Why Setting Goals Often Doesn’t Work (And What to Do About It)

There was one thing I was supposed to do this year—one thing I promised myself I would accomplish—and I didn’t do it.

To be fair, there were other things I did do from my same list of goals, things like “read two books a month” and “start blogging regularly again” and I can give gratitude for the fact that I was able to leverage the time and willpower at my disposal to bring those things to being. But there was that one thing, the really big one, that had me in knots as I looked at it, wondering why it was the most important thing on my list and I didn’t do it.

Can you relate?

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Maybe there is something you’ve tried to do for many years in a row—like lose weight for example, or get outside more often, or watch less TV, or take that trip you’ve been dying to take, or have that hard conversation with that person you love, or eat kale—and maybe no matter what you’ve done, you haven’t been able to accomplish it.

Or maybe you don’t even remember the goals you set for yourself last year. Either way, there are few things more painful than knowing what you want and not being able to accomplish it.

The statistics about this phenomenon are pretty staggering, actually. According to Forbes, only 8{9ac618bfda39dd0c8c9a0232963cb9a2adfe54a7367c2d4954ad9e847b2e5305} of us actually complete the objectives we set for ourselves at the beginning of the year. Which should make us all feel a little bit better about the fact that we haven’t been able to make progress with that important thing we’ve been working toward for years. And yet, if you’re like me, it also makes you wonder what makes some resolutions stick and not others.

Sure, one approach is to say, “forget it. There’s no point in setting goals anymore. They never really work anyway.” Another approach is to say, “okay, so this isn’t working very well. Let’s figure out a better way to think about setting goals so they can really serve us.”

I favor the second approach and here’s why:

Because changing ourselves and our habits is the most powerful tool we have to change the world. By that I mean we have very little power to rescue the many people in this world who are suffering and hurting, and very little power to prevent difficult or painful things from happening.

But we do have at least a little bit of power to change our own thoughts, patterns, and behaviors, and when we leverage that power, our personal change can have a corporate impact. Individual change has a powerful energetic pulse into the world. (Tweet That)

Each of us has the potential to change the world.  Because the price of change is so high, we seldom take on the challenge. —Robert E. Quinn, Deep Change

Changing our lives, our habits and our patterns is not easy. It doesn’t come at a low cost. But the alternative doesn’t come at a low cost either. The most dangerous thing we can believe is that we do not have an impact. For better or for worse, we are all changing the world.

Why We Don’t Follow Through With Our Goals

There are a dozen reasons, in my mind, that we don’t accomplish the goals we set out to achieve, and one of the most pressing reasons doesn’t have to do with the goals themselves, but the motivations with which we make them. Namely, we set goals from a place of self-hatred, rather than self-love.

For example, “lose weight” was the most popular resolution of this past year (big surprise) and as a woman who has been on various diet and exercise plans in my lifetime, I can say there is a profound difference between a weight loss plan I take on because I care about my body, because I want to feel good about myself, have more energy and supercharge my creativity; and the weird crash-diets I’ve done because I look at myself in the mirror and can’t stand the sight of the reflection staring back.

I’ve done both—and there’s a good chance you have too. And there’s a difference, would you agree?

  • Which one makes you feel better about yourself?
  • Which one is more enjoyable?
  • Which one is more effective?

I love the way Elizabeth Gilbert puts it when she is talking to writers about how to keep their promises to themselves to write on a daily basis. She says what they don’t need is more self-discipline. She insists they have plenty of that. What they need, she says, is more self-forgiveness, or self-love.

As for discipline—it’s important, but sort of over-rated. The more important virtue for a writer, I believe, is self-forgiveness. Because your writing will always disappoint you. Your laziness will always disappoint you. You will make vows: “I’m going to write for an hour every day,” and then you won’t do it. You will think: “I suck, I’m such a failure. I’m washed-up.” Continuing to write after that heartache of disappointment doesn’t take only discipline, but also self-forgiveness… the point I realized was this—I never promised the universe that I would write brilliantly; I only promised the universe that I would write. So I put my head down and sweated through it, as per my vows. —Elizabeth Gilbert

What would it look like if we stopped expecting ourselves to accomplish our goals perfectly and instead just allowed ourselves to fumble clumsily through them?

