On targets, again

Partway into year two of Covid, I set myself a target to run 100 miles a month. Not a bad idea, on the face of it, helping me to maintain my Lockdown-induced habits. Prior to this, a good month meant I was running 70 miles. From March 2020 I’ve been clearing 100. It’s a pretty flexible target, too, as there are a wide range of ways I can achieve this, from a 3.5 mile run every morning to a marathon a week. It means I can scale up or back depending on what is going on. And I’m now up to 26 months maintaining this streak. 

You may view this as evidence that extrinsic motivation generated by setting stretching targets can work. You may then apply this to all areas of life and conclude that if only we can get clear on what we want to achieve and set targets to achieve them we can bring our ambitions into reality. Here is further proof that setting a challenging but realistic target is helpful. If it is, though, this shoots a hole in my argument that target-setting is mostly inappropriate and can lead to unintended consequences. 

Has this target helped? On the face of it, perhaps. There are definitely times when I have forced myself out to run simply to reach the target, when ordinarily I would have given it a miss. Too tired? Not an excuse, get out and run. Delivering workshops? Get up early before them. In this respect it has had positive impact. It’s focused my mind, kept me exercising regularly. 

However, in order to reach the target something has to give. There’s the opportunity cost of what doesn’t happen in order that the run does; allocating the hours in a day is a zero-sum game. More pernicious is my intrinsic motivation. The reason I run has subtly shifted. For most of 2020 and most of 2021 it was to look after my mental and physical health, to ensure I wasn’t going stir crazy in a small flat. I was averaging over 120 miles a month during that time. Since I’ve established this target and focused on keeping the streak going that’s changed; the last six months I’ve averaged 101 miles. I’ve regressed to the target, exactly what I found in my archery – goal setting can set limits on performance. 

Keeping the streak going has become my primary motivation. Something gives when we shift from intrinsic to extrinsic motivation; I start running to meet the target. And that’s not running for fun or enjoyment, that’s now a chore. Which, to use that well worn phrase, means I can hit the target and miss the point. 

So I’ve fallen into the trap of creating an arbitrary target and insisting I achieve it, the very thing I counsel against. Fortunately, the only person I’m inflicting pain on is me, not my colleagues, family or team. For this where all too often we see mandates to achieve certain performance levels; the work becomes not doing what’s right or best for the customer or client, it becomes meeting the targets. Rarely do such targets not conflict with others across the organisation, thus scuttling our own best intent. At an extreme we see the failures of Carillion, Enron, Oxycontin and the Shrewsbury maternity scandal. At the very least we end up with demotivation, irrational behaviours, false competition and stress.

So it’s time I reminded myself of my own medicine. Don’t set arbitrary targets. What does it really matter if I run 101 miles or 99? Time to remind myself why I run, what I am gaining from it. I could focus on process measures instead, perhaps using a time or frequency measure. Measure my resting heart rate or track my mental wellbeing. Perhaps enter a race to focus the mind. But let’s lose the arbitrary mileage measure. Because of one thing I can be sure. The longer my focus is on meeting the target the less I will be experiencing the joy of running. The ultimate unintended consequence of my setting a running target, like with so many other examples I’m sure you can think of, is not that I fail to hit my target. It’s that, for a while at least, I end up quitting the very thing that I once enjoyed so much. 


See also On target setting, On understanding performance and On motivation and agency.

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