragged man lying in the hallway, who was actually an actor feigning distress. Surprisingly, 90% of the students ignored the man, prioritizing reaching the lecture on time.

This incident highlights the irony of us preparing to preach kindness and compassion – but failing to embody these values when presented with an opportunity. In other words, becoming overly fixated on immediate goals makes us neglect meaningful actions aligned with our beliefs.

  1. Flex time frames

Flexing time frames involves finding a balance between short-term and long-term perspectives when setting and pursuing goals. It recognizes the dynamic nature of situations – and allows for adjustments as circumstances change.

By constantly incorporating new information and being adaptable, individuals and organizations can prevent the risk of goal rigidity, which can lead them to stick to outdated or irrelevant objectives. What may have felt urgent and essential at one point might lose relevance or be superseded by more pressing matters over time.

Consider an entrepreneur who launches a new product and sets ambitious sales targets. Initially, the immediate target is to gain traction and achieve rapid sales growth. However, market conditions, customer feedback, and competition may evolve, leading the entrepreneur to recognize the need for adjustments. Being flexible with the time frame allows them to pivot their marketing strategies, refine the product, and align their goals with the changing market demands.

  1. Do not panic

When things are not progressing as expected, we must remind ourselves to avoid panic and engage in thoughtful reflection. Asking clarifying questions – so that we may delve deeper into the reasons behind the current obstacles, before coming up with alternative approaches to move forward.

When we allocate sufficient attention to problem-solving, we may be rest assured that issues are thoroughly addressed – and the chances of successful goal attainment are significantly increased.

  1. Seek and take advice

By sharing objectives with trusted coaches, mentors or teams, we gain access to different perspectives and insights, which can lead to better decision-making and reduced stress. This collaborative approach not only broadens the understanding of the goal – but also helps in identifying blind spots and potential pitfalls that might have been overlooked.

Additionally, seeking advice from mentors or experienced individuals outside the immediate team often offers invaluable guidance. A budding entrepreneur, for instance, may solicit feedback from successful business leaders who have navigated similar challenges before. Their insights and recommendations help them steer away from common pitfalls, and boost the entrepreneur’s confidence in making critical decisions.

Final Thoughts

While unwavering dedication can propel us towards greatness and personal growth, goal obsession blinds us to the grander aspects of life and hinders our well-being. To make the most of our ambitions, we must embrace goal-setting with purpose – while acknowledging the importance of meaningful objectives that align with our values and aspirations. As we move forward in our pursuit of excellence, let us remember that it is not solely the attainment of goals – but the journey itself that shapes us into the individuals we aspire to become.

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