The Truth About Goals

If having goals gives us hope and opportunity, if they energise us and give us direction, why is it that we don't all set goals? And even if we do, why do they so often get abandoned? Psychologist Carly Sime takes a closer look at where we might be going wrong and considers how we can break the cycle and better set ourselves up to succeed.

When we get goals right, they are highly significant, valuable and often marvellous things. Goals connect us with possibility and change. They energise us, give us direction and ultimately encourage us to take responsibility for the changes we seek.

Goal setting is allied with hope and opportunity, two things that are undoubtedly worth feeling connected to in our lives. When we begin to work towards our goals we develop self-enhancing behaviours, we become courageous enough to try despite often fearing failure and we bolster our self-efficacy. Before we've even achieved what we have set out to our lives are often already positively impacted.

Where Are We Going Wrong with Goals?

If all of the above is true then why aren't we all setting and achieving our goals left, right and centre? Why do a lot of goals seem to have such a short shelf life? Why do we set the goals we think we truly want and start our journey towards them with such motivation and commitment only to be swiftly derailed and demotivated? Where are we going wrong with goals?

As a coach I am fairly well placed to answer these questions as it will come as no surprise that goals feature heavily within coaching work. Below are four truths about goal setting which may help explain why we often fail to achieve what we set out to and how to break that cycle once and for all.

Let's start with the most important truth of all...

  1. Setting the Right Goal Isn't Always Easy and We Aren't As Skilled at Setting Goals as We Could Be

If you're setting the wrong goal, you're never going to achieve it, it really is that simple. When we set goals, we often fall into the trap of setting surface or behavioural goals which lack meaning and depth. When a goal doesn't connect to something deeper, we are less likely to buy into it in the long term and commit to achieving. We often set goals very quickly with little thought, planning or consideration. Goal setting is commonly a result of reacting to some feeling of discomfort and wanting a quick fix in the form of a goal and action. Moving to action too quickly, however, will often result in failure.

How can we become more skilled at goal setting and set the 'right' goals? Firstly, before jumping to action it can be helpful to spend some time connecting with whatever discomfort you're feeling, situation you want to change or problem you'd like to solve. Find some space for curiosity about the changes you seek and why, try to understand your current situation and feelings in as much detail as possible. Then move on to 'painting a picture' of where it is that you're heading to and what it is that you want.

Let's consider what the difference between a quick and vague surface goal and a clear, considered and meaningful goal might look like.

Vague, Behavioural Goal Setting:

I'm feeling heavier than usual, and my clothes aren't fitting as well as they used to. I want to lose a few pounds to feel healthier.

Clear, Considered, Meaningful Goal Setting:

I'm not feeling great when I look in the mirror. I actually feel quite negative about my appearance and health at the moment. I don't like how my clothes feel but I also don't want to buy a size up. I've let things slip recently because I'm juggling so much. I'm feeling overwhelmed. When I think about where I'd like to be it looks a bit different.

I'm picturing myself signing up to run a half marathon, that's something I've always wanted to do but never found the time. I'm a few lbs lighter. I can see myself finding it so much easier to play with my children. I'm fitter because of the half marathon training and running around in the park with them, I'm actually keeping up for once! I think I'd feel physically lighter, but I think I'd also feel lighter and happier in myself. I would be eating a bit better, maybe taking lunches to work with me again.

Taking time out to train for the run would feel like a way to look after myself which is something I don't do much of now as I give so much of my time to other people. I'd feel really proud of myself if I could find more time to do that, I'd also feel so thrilled at being able to keep up with my children. It would feel like a real success to achieve this.

Besides the obvious differences between the two examples the second one is a vast improvement for more subtle reasons too. When we connect with the change we want to make and paint a picture the goal becomes a lot clearer and easier to set. It also becomes easier to stick to because we would have hopefully identified higher goals and aspirations that we have for ourselves that go above and beyond any surface or behavioural changes. Taking the time to do this can support you in finding depth and meaning in your goals and help you set a goal that is worth more than it costs. Any goal that has these features is the 'right' goal. 

  1. We Don't Realistically Evaluate our Commitment

We have to commit to our goals in order to achieve them, this is pretty obvious. However, we often spend very little time realistically evaluating how committed we are to our goals. We may love the sound of achieving a goal and all that it brings us but how committed are we to getting there? Spend some time evaluating your commitment and whether you're committed enough to reach the finish line. Ask yourself questions such as:

  • How badly do I want it? What is pushing me to commit to this goal?
  • What is the incentive to achieve this goal?
  • What has stopped me achieving this goal already? What's got in the way?
  • Is this goal more for me or for the people around me?
  1. We Don't Consider the Costs and Benefits Sufficiently or How We'll Manage Obstacles

With goals there are always costs and benefits. Weigh them up!

Why is this important? Because if the costs outweigh the benefits we probably won't stick to our goal because the sacrifice is too great. A robust costs and benefits list may seem rudimentary, but it really can be key to helping us refine or iterate our goals in a way that sets us up for success instead of failure. By charting the costs, we are also able to highlight any obstacles we may meet along the way and put contingency plans in place around how to overcome them. When weighing up costs, benefits and obstacles some questions that can be helpful are:

  • What will the benefits and costs be to achieve this?
  • What is the biggest sacrifice of all? Would I be happy to make this sacrifice?
  • What obstacles - internal and external - may get in my way?
  • What can I do to remove obstacles I realistically don't think I can't manage and what can I put in place to overcome the ones that I can?
  1. We Don't Build in Enough Reward or Helping Factors and Any Step Backwards Feels Like Failure

Working towards our goals does take sacrifice, hard work and commitment but it shouldn't be a solely taxing and challenging process.

So many of us set goals and go all in with a strict and punitive attitude which often becomes our downfall. We fail to build in reward or helping factors, we set the bar extremely high and eventually fall off the wagon or take a step backwards because it is an impossible standard to consistently meet. Don't let this happen! We need to pave the way to reaching our goals with rewards, helping factors and space to be imperfect. We need to stay connected to the small wins and successes and celebrate these achievements along the way.

Build in reward along the way - anything can be a reward - this isn't prescriptive - but make sure that whatever the reward is make it personal to you, something you'll enjoy and appreciate.

Make time to reflect on progress, chart it in some way if you can, to help you stay aware of your achievements and support accountability too.

  • What resources - both internal and external - will help you towards your goal?
  • How can you build more of these helping factors into your routine to give yourself extra support?

In the end goal setting and attainment - like most things in life - come with joys and challenges but if we take the time to tap into the 'why' of our goals we are far more likely to succeed.

Finding space for curiosity to explore where we want to go, engaging with the exciting possibilities around how we may get there and realistically planning for what may get in our way as well as what may propel us along are all great gifts.

We put so much time, effort and energy into achieving our goals that it's about time we did a little of the same while setting them!


Carley Sime