As a new year begins there will be a lot of new goals set: physical goals about exercise or weight loss, financial goals about paying off debt or making more money, and relational goals about more time with loved ones. Setting goals can be very helpful because they force conversations about what is going to be important to you in the coming year. And if you set goals wisely, you develop plans for reaching those goals and those plans can help you be more disciplined and focused.
What impact does setting and achieving goals have on us? A massive research study was done on marathon runners–which is a good sample to analyze how goals motivate us and impact us because every marathon runner had to set a goal to complete the grueling race and many set goals for how fast they would complete the race. Here is what the research indicates:
Looking at the times of nearly ten million marathon finishers and the data concludes that people are more likely to finish the race right before a goal time – such as 3 hours 59 minutes instead of 4 hours and 1 minute. As one running coach pointed out, “that’s not because human beings are somehow categorically better at running a 3:59 rather than a 4:01 marathon. It’s because human beings make numbers matter. A lot.” The goal, in the form of the clock, is always in front of marathon runners and it is highly motivating. Marathon runners remind us that there is power in keeping a goal in front of you and working a plan to reach that goal.
Big goals positively impact performance.
The authors of the research study conclude, “Higher goals generally lead to higher performance.” Of course they do. Few would argue that setting easily achieved goals somehow pulls the best out of you. But there is a caution about lofty goals…
Big goals can make us feel worse.
According to the research on marathon runners, there is a painful paradox about setting goals. The researchers conclude “although higher goals generally lead to higher performance, those who perform better, paradoxically, often feel worse because their performance falls below those lofty goals.” So having high goals increases our performance, even if we don’t meet them, but not meeting them can sadden us. The paradox of goal setting is a bit of dilemma. If you set big goals, you will increase your performance and the likelihood of disappointment at the same time. Hmmm. What should we do? So it seems that the art of goal setting is setting big goals, but not goals that are too big.
Even achieved goals will disappoint.
We must remember that even our achieved goals will disappoint us. In his recent song, “Nate,” rapper NF writes: “You might get a glimpse of happiness from your achievements but what you’ll learn as you get older, every time you reach one is you’ll just make another goal that doesn’t lead to freedom.” The paradox of goal setting really points us to the futility of all goals but one. There is only one goal that will not disappoint. When we make knowing Christ our aim and our goal, we enjoy His peace and His life. The apostle Paul wrote: “My goal is to know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death” (Philippians 3:10).
Set goals this year–even big ones that pull out your best work, effort, and focus. But if your ultimate aim is not Christ, you won’t be satisfied in the end.