Can we have enough self-forgiveness to bring our resolutions to life this year?

Setting goals from a place of self-hatred, rather than self-love, will rarely work. Or it will work for a short time but won’t bring the satisfaction that we so desire. So this year, as you think about your goals and resolutions, ask yourself first: do I want that for myself because I love myself so much, or because I will hate myself until I achieve it?

Three Ways We Focus on The Wrong Things.

Another reason we fail to accomplish the objectives we put in front of ourselves is simply because we focus on the wrong things. There are a few different ways this can happen, but one way I see playing out in my life more than any of the others is that I focus on the “how” before I even know the what.

Here’s what I mean by that:

Do you find yourself thinking, “I would really love to [fill-in-the-blank] but that’s just so impossible. I mean, how would I ever meet the right people, or get the money, or be able to move my family, or have the skills, or be in the right place at the right time?” This is a subtle and powerful form of self-sabotage that literally derails our objectives before we can even put them on paper.

In fact, many of us don’t even allow ourselves to fully admit or understand what we want because we can already think of half-a-dozen reasons why we will never get it.

Another way this tendency plays out is that, while we think about our resolutions in passing, we never write them down or remind ourselves of them on a regular basis—and because we’re not totally clear about our priorities—we end up focusing on what is urgent in our lives, rather than what is really important. Our lives end up being dictated and dominated by our daily to-do lists, rather than our values.

Here’s what Greg McKeown says about that in his book Essentialism:

Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential. —Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

He emphasizes, over and over again, how if we don’t choose our priorities in life, someone else will choose them for us. And I don’t know about you, but this one is hugely convicting for me. I am really good at filling my time with things that make other people happy, or that make me feel productive, but not always so good at honing in on what really matters to me and moving toward that with laser focus.

This is a huge reason many of us have not been able to meet our goals—myself included.

And the final way we get stuck focusing on the wrong things is that when we are setting goals, we focus mostly on what we CAN’T have or what we’re cutting out or giving up. We want to watch less TV, give up sweets, stop smoking, quit putting money on a credit card or stop wasting time. The problem is we focus so much on what we’re trying to avoid that we end up actually getting the very thing we’re avoiding.

We move in the direction that we’re pointed, so why not point ourselves toward what we want to invite into our lives, rather than what we’re trying to get rid of? Check out how Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit has to say about the one thing we must remember about changing out habits:

The Golden Rule of Habit Change: You can’t extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it.” —Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

In other words, you can’t simply get rid of a bad habit. You really have to replace it with a better one. So when it comes to creating lasting change in our lives, we might find more success if, instead of focusing our attention on something like, “stop watching TV before I go to bed” we set an intention like, “read a book for 30 minutes at bedtime.”

The Most Counterintuitive Obstacle to Setting Goals

It wouldn’t be fair to move forward in this discussion without talking about the most counterintuitive obstacle to achieving our goals or resolutions, which is that we get too attached to the outcome we’re trying to create. You’ve heard it said, “if you love someone (or something) let it go.” The same could be said for our objectives.

At the end of the day (or year), we have to be willing to surrender the outcome we so desire, because without being willing go accept the flow of change in our lives, we can’t make progress in any direction. We only have control over so much—our own thoughts, choices, and behaviors. We do not have control over what other people choose to do, over the weather, or over any other circumstances outside of our control.

If we’re ever going to be happy with our lives, we have to learn to accept what we cannot change. (Tweet That)

Not to mention, we spend way too much time trying to change our external lives hoping it will change the way we feel about ourselves on the inside. We want the new job, or the raise or promotion, or for our boss to finally tell us he’s proud of the job we’ve done so we can finally be happy. We’re desperate to get married, or to have a baby, or to have our parents or friends or children act a certain way—so we can finally be at peace.

