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10 Ways to Make Your Goals Fail, and What to Do Instead: #5

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.


“Energizing” means the goal fills you with motivation, passion, excitement, hope, and positive feelings. To be truly energizing, your goal must be both 1) enjoyable the whole time you’re working on it and 2) rewarding once it’s completed. 

Action Potentials:

 For each of your goals, plan and implement at least one way to make it more enjoyable and rewarding

Hack Your Brain’s Reward System: Make Your Goal Constantly Enjoyable

Your brain ultimately is only motivated by two things: seeking pleasure (which helps you survive and reproduce) and avoiding pain (and death, by extension). So, the more an action brings pleasure or avoids pain, the more your brain is motivated to do that action again. Your motivation mostly depends on your brain’s “reward pathway,” the mesolimbic pathway. 

Your reward pathway

Here, dopamine helps you associate a cue (an action, situation, etc.) with a pleasurable or painful result. The faster that result happens, the stronger your brain connects it to the cue. Therefore, pleasure or pain that happens immediately – not in the distant future – most strongly affects your motivation.

Thus, to maximize your motivation, your goal should be immediately enjoyable as you work on it, not just after you achieve it.

But how?

1. Where possible, set goals that naturally fill you with passion, desire, and positive emotions.

Make your goals have soul and life so that your brain cares about them. Consider setting a personal goal that you want not for any particular, logical reason, but simply because you want to. Maybe it just sounds fun.

The science: one paper describes goal-oriented attention as a process of:

  • Your amygdala tells your brain whether something is emotionally significant or not.
  • Your frontal cortex tells your brain what your goals are.
  • Together, they tell the brain what to focus on and what to ignore [1].

So, your brain will focus more on goals that you make emotionally meaningful.

Plus, highly motivating goals (i.e., goals that you strongly desire) cause your brain to downplay the difficulty of obtaining those goals [2].

These kinds of goals fill you with motivation.

You need effective motivation.

Be motivated by your Vision for yourself, your love for others and desire to help them, your love for the task itself (see #2 below), and your desires for deeper things like achievement, self-esteem, and fulfillment.

Do not be motivated by fear, other people’s expectations, or shallower pleasures like money that fail to motivate in the long run [3]. 

(Not sure if the desire to accomplish something comes from within you or from others’ toxic expectations? Try this exercise.)

The need for achievement and self-esteem are among the strongest predictors of individual performance [4]. Intrinsic motivation from loving what you do is vastly more powerful than extrinsic motivation (i.e., someone else promises you a reward) [3; I highly recommend this book!]. 

Because intrinsic motivation is so important, where possible, you should set proactive goals (you want to do something), rather than reactive goals (you have to do something).

You never have to do something. You always have a choice. You choose to do it because it contributes to one of your broader desires. So you can reframe something you “have” to do (ex: working 60 hrs. a week) as part of a goal of your own choosing (ex: feel safe and secure, provide for your family).

Whereas if a goal doesn’t jive with any of your own desires, then respect yourself enough to not do it! Otherwise, you’ll likely feel unhappy about it and fail anyway. 

One more thing: positive goals (you intend to do something) are generally more motivating, trackable, and enjoyable than negative goals (you intend to not do something). Plus, it’s hard to avoid a habitual behavior if you have no better behavior to replace it with. 

So frame goals as positives rather than negatives, optimize your motivation, and choose goals that fill you with fire! 🔥

2. Focus on the joys of the present, the process, the journey, and all the growth and pleasant things along the way.

Don’t think only about the (brief) happiness you’ll feel in the distant future once you check off your goal.

Studies show that goals increase subjective well-being more when the success of goals is defined based on progress rather than attainment [5], and goal commitment is greater if goals focus on learning rather than outcomes [6]. And like it or not, thanks to hedonic adaptation, achieving milestones of success doesn’t actually bring happiness for very long [7-8]!

What does bring happiness, then? Positive habits that happen in the moment, like gratitude, mindfulness, and connection with others [9].

In fact, happiness brings success as much or even more than success brings happiness [9-10]. So if you want to feel happy and succeed with your goals, you’re better off finding ways to enjoy the journey, not the destination.

Make Your Toothpaste Froth and Tingle.

What the heck am I talking about? Toothpaste, it turns out, hardly contributes anything to cleaning teeth. Most of the cleansing power of brushing comes from the physical scraping. But one thing toothpaste does do incredibly well is boost your desire to brush. How? The soap-like bubbles and the cool, tingly sensations make your mouth feel cleaner, bringing immediate pleasure and reward. Illusion or not, this immediate reward makes your brain associate brushing with positive feelings, increasing your motivation to brush again, maybe even making you crave it [11].

