10 Ways to Make Your Goals Fail, and What to Do Instead: #3
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.
To stay motivated, define your personal Vision (general goals) and values. Then only commit to specific goals that align with those things and create your Vision.
General Goals Give Guidance; Specifics State the Steps
Despite what you may have heard, not all goals should be specific.
General goals are also critical. General goals are your Vision for who you want to be and what kind of life you want to lead. (In fact, I’ll call them “Vision goals” from now on.) For example, rather than a specific goal of “make $100K this year,” a Vision goal might be “feel financially secure and independent.” Other Vision goals could be “feel happy” or “become a talented public speaker.”
At the end of the day, your brain is motivated only by how something will feel. Unlike specific goals, effective Vision goals often include how you want to feel, so they’re highly motivating. That’s why Vision goals can actually influence positive results more than specific goals do .
Hence, compiling your Vision goals (and, optionally, large specific goals) into a “Vision Board” can be a powerful tool (learn more: what they are and the science of why they work. Mine is simply the words of my broad goals, with cutout images representing them.)
Sure, you can’t really define when you have accomplished a Vision goal, if ever. But that’s kind of the point. Vision goals may never be “done,” so they keep directing what you do and how you do it. They guide you to know what you really want to do, out of everything you could possibly do. What’s actually worth your energy?
At the end of the day, you’ll be happiest if your actions and achievements are in harmony with your personal dreams and values (particularly if you value things other than external achievements) [2-3].
Where there is no vision, there is no hope.
George Washington Carver
If you have no Vision goals, how do you know which specific goals to make? You don’t, because you don’t know what you’re ultimately aiming for. Such disharmony leads to half-hearted effort or giving up on your specific goals. Or, you accomplish them and feel no better than before, despite all your wasted effort.
I need help clarifying my Vision!
Of course, Vision goals are too general to be actionable. After you make Vision goals, it’s critical to pursue specific goals that will bring to pass your Vision goals. If a specific goal does not contribute to your Vision, it should not be pursued.
Focusing too much on specific goals can harm your motivation and your mental health, as we’ll discuss below. Having only specific goals with black-and-white definitions of success and failure tends to reduce self-confidence when you fail (which you sometimes will). In contrast, you can always feel good about your progress on general goals.
Summon Your Intrinsic Motivation Powers
Over-focusing on specific goals is particularly dangerous if someone else decides your goal for you. Your boss or spouse may tell you, “Your goal should be to get a promotion.” After all, it will bring greater money and prestige. But what if you don’t value money and prestige? What if you value family time, independence, or creativity, and a promotion will actually stifle those things?
You’ll be less happy if you hit that goal. And you probably won’t hit it, wasting your effort. How do I know? Because many studies on goal effectiveness have tried to force goals on people, only to find that they fare no better than people with no goals at all .
Have you ever experienced the demotivation and apathy that comes from being forced to do something? Your brain figures, “If I don’t inherently want to do this, I refuse to waste energy on it!” Your brain values autonomy so highly that being forced to do something is one of the best ways to destroy your motivation , even if other people threaten you with punishments or offer rewards to sweeten the deal.
If your goal isn’t in line with your own core values, that goal will likely make you less happy and effective, whereas well-aligned goals increase happiness and performance [6-9].
In contrast, goals that align with what makes people happy increase measurements of happiness . No surprise there! Similarly, another study found that “participants benefited most from goal attainment when the goals that they pursued were consistent with inherent psychological needs” .
Other studies show that goals improve performance more when people are on board with the goal , and that people with a better understanding of why a goal is necessary are more likely to succeed with target plans .
The takeaway? Only commit to goals that jive with your own Vision and values.
Last, when pursuing a goal, never use methods that don’t match your Vision and values. People sometimes make the mistake of choosing goals or methods that are unethical according to their personal values or societal or professional standards. Those kinds of goals don’t make life better for you or for others. Plus, you probably (hopefully) won’t succeed, because of the internal resistance you feel from doing something against your values (i.e., cognitive dissonance). Unethical choices become more tempting when you have specific goals that aren’t guided by your general goals and values , so be sure to start by clarifying what yours are.
Avoid Counter-productive Goals
Another caution about methods: many people set specific goals that unintentionally prevent their Vision. For instance, someone’s true Vision may be to “be healthy and strong and happy in my body.” But if they haven’t defined that Vision to themself, they may set a specific goal to lose 50 pounds, then resort to half-starving themself on only juice and shakes for a year. Sure, they’ll lose weight, but will they be healthier, stronger, or happier? I think not.
Or maybe someone knows that part of their Vision is to become a well-read expert on many topics, because they value knowledge. But what happens if they make a specific goal to read 50 books per year, and forget about the values behind the goal? They’ll likely choose easier, faster books and not bother to spend much time digesting and remembering the contents. Thus, that specific goal won’t contribute to their Vision nearly as well as a different goal could.
Having a clear Vision helps ensure that you will never take shortcuts that detract from the true purpose of your goal.
See why it’s so important to define your values and Vision first, and only then make specific goals that actually create that kind of life?
- Seijts, G. H., & Latham, G. P. (2001). The effect of distal learning, outcome, and proximal goals on a moderately complex task. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 22(3), 291–307.
- Georgellis, Y., Tsitsianis, N., & Yin, Y. P. (2009). Personal values as mitigating factors in the link between income and life satisfaction: Evidence from the European Social Survey. Social Indicators Research, 91(3), 329–344. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-008-9344-2.
- Lee MA, Kawachi I. The keys to happiness: Associations between personal values regarding core life domains and happiness in South Korea. PLoS One. 2019 Jan 9;14(1):e0209821. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0209821. PMID: 30625160; PMCID: PMC6326475.
- Locke, E. A., Shaw, K. N., Saari, L. M., & Latham, G. P. (1981). Goal setting and task performance: 1969–1980. Psychological Bulletin, 90(1), 125–152. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.90.1.125
- Di Domenico SI, Ryan RM. The Emerging Neuroscience of Intrinsic Motivation: A New Frontier in Self-Determination Research. Front Hum Neurosci. 2017 Mar 24;11:145. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2017.00145. PMID: 28392765; PMCID: PMC5364176.
- Brunstein, J. C., Schultheiss, O. C., & Grässmann, R. (1998). Personal goals and emotional well-being: The moderating role of motive dispositions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(2), 494–508.
- Baumann, N., Kaschel, R., & Kuhl, J. (2005). Striving for Unwanted Goals: Stress-Dependent Discrepancies Between Explicit and Implicit Achievement Motives Reduce Subjective Well-Being and Increase Psychosomatic Symptoms. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89(5), 781–799.
- Latham, G. P., Mitchell, T. R., & Dossett, D. L. (1978). Importance of participative goal setting and anticipated rewards on goal difficulty and job performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 63(2), 163–171.
- Sheldon, K. M., & Kasser, T. (1998). Pursuing Personal Goals: Skills Enable Progress, but Not all Progress is Beneficial. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24(12), 1319–1331.
- Klug, H.J.P., Maier, G.W. Linking Goal Progress and Subjective Well-Being: A Meta-analysis. J Happiness Stud 16, 37–65 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-013-9493-0.
- Yukl, G.A. and Latham, G.P. (1978), Interrelationships among employee participation, individual differences, goal difficulty, goal acceptance, goal instrumentality, and performance. Personnel Psychology, 31: 305-323. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1744-6570.1978.tb00449.x
- Schweitzer, M. E., Ordóñez, L., & Douma, B. (2004). Goal Setting as a Motivator of Unethical Behavior. Academy of Management Journal, 47(3), 422–432. https://doi.org/10.2307/20159591