The problem is: change happens from the inside, out—not the other way around. Here’s how Robert E Quinn, author of Deep Change puts it in his book:

To make deep personal change is to develop a new paradigm, a new self, one that is more effectively aligned with today’s realities.”  “In doing so, we learn the paradoxical lesson that we can change the world only by changing ourselves. —Robert E. Quinn, Deep Change

In other words, our only hope for creating real, lasting change in our lives is to change the in deepest parts of ourselves—our thought patterns and ideas about the world—not just to give our career, our family or our bodies a proverbial facelift. We have to be willing to let go of the idea that getting the thing we want will change how we feel about ourselves. It won’t.

Although changing how we feel about ourselves will, more often than not, help us get the thing we want.

So if what you’re looking for is weight loss, it’s of course important to focus on diet and exercise. But it’s also important to focus on how your feelings about yourself might be dictating your choices and actions. If what you’re wanting is to finally go on that trip you’ve been putting off, it’s not just about saving a little bit more money. It’s also about asking what it is that makes you keep putting it off in the first place.

It isn’t until we can begin to unravel the thought patterns that are keeping us stuck that we will be able to make the actual, tangible process we so desire.

Cut Yourself A Break

Finally (and this one is really important) I believe we have to learn how to cut ourselves a break. I won’t even try to say it as eloquently and eloquently as Elizabeth Gilbert in this fantastic article from the Huffington Post:

Because it breaks my heart to know that so many amazing women are waking up at 3 o’clock in the morning and abusing themselves for not having gone to art school, or for not having learned to speak French, or for not having organized the neighborhood scavenger hunt. I fear that—if we continue this mad quest for perfection—we will all end up as stressed-out and jumpy as those stray cats who live in Dumpsters behind Chinese restaurants, forever scavenging for scraps of survival while pulling out their own hair in hypervigilant anxiety.

So let’s drop it, maybe?

The bottom line is that goals are hard to accomplish and habits are challenging to change. So if you’re like me and you’re coming to the end of this year and realizing you didn’t make the progress you were hoping to make this year, don’t use this as an excuse to not keep setting goals for yourself, or not inviting new and beautiful things into your life.

Pursuing the things that are important to you is never easy, but the effort is never wasted. You are busy becoming you and bringing the best parts of yourself to this world.

Resources:

In case you’re interested in learning more about setting goals that will actually stick this year, here are a few additional resources for your reading pleasure. Hope you enjoy.

4 comments on “Why Setting Goals Often Doesn’t Work (And What to Do About It)

  1. This is a fantastic post Allison – I resonate with so much of it and totally agree. Just what I needed to hear right now. Thanks so much for this, and will be buying at least one of the books recommended. Have a great new year!

  2. Hi Allison!

    I have been following your blog for a little while now and always love reading your posts as they always seem to resonate with me. They often speak on the very topics I find myself thinking on and exploring.

    I definitely identify with making goals from a place of self-hatred rather than self-love. Self-love is something I hope to grow into in the upcoming year, and can gratefully say, have seen progress within this past year.

    Also, I appreciate your ending of the post referencing that pursuits are never easy but the effort is never wasted. The character building that comes along with all pursuits is always so important to keep in mind. It truly changes the whole experience – both in present and in retrospect.

    Thank you for helping me start my day with some positive reminders. Your words and your wisdom are truly valuable, Allison!

  3. Allison, thanks for this post. The way I’ve changed the traditional New Year’s resolution paradigm is spending time writing down my longings. First I write down what my heart truly desires, then the action steps follow.

  4. Dear Allison,

    I haven’t read a blog of yours yet that I didn’t love. They are so in-depth and I really appreciate that your blogging style is a bit different than others, especially in terms of length. A lot of other popular, catchy blogs usually leave me wanting more information; as much as I like to read them, they are often too short and feel too simple. You seem to hit everything, in a good way. (Sorry, I know pulling the comparison card is not always the best way to give a compliment, it’s just something I’ve noticed and have appreciated so much.) I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate your writing, and that you are one of my favorite ‘discoveries’ of 2015. I got to hear your breakout session at Storyline this past November. I had to sit on the floor (no problem); so basically, I couldn’t see you, but I could hear your voice, and that is what has stuck with me. You are so, so graceful. Thank you for everything – I wish you a happy, healthy, fulfilling New Year, whatever that means for you and your loved ones.

    Cheers,
    Ashley

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