– “Would you tell me, please, where I ought to go from here?”
– “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
– “I don’t much care where,” said Alice.
– “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
– “So long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.
– “Oh you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if only you walk long enough.”
~ Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Getting somewhere is easy – just keep moving and you’ll certainly end up in a different place. But to get to where you actually want to be? For that, you need to have a clear destination and be intentional about getting there. Put simply, you need to set some goals.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. Just setting a goal is no guarantee that you’ll reach it. Just think about your last new year’s resolutions – how are those going for you? Are you accomplishing what you set out to achieve on Jan 1st?
Don’t feel too bad if not – statistically, about 92% of resolutions are doomed to failure. It kind of makes you wonder why we even bother, right? The problem isn’t with goals or goal setting per se, it’s how we set them and with how our brains work towards – and against – them.
- Goal Setting Theory: 5 Reasons Why Goal Setting Fails
- 5 Tips for Setting Better Goals
- The Goal Setting Process
- Goal Setting Worksheet
Goal Setting Theory: 5 Reasons Why Goal Setting Fails
If you take a look at goal setting theory, you’ll find there are five key reasons why those New Year’s resolutions (and other types of goal setting) typically fail:
#1. Our Goals Are Unrealistic
When we set personal goals that aren’t actually doable, we fall into something goal-setting theory would call, “False Hope Syndrome,” or “an unrealistic expectation of self-change.” Then, when the result doesn’t meet our expectations of how it will change our life, we get disheartened and revert to our old ways. (This is also tied to the “What-the-Hell Effect,” where once we realize something is out of reach, we just give up and actually do worse than before.)
#2. We Set Our Goals With Arbitrary Timing
This is most obvious for New Year’s resolutions, but it also applies to any time we set a goal on an arbitrary date.
Is that the best time to get started on that goal? Are we really ready? If not, trying to force something to happen at a specific time is just going to make things more difficult.
#3. External Pressure Creates Goals That Aren’t Our Own
Where is the motivation for our goals coming from? Are we following the crowd on January 1? Is our boss telling us to submit your annual goals on your work anniversary?
Goals that come from external sources are more difficult to feel committed to because they’re not truly ours. We need to be intrinsically motivated towards our goals.
#4. Multiple Goals Divest Our Focus
“You eventually learn that true priorities are like arms; if you think you have more than a couple, you’re either lying or crazy.” -Merlin Mann
For reasons discussed a little later in this article, trying to manage multiple goals at once typically makes all of them harder to accomplish. We end up distracting ourselves between them and wear ourselves down by trying to do too much simultaneously.
Once we set our goals, why do we often delay in working towards them? We can blame simple procrastination, but there’s more to it than just that. The concept of hyperbolic discounting tells us that we value immediate rewards more than rewards in the future. Those long-range goals are harder to conceptualize, so we aren’t as motivated to move on them.
So after all that bad news you might be wondering: why do we bother setting goals at all? When it seems like such hard work, it might be easy to get disheartened at this point. BUT, here’s where it’s worth understanding that the problem isn’t with goal setting in general, it’s with setting them the wrong way. It helps to understand why we’d fail in order to help us succeed.
Almost like a goal-setting pre-mortem. Giving each of the issues above a 180, we can set better goals and make success more likely.
5 Tips for Setting Better Goals
Goal setting theory can help us make better, smarter, goals that work. Here’s how:
#1. Set Realistic Goals
Instead of shooting for the moon straightaway, start with something small and doable and “level up” from there.
Our brains love progress; every small success triggers the reward centre and gives us a shot of dopamine. This is what makes video games fun. If you went from level one to fighting the boss the next day, you’d lose immediately and it would suck. Instead, there’s clear and steady progress from level one to two to three, etc.
Each time, you get a little better so that when you’re ready to fight the boss you have experience and confidence to win. (For some serious goal-setting theory, Check out Steve Kamb’s book Level Up Your Life for more on this.)
#2. Spread Goals Out
More often than not, it seems like when it’s time to set goals, we try to do a whole bunch of them at once. This is unnecessary and counterproductive. Instead, we should be spreading them out over time so that we can successfully tackle each one at a more optimal time.
You don’t need an arbitrary date to start on a goal; you can decide to set it for any day of the year or any minute of the day. It’s up to you.
#3. Make Sure Your Goals Are Internally Aligned
Accomplishing new goals will be easier if they align with existing goals you have, with other parts of your life that you’re mindful of, or a larger overall purpose that you care about. These are the things you will be intrinsically motivated towards, and piggy-backing on this motivation is efficient. We’ll get to why efficiency is important very shortly.
#4. Have A Singular Focus On A Goal
If attempting multiple goals at once is counterproductive, it stands to reason that you will accomplish more by focusing on one goal at a time. Whenever possible, take that one thing and give it the energy it requires to be successful before moving on to the next goal.
#5. Get Motivated Towards Achieving Your Goal
According to Piers Steel in The Procrastination Equation, the opposite of procrastination is motivation. That is, if you’re truly driven to accomplish something, you won’t put it off.
The key components that drive motivation are:
- you believe you can succeed (realistic goals)
- the goal is important to you (internal alignment)
- you have the self-control to do it (focus)
- the time to complete the goal isn’t too far away
For that last one, you need to close the time gap between right now and final success as much as possible. We can do that by breaking the goal down into subtasks and focusing in on the very next step that moves us towards the goal.
OK, great – we now know how to set better goals – we still have to do the work to reach them successfully.