Prompt rewards are also why we crave food, sex, drugs of abuse, and so on. 

So if you want to boost your motivation to pursue a behavior or other goal,  make a deliberate effort to discover, create, and focus on whatever aspects of the process are enjoyable. Write them down.

If you can’t find any, make some.

  • Maybe you don’t naturally like running but you love listening to music, so always run with your favorite music on. 
  • Maybe you hate selling but you love meeting new people. Focus on that.
  • Maybe practicing an instrument alone bores you, but you feel energized performing in front of others. So find a way to practice in front of others and perform often.

Add frothy, tingly toothpaste.

This may take some thought, creativity, and trial and error, but there’s always a way you can change the environment or your focus so that the process becomes more enjoyable, motivating you to keep doing it.

Need help applying these strategies? Click here.

3. Assess your progress with optimism.

Highlight the positive results – write them down, share them, or at least mentally ponder them. 

Accept, learn from, and move on from any negative results. Don’t ruminate on them. Remember that even “failed” goals teach you and help you to succeed (see Fatal Error #2). Every time Thomas Edison failed to make a working lightbulb, he got one step closer to the one that worked.

4. Reward yourself for progress, not just completion.

If you only celebrate ultimate success, you’ll only celebrate once. So reward yourself for every milestone and success along the way.

But why is rewarding yourself so important, and how can you effectively reward yourself?

Hack Your Brain’s Reward System: Make Your Goal Ultimately Rewarding

Enjoying the journey is essential, but the final outcome must also feel rewarding so it can bring motivation and a sense of accomplishment. Rewarding yourself for achieving goals is associated with greater goal success [12].

Some goals automatically reward you at the end with confidence, positive feelings, money, amazing experiences, etc. But some goals don’t throw you a party at the end. In those cases, you need to pause and throw your own party.

Thoughtfully plan a break/reward/celebration for yourself that motivates you, based on however you enjoy relaxing, celebrating, or pampering yourself. It doesn’t have to be related to the goal. To celebrate finishing a writing project, for example, you could give yourself a day off from the kids if that sounds the most appealing.

Warning #1: Never reward yourself in ways that counteract the point of the goal. If your goal was related to losing weight, eating healthier, or feeling more energized, don’t celebrate hitting the goal by eating a box of donuts! Doing so would sabotage the momentum and positive habits you’ve worked so hard to build up. There are a thousand alternatives, like going to a movie or a fancy (reasonably healthy) restaurant.

Warning #2: You may plan a reward, but then when you achieve the goal, you feel happy and motivated, you feel momentum, so you skip your planned celebration and plow through to the next goal. You can get into a pattern of never rewarding yourself, which hurts your long-term motivation and happiness. I struggle with this myself. Try to notice and avoid this pattern. You need and deserve breaks. Take them before you get burned out and unmotivated.

To summarize, your brain is ultimately only motivated to avoid pain and seek pleasure. So do everything you can to make your goal pleasurable instead of painful!

FATAL ERROR #6 coming next week

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  1. Compton R. J. (2003). The interface between emotion and attention: a review of evidence from psychology and neuroscience. Behavioral and cognitive neuroscience reviews, 2(2), 115–129.‌.
  2. Cole, S., Balcetis, E., & Zhang, S. (2013). Visual perception and regulatory conflict: Motivation and physiology influence distance perception. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 142(1), 18–22.
  3. Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes.
  4. 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.
  5. Klug, H. J. P., & Maier, G. W. (2015). Linking goal progress and subjective well-being: A meta-analysis. Journal of Happiness Studies: An Interdisciplinary Forum on Subjective Well-Being, 16(1), 37–65.
  6. 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.
  7. Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: is happiness relative?. Journal of personality and social psychology, 36(8), 917–927.
  8. Lucas, R. E., Clark, A. E., Georgellis, Y., & Diener, E. (2003). Reexamining adaptation and the set point model of happiness: reactions to changes in marital status. Journal of personality and social psychology, 84(3), 527–539.
  9. Riopel L. Success Versus Happiness – What is More Important? Published January 31, 2019. Accessed January 23, 2023.
  10. Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success? Psychological Bulletin, 131(6), 803–855.
  11. Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. Random House.
  12. Norcross, J. C., & Vangarelli, D. J. (1988). The resolution solution: longitudinal examination of New Year’s change attempts. Journal of substance abuse, 1(2), 127–134.
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