10 Ways to Make Your Goals Fail, and What to Do Instead: #2
This post is part of our series answering the question, “Why do my goals and New Year’s resolutions keep failing? How do you make effective goals?” For best results, first check out the Introduction, instructions, and table of contents.
Goals boost your success even if you don’t technically achieve them. So stay flexible, avoid the “what the hell” effect, forgive yourself for imperfections, and just keep trying.
Identify a way that you can practice greater self-compassion.
Decide if you have any previous goal that you need to either 1) adjust to better fit your needs, or 2) re-commit to.
The Goal of Goals
The next eight Fatal Errors will cover how to better “hit” goals, but first I must point out that “hitting” goals is actually not the….well, the goal.
Goals massively benefit you even when you don’t technically accomplish them. Even if you “fail” to hit it, a goal helps you to…
- stretch yourself to change and achieve more than you would have otherwise.
- validate yourself rather than depending upon external validation. Learning how to evaluate and improve yourself boosts your self-confidence, self-reliance, and self-efficacy. Becoming goal-oriented and growing your skills of goal setting and completion will benefit you for the rest of your life.
- clearly define and prioritize what’s important to you.
- discover the reality of your strengths and weaknesses.
- start trying some sort of positive action, even if it’s not the absolute best idea. Then you can learn from any failures and improve your methods.
Replace Perfectionism with Self-compassion
Because of all of these benefits, “hitting” a goal is generally only marginally better than getting close. It’s usually on a spectrum: 100% completion is actually just a little better than 95%, which is much better than 50%, which is much better than 10%, which is still better than 0%.
Beware the “what-the-hell” effect, which is the psychological phenomenon where once things have gone slightly poorly, we’re inclined to give up and let things get even worse. As if failing to study one hour means you might as well not study the rest of the day because you’re going to fail anyway. (Spoiler: no.) This trap is especially dangerous if your goal involves trying to maintain a streak of positive behavior, Jerry Seinfeld-style, and you break your streak.
Remember, it’s ok to slip up once in a while!
You’re human, after all. Shaming yourself or despairing over mistakes will only lead to more mistakes, then quitting. Such pain causes your brain to seek distraction and escape, often in the form of…(you guessed it!) the same unhealthy habits that you’re trying to avoid. That’s why most poor choices occur when you’re tired, hungry, hurting, feeling guilty, or otherwise emotionally dysregulated – the emotional, survival-oriented parts of your brain overwhelm the decision-making, goal-oriented part of your brain (the prefrontal cortex).
For example, one study showed that donut-eaters who simply received messages of self-forgiveness continued to eat much less unhealthy food than donut-eaters who received no such message and felt greater guilt .
So for the love of goals, instead of beating yourself up, practice self-compassion and forgiveness. Instead of trying to avoid hard feelings, accept and feel your emotions. Then get back on track ASAP.
(If those emotional skills are difficult for you, like they were for me, I highly recommend professional counseling. Therapy has been tremendously helpful for me and my wife.)
Other than some exceptional circumstances, it’s ok to not reach 100% – just get as close as you can. After all, all progress is progress.
Stay Flexible, Yet Tenacious
You may find midway through a goal that it doesn’t jive with your strengths or your priorities, or it’s simply ineffective (related to points #3-5 of how even “failed” goals benefit you, above). Sometimes you could hit a goal, but it’s not worth it if the costs outweigh the benefits. In those cases, it’s wise to tweak it or nix it midway rather than push forward on a less helpful or even harmful path (i.e., don’t fall victim to the Sunk Cost Fallacy).
Whether a goal is hit or not, you can and should review what happened so that you can learn as much as possible from that valuable experience. Did you underestimate or overestimate yourself or the time required? Did you realize that something wasn’t as high priority or as helpful as you thought? Maybe you discovered that you need to change ____ about yourself before you’re ready to pursue ____.
Next time, you’ll be primed to set even more effective goals, improving step by step.
Interestingly, both tenaciousness and flexibility with goals are associated with high life satisfaction and reduced rates of depression [2-3]. Abandoning unattainable or unhelpful goals leads to less stress , fewer health problems, better sleep , less depression, and more feelings of competence and other positive feelings .
The key is to determinedly persist, assess, and adapt, then persist, assess, and adapt, as many times as it takes. Don’t stubbornly persist if something is a bad idea. But if you’ve consciously decided that it’s a good idea (even if it’s hard), then never give up!
- Adams, C. E., & Leary, M. R. (2007). Promoting self-compassionate attitudes toward eating among restrictive and guilty eaters. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 26(10), 1120–1144. https://doi.org/10.1521/jscp.2007.26.10.1120.
- Brandtstädter, J., & Renner, G. (1990).Tenacious goal pursuit and flexible goal adjustment: Explication and age-related analysis of assimilative and accommodative strategies of coping. Psychology and Aging, 5(1), 58–67.
- Brandtstädter, J. (2009). Goal pursuit and goal adjustment: Self-regulation and intentional self-development in changing developmental contexts. Advances in Life Course Research, 14(1), 52–62.
- Bauer, I., & Wrosch, C. (2004, July). Unattainable goals and subjective well-being across adulthood. Presentation at the 18th International Society of Behavioural Development, Ghent, Belgium.
- Wrosch, C., Miller, G. E., Scheier, M. F., & de Pontet, S. B. (2007). Giving Up on Unattainable Goals: Benefits for Health?Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33(2), 251–265.
- Wrosch, C., Scheier, M. F., Miller, G. E., Schulz, R., & Carver, C. S. (2003). Adaptive Self-Regulation of Unattainable Goals: Goal Disengagement, Goal Reengagement, and Subjective Well-Being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29(12), 1494–1508.
Quotation image by @glenweimer.