I've been thinking about undertaking some research on goal setting and individual behavior when facing goals. In part, this is because I use goals all the time to motivate my own efforts. For example, I use goals (and crazy commitments to other people) to motivate making progress on research (e.g., writing one good paragraph a day, writing a proposal every two months) and musical etudes (e.g., playing a certain piece, playing at a certain tempo). I use longer-term goals (e.g., finishing writing a trade book by summer, learning to play Bottesini's Concerto #2 in B minor by the end of the year) and short-term goals. The latter are particularly useful when organizing my day. In fact, I keep a little journal, tracking my time in various endeavors against a goal regarding an amount of time for each. (The point or goal of the journal is to try and minimize the time their waste in a given day. Keeping the journal may be a waste of time in itself, but I only spend 5 minutes on that per day.) This helps me balance my musical and professional activities and serves as a reminder of where should spend my time versus where am spending my time.
In some sense, I'm following the advice embedded in a paper by Chip Heath (Goals as Reference Points, Health, Larrick and Wu, Cognitive Psychology, 1999): goals serve as reference points that can motivate behavior, but can just as easily be discouraging and counterproductive. For me, meeting small goals (e.g. writing one good paragraph per day, practicing for two hours a day) serve to motivate me in the right ways. My little journal documents my subgoals which lead to my longer-term goals.
I think goal setting is a valuable exercise and people should set goals, using to improve themselves. This can mean using goals in somewhat indirect ways (e.g., the benefits of, say, reading one book per month is that you enjoy one book per month and you get better at reading; the goal of this blog is to get me to write more and, hopefully, better). The key is setting goals that are meaningful, attainable, and provide the right motivation.
That said, I'm not too rigid about my goals. Missing a short-term or subgoal it's pretty insignificant. Hell, my goals are more of a wish list. I can miss most of them and really not sweat it. The motivating force is that I feel good about myself when I meet my goals. Setting small ,daily subgoals means I’m more likely to meet them (and hence my longer term goals) and therefore feel good about myself. In the end, that's the ultimate goal.