Unfortunately, our imperfect brains get in the way: we lack focus, we succumb to bad habits, and our willpower fails us. This might sound like another thing that makes you wonder why we bother to try and change! But here’s the thing – we know a lot about our brain, and we can use what we know about how our brains work to overcome the frustrating tendencies that hold us back.
The Goal Setting Process
If you’re looking for some more theory on goal-setting, here’s the down low on the science behind setting goals.
Focusing On Our Goals
Our brain (specifically the amygdala) is designed at an evolutionary level to respond automatically to threats and rewards. It’s what has motivated us to avoid bear attacks and – let’s be straightforward here – procreate. One of the ways it does this is by focusing and filtering the information around us.
Now, most of us don’t really live in a world where we need to be constantly on alert for predators, but the process still functions today in many ways:
- The classic example of focusing and filtering is the selective attention test by Daniel Simons. Check it out for yourself here.
- If you’re looking for your friend in a crowd and they have a blue jacket on, your brain will make blue pop and every other colour recede. This is also how we find Waldo (or Wally).
- We’re automatically tuned to our own name, so we’ll hear it in the middle of several noisy conversations
We can harness this evolutionary trait to help us accomplish goals. If we focus our attention on a specific goal and utilize techniques like mindfulness and visualization, we can give direction to our effort. It changes how we approach our daily to-do lists and calendars. Simultaneously, it activates our filtering system to tune out all the distractions and less important tasks that could stand in our way. It directs us to say no to the things that are not part of our focus.
This is all fine and well, but we’ve all seen our best efforts fail, no matter how we try to set ourselves up for success. The problem is that we lack the willpower required to see things through. What can we do about that? Read on.
Willpower is not all that reliable as a partner for success. It’s limited and wears down over time.
The concepts of ego depletion and decision fatigue are both examples of this and state that the more we have to use willpower or make decisions, the less effective we become. This is why trying to accomplish multiple goals at once is a bad idea; it depletes willpower more quickly and you end up working against yourself. But there’s hope! “Just like a muscle, the amount of willpower you have at any given time rises and falls, and if you exercise it, it gets stronger,” says social psychologist Roy Baumeister. That’s great, but also hard work.
Fortunately, there are ways we can fortify our willpower with external supports:
- Make sure you have a plan for obstacles, pain points or failure. Like any good Project Manager, have a contingency plan if things aren’t going as expected.
- Try combining the goal that you’re struggling to achieve with something that you enjoy. This is known as “temptation bundling” and examples include watching TV on a treadmill or listening to music while house cleaning.
- Implement “commitment devices,” which are restrictions you place on yourself in order to help you stick with your plans. When Victor Hugo was writing The Hunchback of Notre Dame, he made almost no progress for a year because he couldn’t resist socializing instead. As his deadline loomed, he locked up all his clothes so that he was forced to stay in and write, wearing just a shawl. Other, more practical examples include automatic deposits into your savings account, deleting time-wasting apps from your phone, or pre-packaging meals into healthy-sized portions.
Without this mindful attention to our goals, we can slip into the trap of allowing automatic behaviors to take over. This most often takes the form of habits – both good and bad. By understanding how habits work and how to control them, we can use them to our benefit as well.
About 40% of the things we do in a day are done out of habit. Why do we rely on habit so much? It’s our brain trying to be more efficient. Habits are automatic – controlled by the basal ganglia without a lot of other brain activity, thus saving mental energy. The more we can offload to habits, the more effective we can be at accomplishing our goals.
In order to make habits work for us, we need to understand how they function. In ‘The Power of Habit’, Charles Duhigg defines the habit loop, which consists of a cue, a routine, and a reward. We can manipulate the loop by recognizing and altering any one of these elements. For example, if we can identify the cue that sets off our habit routine, we can change the cue to point us in a specific direction. Likewise, if we know what rewards are giving us that shot of dopamine, we can use that to drive our behavior.
(One caveat about this process: bad habits are basically impossible to get rid of because they’re firmly encoded in your brain. However, they can be replaced or masked by new ones. The key is to try to align them as closely as possible with existing comfortable patterns, making slight changes rather than doing something drastically different.)
Some other ways to make habits work for you include:
- Start small. Something as simple as making your bed in the morning can set off your reward centre and get you moving in the right direction.
- Set yourself up for success. For example, if you want to run in the morning, set your shoes out beside your bed the night before.
- Likewise, try to remove any barriers to getting started. If you can’t immediately locate your shoes, that may be all it takes to derail that day’s running plan.
- Identify and focus on “keystone habits,” which are habits that can have spin-off effects on other behaviors. The big one here is exercising, which often leads to people eating better, quitting smoking, being more productive at work, etc.
- Define “implementation intentions” — if-then statements that set out a date, time, and place to do a specific thing. Put them on your calendar.
- Finally, celebrate your successes along the way. Recognizing milestones acts as a reward and feeds the habit loop.
When it comes to achieving your goals, your brain can be both your best and worst asset. The key to setting yourself up for success is to learn to recognize why your goal might fail from the outset and adapt it to fit you better. With that in place, you can then give yourself the best chance to get to where you want to be by learning how to focus your efforts and harness the willpower it takes to make all your hard earned work translate into an easily held habit.
Goal Setting Worksheet
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What Do You Think?
Do you find it hard to set goals, and stick to them? What have you found that works in setting goals, and achieving those goals? What hasn’t worked, and what have missed? Let us know what you think in the comments below.