Resolving to learn from targets and deadlines

Share this page

Written by Peter Honey on 16 January 2014


You are in:

Resolving to learn from targets and deadlines


Peter Honey

16 Jan 2014

Happy New Year! Have you made your New Year resolutions? And, if so, are you still keeping to them? I see that a study of resolutions has revealed that less than a quarter of them are successful. I read an amusing newspaper article that suggested a neat solution: set resolutions you can easily keep. Examples are:

·         I will not lose weight

·         I will not try to be a better person

·         I will not give up anything

·         I will not learn anything new.

And so on.

Perhaps a better solution (but not nearly so amusing!) is to stick to the normal rules and to assume that resolutions are not laudable, though vague, intentions but specific targets with an accompanying action plan that is realistic in the circumstances. The trouble is that targets generally get a bad press. Teachers, the police, civil servants, local authorities, not to mention more than a million people who work for the NHS, all apparently hate targets. We are bombarded with examples showing that the presence of a target caused people to do silly things in order to achieve it - such as leaving patients sitting in ambulances outside hospitals so that targets for hospital waiting times are not jeopardised. 

Despite all the anti-target propaganda, I love targets. The existence of a target, or deadline, spurs me into action. They have the same effect on me as a To Do list. In fact, every target spawns a host of 'to dos' and the more 'to dos' I have, the happier I am. Without a list, I'm sure I'd do a fraction of what I do now, perhaps even grind to a halt. I would literally become listless (sorry, I couldn't resist it!).

I'm so wedded to targets/action lists that they even extend to creative pursuits such as painting watercolours. People often assume I need to be 'in the mood' to paint a picture, but I find that, by settling down and obeying my list, 'the mood' comes running along behind, eager to catch up. If I waited to feel in the mood, I might wait forever, and my productivity and enjoyment would certainly suffer. 

Targets and deadlines have so many advantages. For example, how could you ever under-promise and over-deliver unless there was a target or deadline to be under or over? When estimating a feasible deadline, the trick, as I'm sure you know, is to have some slack built in so that it is possible to beat it and, in so doing, to spread universal delight. 

How could you know how well you were doing unless there was a target to use as a yardstick? How could you 'aim high to hit high' unless there was a target?  The whole concept of 'high' is meaningless without one. How could you impress people unless they knew your target and that you had achieved or, better still, exceeded it? I even find that the act of declaring a target scores brownie points for openness and honesty - regardless of the eventual outcome!  

How could you review progress towards a target or deadline if there wasn't one? How could you learn from any discrepancies between the target and what was actually achieved if there wasn't a target? There is no perception (ie learning) without contrast and there can be no contrast without a target. If you decided that the target had been missed because the target itself was at fault (it might, for example, have been too ambitious), you could learn how to set more realistic targets. Targets and deadlines, especially missed ones, generate masses of learning.

So why am I so keen on targets when so many people grumble about them?  Well, if you are suffering under the yoke of imposed targets, you'll have spotted it straight away. It is simply because the targets and deadlines I have been eulogising are mine. Not the absurd, often irrelevant, often impossible, things imposed by 'them'. Not targets that distort priorities and result in people doing daft things in order to 'tick the boxes'. 

Agreed targets, between consenting adults, are the obvious antidote to imposed targets. Everyone has the right to be consulted about the targets and deadlines that affect them. Whenever anyone attempts to impose them on me (clients often try this), I remind myself that I have a choice; I can agree if I'm happy it is sensible or I can negotiate if I think it is unreasonable. All those people who are bowed down and stressed by imposed deadlines should exercise this choice.

Happy target-setting!

About the author
Peter Honey FRSA, FCIPD, FIMC is a chartered psychologist and founder of Peter Honey Publications. He can be contacted at or via

Related Articles