Self Improvement

Why Goals Fail, and How to Do Better

There is one thing we fail to plan for that can derail our progress on goals
BY Mike Donghia TIMEAugust 18, 2022 PRINT

A goal is any outcome in your life that wouldn’t happen without an intervention. It’s a detour from the path of least resistance.

Maybe you recognize that your current habits aren’t cutting it. You have greater ambitions for your life than the trajectory your current behaviors have you on.

You’re going to need to change those behaviors, a pursuit that is going to be hard work no matter how you approach it.

In fact, embracing the difficulty, preparing for it, and coming up with a plan for the kind of person you want to be when it arrives is exactly the point on which your success will hinge. And failing to plan for this is the No. 1 reason, in my experience, that goals fail.

Are you up for the challenge? Let’s start by understanding why setting goals is so easy, but achieving them is so hard.

Goal Setting Is Easy

The moment you set a goal is the moment of peak optimism. At that point, you have recognized a deficiency in your current path, and are imagining a better future for yourself.

There’s a strong case to be made that a healthy dose of self-belief (maybe even a little self-delusion) is exactly what you need in the beginning, otherwise, you might talk yourself out of the hard work that lies ahead.

Goal setting also temporarily relieves some of the existential pressure you may be feeling. Are you disappointed in yourself, or frustrated with your lack of progress in life? Well, at least now you have a plan in place. Simply knowing that the future might be brighter, is enough to make us feel better. But don’t be fooled into thinking that this is real progress, it’s only the beginning.

Change Is Hard

It’s only after recognizing a need to change, and setting an intention to improve some area of your life that the real work begins. Here’s a roadmap to keep in mind.

Honeymoon Phase: At first, in what’s known as the honeymoon phase, you will be excited by your new goals. The novelty of the change will be its own motivation source for a few days to a few weeks.

The Dip: You’ve reached the first hard part. You are currently in “no man’s land,” the low place between the initial supply of motivation provided by novelty and optimism, but not quite at the place where your new goal is supported by well-established habits, or, better yet, a new identity and new sources of enjoyment.

Slow, Not So Steady Progress: Finally, progress has arrived. Things you once found only difficult are now both hard and satisfying. Maybe you don’t enjoy them yet, but you don’t dread them either, and you love the way you feel when you’ve done them. A sense of meaningful progress is now the wind in your sail, and the important thing to remember is that your perception of progress won’t be linear. Try not to measure your growth over days and weeks, but rather in months and years.

Failure to Prepare

In the roadmap above, the dip is the hardest stage.

Your old habits are still exerting a powerful force in the opposite direction of your new goal, while your new habits are not yet firmly established.

The struggle, discomfort, and time investment toward your new future are very tangible, while the rewards available to your future self are not yet yours. They remain, in some sense, theoretical. All of this heightens the sense of opportunity cost that you feel, and you begin wondering whether this new goal is the right goal after all.

What I’m describing is something every human has experienced. But it is something that we all fail to plan for when we launch ourselves toward a new goal.

When we fail to plan, the arrival of the dip leaves us dejected, confused, and emotionally thin. We think to ourselves that we shouldn’t feel this way about our new goal, not this soon, at least. Or we convince ourselves that we must be doing something wrong. Or we assume that the difficulty of our present stage is permanent and therefore unsustainable.

So what do we do? We try to escape the discomfort. We run back to the familiar comfort of our old habits. And in doing so, we unintentionally strengthen the sense of reward that those behaviors deliver.

Snap Out of It

Now, I warned you that this wasn’t going to be easy, right? I’m going to briefly describe how you might prepare in advance for the dip and why it works. But what I’m about to say won’t blow your mind, it’s going to sound rather simple.

The truth is, there’s no way to make meaningful behavior change feel easy. It’s hard work. The goal, rather, is to make you feel empowered. To remind you that there’s something you can do in those moments to work through your strong emotions. It won’t sound complicated, because complicated isn’t what you need when your emotions are running hot, what you need is a way to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Step 1: Create a list of the negative emotions that most often derail you. Some examples include stress, uncertainty, frustration, or boredom.

Step 2: Learn to recognize and name these emotions when you feel them. Some triggers to look for are a faster heartbeat, shallow breathing, or a general sense of uneasiness.

Step 3: Prepare in advance a list of thoughtful questions to ask yourself once you’ve identified that you are in one of these emotional states. A helpful frame of mind for this activity is to think of what questions or advice you might offer a close friend who came to you for help. A few ideas:

  • What emotions are you feeling right now?
  • Why do you think you feel that way?
  • Is it a normal part of the process of change, or a sign that something is off?
  • Is this goal still aligned with your values? How important is it to you?
  • If you were feeling magnanimous, how would you like to act?
  • Is there anything stopping you from acting as if you were?

Step 4: Now for the crux of the practice: pause from your current activity and take a few minutes to work slowly through your own list of questions. Answer as if you are responding to a close, trusted friend. Better yet, do this activity with a close friend.

Yes, this in itself is another habit to adopt, but I think you’ll find that if you are without motivation to do “real work,” it may be just the diversion you need. Research affirms that the healthiest way to work through hard emotions is to express them, not to repress them—which can lead to physical and psychological side effects.

The reason this four-step process works is that it slows you down and allows you to engage the rational side of your brain, instead of reacting impulsively. Also, if the questions are good, it creates a feedback loop where you can begin to learn what triggers your uncomfortable emotions and what you can do about them.

Thinking calmly through your emotions and creating a single, small intention (the smaller the better) reminds you that you aren’t powerless in the face of your strong emotions, you have agency and the power to act.

Go forward and use that power to do as much good as you can in the world.

Mike Donghia
Mike (and his wife, Mollie) blog at This Evergreen Home where they share their experience with living simply, intentionally, and relationally in this modern world. You can follow along by subscribing to their twice-weekly newsletter.
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