10 Ways to Make Your Goals Fail, and What to Do Instead: #6
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.
For optimal motivation and success, your goal must be challenging yet realistic (and you need to believe in yourself). Find the right balance.
For each of your goals, ask yourself if it’s realistically achievable, given your circumstances. If yes, consider tweaking it to be even more ambitious. If no, break it down into baby steps. Still feels unachievable? Consider making it a little less ambitious.
Make It Easier to Believe
“Achievable” means both “having a clear endpoint that indicates it’s complete,” and “realistically attainable.”
The first definition is important for a specific goal; if there is no clear endpoint, it’s not specific enough. (By this definition, general goals are unachievable. See Fatal Error #3 to review the difference.)
Relevant to the latter definition, remember that a goal can certainly benefit you even if you end up not reaching it (see Fatal Error #2). However, it won’t benefit you much if you start off believing that you can’t hit it. In fact, a big predictor of goal success is your mindset going into it (more on that below) .
Why? Because our brains aren’t motivated by an intention that we’ve already decided is impossible. If you have no faith in your goals or in yourself, you have no motivation. Something called “cognitive dissonance” works against you. Cognitive dissonance is mental discomfort that happens when what you do and what you believe are not the same. So when you try to work on a goal that you don’t believe in, you’ll feel a lot of internal resistance.
Whereas if you have faith, cognitive dissonance works in your favor. That’s why if you believe you can achieve a goal but you sit on the couch watching Netflix instead of working on that goal, it often feels uncomfortable (arguably called “guilt”).
Your goal should feel easy enough that you truly believe you can do it, given your resources and situation. You may not be 100% certain you’ll achieve it, but you think there’s a good enough chance that it’s worth the effort.
To stay realistic, your goal may need to be more humble than you’d like. Watch out for “false hope syndrome,” which is when unrealistically high expectations about the speed, ease, amount, or benefits of changing your behavior cause feelings of inadequacy and frustration, ultimately causing you to give up. There’s no shame in toning down your goal if you realize you don’t yet have the required skills or resources. Or maybe it’s just not the right time. There’s no denying that your situation influences how likely you are to succeed .
But what if you don’t believe in yourself? Maybe you think you have a history of not following through on commitments, or maybe you have some self-limiting beliefs.
Get professional help to improve your mindset
Changing your core beliefs is a whole other topic, which I’ll delve into in the future. For now, one solution is to simply start incredibly small. You may not believe that you can go for a long jog every day (honestly, I probably couldn’t!). But can you believe that you can…
- jog for two minutes every day?
- walk 50 steps outside every day?
- put on your athletic shoes and take just one step outside every day?
- or even just twice a week, for starters?
Accept yourself wherever you’re at, then strive to do just a tiny bit better. All progress is progress.
Even huge goals like starting a business can be realistic. But you may need to break them down into sub-goals and sub-steps so they feel easily manageable. Break them down so much that there’s no way you can’t achieve every step. Sometimes, when I’m feeling unmotivated, I have to muster enough focus and willpower to literally just open up the necessary app or internet tab. This is usually enough to overcome the activation energy to get started, and the next thing I know I’ve worked for two hours.
Break your goals down into that tiny of steps if needed, so that you can believe.
Strike a Balance: Difficult but not Too Difficult
On the other hand, your goal should stretch you enough to be meaningful and useful. If it doesn’t, it might not be worth pursuing. If you aim to increase your business revenue by 5%, that’s barely enough to keep up with inflation. It probably won’t stretch you much, and it certainly won’t encourage massive innovation or transformation. That’s one reason that business coaches often claim that 10X growth is actually easier than 2X growth.
If you’re pursuing a goal you know you can do, it’s the wrong goal.
Ambitious goals are more effective because of physiological and psychological effects. Easy goals boost your systolic blood pressure so you’re ready to act, but difficult yet achievable goals give an even stronger boost . (In contrast, impossible/unbelievable goals give only a weak boost, showing the importance of faith.)
The research consistently shows that more challenging goals yield better results (as long as you still believe in them!) [3-5]. For instance, an ambitious goal to reduce energy consumption by 20% caused people to significantly reduce their energy consumption, whereas a goal to reduce it by 2% had no effect .
Results from a review of laboratory and field studies on the effects of goal setting on performance show that in 90% of the studies, specific and challenging goals led to higher performance than easy goals, “do your best” goals, or no goals.
-Locke et al. 
How can you ensure that your goal stretches you, but is still believable? For each goal, consider setting an “easy” (bare minimum), “moderate,” and “stretch” target. For example, if you published 4 podcast episodes last year, your goal could be to publish 6, 8, or 12 episodes this year. Start working on the 12-episode goal (3x!). Then, if you find yourself doubting that it’s achievable or find yourself having to sacrifice quality, you could drop down to 8. If it’s too easy, raise the goal. Stay flexible, but tenacious (See Fatal Error #2).
To keep your goal achievable, avoid making too many goals at a time. “He who chases two rabbits catches none,” as the saying goes. I once set several goals for each aspect of my life: physical, mental, social, etc. Over 20 goals in total. Guess how many I achieved? None. Even on the very first day, I did not hit all of my habit goals for that day.
Your brain naturally resists changing even one engrained way of being, let alone multiple. A better strategy is to focus on only 1-3 goals at a time.
What if you’re overestimating or underestimating your potential for success? Don’t worry – if you achieve those 1-3 goals quickly or easily, you can always add more. If you’re overwhelmed, re-focus by putting a couple of them on the shelf for later and prioritize only one or two for now.
To summarize, your brain and body respond best to challenging yet believable goals. So find that happy medium!
FATAL ERROR #7 coming next week
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- Norcross, J. C., Mrykalo, M. S., & Blagys, M. D. (2002). Auld lang syne: success predictors, change processes, and self-reported outcomes of New Year’s resolvers and nonresolvers. Journal of clinical psychology, 58(4), 397–405. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.1151.
Mlynski, C., Wright, R. A., & Kelly, K. (2020). Ability influence on effort and associated cardiovascular responses: Nocebo-Placebo evidence that perception is key. Biological psychology, 152, 107867. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsycho.2020.107867.
- Becker, L. J. (1978). Joint effect of feedback and goal setting on performance: A field study of residential energy conservation. Journal of Applied Psychology, 63(4), 428–433. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.63.4.428.
- 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.
- Yukl, G. A., & Latham, G. P. (1978). Interrelationships among employee participation, individual differences, goal difficulty, goal acceptance, goal instrumentality, and performance. Personnel Psychology, 31(2), 305–323. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1744-6570.1978.tb00449.x.