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


This series is a comprehensive guide to how to apply brain science to maximize the effectiveness of your goals. You’ll learn how to avoid 10 fatal errors that kill your goals, and you’ll learn how to ensure success, according to a neuroscientist.

Jump around to whichever sections seem most helpful, and start applying them to yourself, one at a time. With this guide, you’ll accelerate your personal development and replace goal frustration and despair with fulfillment and confidence!

Action Potentials:

Read the Introduction {Below; scroll past the “Sections”}
Read and apply Fatal Error #1, if needed
Read and apply Fatal Error #2-6



    • What is this guide, and how do I use it?
    • What makes me as a human different from other animals?
    • Why do most New Year’s resolutions fail?

FATAL ERROR #1: You Set No Goals at All

    • How well do goals even work?
    • What do they do to my brain?
    • What are the benefits?

FATAL ERROR #2: Be Absolutely Unyielding. Achieve Your Goal 100%, at All Costs. Do or Die

    • Should I achieve a goal at all costs?
    • What’s the point of goals if I don’t hit them?
    • Should I ever change my goals or would that just mean I’ve given up?

FATAL ERROR #3: Your Goal is Irrelevant to Your Long-term Vision and Values

    • How do I know which goals to set?
    • How are general (Vision) goals and specific goals different?
    • How can I define my Vision and my values?
    • How can I avoid counter-productive goals?
    • How can I use my brain to maintain strong motivation?

FATAL ERROR #4: You Have no Specific Goals

    • How do specific goals work together with general goals?
    • How do I know which possible specific goals will be most helpful?

FATAL ERROR #5: Your Goal is not Energizing

    • How can I find goals that fill me with fire, passion, and motivation?
    • What best motivates my brain?
    • How can I make the journey more enjoyable and happy (not just the end result)?
    • Should I reward myself when I achieve a goal, and if so, how?

FATAL ERROR #6: Your Goal is Unachievable

    • Why does my brain need faith? How can I have more faith in myself?
    • What is cognitive dissonance, and how can I take advantage of it?
    • Is my goal too big or too small? How many goals should I set?

FATAL ERROR #7: Your Goal is Unmeasurable

    • Why is it so important to track my progress?
    • How can I track or measure a vague goal that is inherently unmeasurable?

FATAL ERROR #8: Your Goal is not Salient

{coming next week. Subscribe to “Ask a Neuroscientist” to get notified when we post each remaining section.}
    • What does “salient” mean?
    • My goals fail just because I forget to do them – how can I remember?
    • Does “Visualization” actually work or is it bulls***?

FATAL ERROR #9: Your Goal Has no Time Limits

    • How can I avoid procrastination?
    • How can I make an effective plan to hit my goal, and successfully execute it?
    • How can I estimate the required time more accurately?

FATAL ERROR #10: You Rely on Willpower

    • When is willpower reliable, and when does it fail?
    • How do “forcing functions” make success easier, and how can I set them up effectively?
    • Why are accountability partners so important?
    • How can I find an accountability partner or someone to actually do my goal with, together?

SUMMARY: Apply the S.M.A.R.T.E.S.T. Model to Achieve Success

    • How can I remember all this?
    • What is the “S.M.A.R.T.E.S.T.” model?
    • What is the proven formula to succeed with my goals?

BONUS: Quick Tips to Learn How to Think Like a Scientist

    • Learn critical thinking skills by seeing examples of scientific studies and conclusions from my research for this series that I rejected, and why.


How to Use this Guide

I’ve scoured the internet and compiled the most compelling ideas about what causes goals to fail and how to make them succeed. These powerful ideas are grounded in scientific research, advice from experienced psychologists, my experiences, the experiences of my brain coaching clients, and my Neuroscience Ph.D.-level knowledge of how our brains and minds work. With the help of brain science, you’ll learn how to (and how not to) set and pursue goals in order to maximize your chances of success and satisfaction.

This guide is so comprehensive, it may be the only guide on effective goal setting that you’ll ever need. If a goal isn’t going well, it’s almost always because of one of the 10 Fatal Errors. So use this guide to diagnose and readjust.

Feel free to skip around to the headings that interest you most. You don’t have to do them all, all of the time (hello, overwhelm!). Goals are not black or white, succeed or fail. There’s a spectrum of success (see Fatal Error #2). So don’t think of these tips for effective goal setting as “I must perfectly do them all or I will fail.” Instead, think of them as “the more of them I do, the more success I’ll have!” Maybe focus on only one or two tips at a time, and/or apply the tips to only one or two of your goals. You might consider using the tips to “audit” and improve your goals, one at a time.

Even if you apply only one of these ten suggestions, your rate of personal development will increase significantly, as will your confidence and happiness. You can do this!

What Makes You, as a Human, Different from the Millions of Animal Species out There?

Not much, turns out. Some animals can grieve and comfort each other. Some can learn languages. Some can learn to use tools or solve problems by observing others, randomly experimenting, or even using basic reasoning.

One of the very few things that seem to separate humans from all other animals is that we can build complex, hypothetical scenarios in our minds [1]. We can imagine the far-off future in any way we want and make plans to create (or avoid) that hypothetical future. These imaginary scenarios are not merely short-term responses to present circumstances, nor are they merely driven by instinct, as a squirrel collecting acorns for winter may be.

Thus, only humans seem to be able to make long-term goals and plans.

“Hm, yes…by my calculations I’ll need 500 acorns. 600 if it’s a harsh winter, 900 if that blasted Carl steals some again.”

No wonder that during periods of our lives where we are not setting or making goals, we often feel like we’re just “surviving”…like an animal.

And no wonder it’s hard to set and complete goals and plans – the ability to do so has evolved so recently that humans are the only ones capable of doing it so far. Even for us humans, your brain’s top priority is to simply keep you alive. The newer a behavior, the more energy it costs. To save energy, your brain often subconsciously resists new behaviors, even ones you know would be good for you.

But your brain can also be hacked to avoid that resistance. You can make it work for you instead of against you.

A Better Way to Do New Year’s Resolutions

I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions.

Goals are mostly only effective if you do them the right way, meaning in ways supported by science and tweaked to truly work for you. Most people don’t do them right, especially at the New Year. They just set some vague intention, without much thought, because they feel obligated to. Or, because they didn’t know how to set goals effectively, their past goals didn’t work, so now they don’t set any goals at all.

No wonder 81–92% of resolutions fail (depending on who you ask), with the vast majority of them not even lasting past January [2].

If you pursue goals in ways that don’t jive with how your brain is wired, don’t be surprised when you reach the end of January having already forgotten your New Year’s resolutions (or you remember them with chagrin because you’ve given up!). And don’t be surprised when you end the year feeling like you and your life have hardly changed.

Let’s avoid that! If you take advantage of what neuroscientists and psychologists understand about how the brain works, you’ll drastically increase the effectiveness of your goals.

Before you make any New Year’s resolutions or decide to not make any goals at all, take a minute to learn the ten “fatal errors” that will cause your goals to fail and what to do instead to ensure success.

Start with FATAL ERROR #1

Determine your personal roadblocks and make a plan for success


  1. Suddendorf, T. (2013). The gap: The science of what separates us from other animals. Basic Books.
  2. Norcross JC, Vangarelli DJ. The resolution solution: longitudinal examination of New Year’s change attempts. J Subst Abuse. 1988-1989;1(2):127-34. doi: 10.1016/s0899-3289(88)80016-6. PMID: 2980864.

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