Goal Setting

by Arielle Essex

When goal setting doesn’t work

Everyone knows goal setting works. Applying the right amount of energy and discipline also works. Add a hefty dose of determination and perseverance and surely all obstacles can be overcome, right? So why do so few goals get realised?

Most people will quickly answer: laziness, lack of staying power or distraction. Therefore, they think the solution must be more will power. Unfortunately, achieving those goals then begins to feel like a gargantuan task requiring more hard work, sacrifice and effort than is humanly possible. Not surprisingly, many give up. But lack of will power or self discipline may not be the problem at all.

The secret of success – fall down seven times, stand up eight.

Chinese proverb

People who fail to achieve their goals don’t lack the ability to succeed. They may lack the ability to consistently focus. But that begs the question – why? Does that goal matter to them? They may also lack motivation or belief in themselves.

Often, the mistakes they make have nothing to do with self discipline. In fact, people often work harder for inappropriate goals than they do when they are on track. That’s why success often looks easy. The problems with goal setting start with choosing the goal itself.

Most common pitfalls in choosing goals

1. Choosing what’s conventional and compromising too much

If you only consider what seems reasonable, possible and affordable, and use analytical rationale to support decisions, this can undermine your chances of success. Instead of original ideas, you go for what’s been done before, tried and tested, already packaged in neat little boxes. This leads to thinking too small, staying in your comfort zone and limiting creativity. As a result, energy, enthusiasm and passion diminish. Results are predictable and very safe, but not necessarily successful.

Dare to think outside the normal boundaries instead. Take time to consider some outrageous alternatives. Forget about established job titles and prescribed careers. Perhaps it’s time to create something that never existed before. Re-connect with your values and purpose and then stretch yourself beyond your limits. Read more:

2. Choosing the package rather than the content

You go through the process, but nothing changes. Perhaps you’ve been choosing the façade that impresses others, without much substance behind it. This is like attending a training to have the certificate on the wall, rather than actually learning new skills or acquiring knowledge. You tick boxes, but you don’t gain any true effectiveness.

Ask yourself what could you really get out of this, what do you want, what might you achieve, learn or develop? How does that fit with your purpose? How could it be useful or beneficial? Read more:

3. Choosing with attachment to results

Maybe you are insisting on a guarantee of success, reward or pre-requisite. You’ll only do this if... you get assurances, proof, evidence, or some other promise of future compensation. You are focusing too much on measuring the end result. Attachment to a specific outcome limits your ability to be flexible. It risks keeping you stuck in old, outmoded strategies of thinking. In fact, comparing your present state unfavourably with your ideal can create a negative focus.

Would you say to a fire ‘Give me some heat first, then I’ll give you some wood?’

Let go, re-evaluate your progress only periodically, and then change your tactics accordingly. Trust that if you continue to follow your purpose, the end result will be even better than predicted. If you are to reach The ultimate goal, the best way to move forward is to keep your positive focus in mind loosely and enjoy the process of taking action consistently while being flexible.

4. Choosing by consensus

You compromise your own values in favour of agreeing with what everyone else needs or wants. By bowing to other considerations instead of standing up for what’s true for you, you risk that the goal may not be aligned with your purpose. You think you are trying to win cooperation, support and acceptance, but you may end up blaming others for holding you back.

The popular vote may not be the best solution, especially for your personal decisions. Have the courage to follow your heart, your own inner guidance. Reconnect with your Values.

5. Choosing by abdication

You avoid setting any goals, waiting until matters become completely intolerable, circumstances take over, or decisions are made by chance and fate. With time, when certain options are no longer available, the choices may seem easier. But when there’s only one ‘choice’ left, there’s no choice anymore. You risk missing the boat, abdicating your power to the whims of fate and being at the mercy of other people and events, a victim of circumstances.

Confront your negative beliefs, your fears and lack of motivation. Stop procrastinating and make a commitment. Know that whatever happens, you can learn from any mistakes and direct the flow back on track. Making your own choices means you actually get to participate more in your own destiny. The more responsibility you take on, the more power you have to change. Read more:

If you limit your choices only to what seems possible or reasonable, you disconnect yourself from what you truly want, and all that is left is compromise.

Robert Fritz

6. Choosing to change someone else

Good luck! People only change when they themselves truly want to change. Unless you become incredibly adept at motivating and influencing other people’s deepest drives and passions, it’s better to focus on goals within your own power. It is impossible to control which choices another person might make. Prepare your own goals with enough flexibility to allow you to succeed, regardless of other people’s decisions.

Current systemic thinking says that if you change your own attitude and behaviour, the other people in the system will have to change in response to you.

7. Choosing the end result, but not taking consistent action

Setting goals and expecting them to happen without putting in the effort is just wishful thinking. While wishing and dreaming may help to get you in touch with what you want, it’s not enough. You need to take action consistently and with determination and perseverance. People who succeed in achieving their goals have also learned how to endure failures along the way.

Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goals.

Sydney Smith

You’ve probably heard the old story about Thomas Edison. During an interview, a journalist asked him about the 999 times he had failed before inventing the light bulb. He looked surprised and said, ‘Those weren’t failures! They were simply experiments that will probably end up inventing other things.’ He knew the value of being flexible in pursuit of a goal.

8. Making excuses

Which of these are your favourites?

  • I don’t know what I want.
  • I don’t know what to do, or where to go.
  • I don’t have enough time.
  • I don’t have the money.
  • I don’t have enough information.
  • I don’t have the skills, competence or education.
  • I can’t do it – it’s impossible or too scary.
  • I’m too stressed, tired, ill or overburdened.

When you choose excuses like these, it’s a sign that you have temporarily lost touch with your inner drive and purpose. Whenever you hear yourself talking like this, let that signal you that it’s time to re-connect with what matters most. Luckily, this is easy! When you invest a little time clarifying your values, the pay-offs are great. Your energy and drive will increase, answers and solutions will spontaneously occur to you, obstacles will fall away and you’ll save time! Read more:

There’s no such thing as a good excuse.

John P Grier

Reasons and excuses just mean that you need to re-connect with your inner resources. You could just be making the mistake of focusing on the gap between where you are now and the Big Goal. This can make achieving your goals seem quite distant. Reaching that goal may require many steps. If you reward yourself for even the smallest steps you take, this will improve your state of mind and raise your energy and motivation. Then the excuses will simply melt away as you find the resolve and commitment to find a way.


A simple exercise that helps is to acknowledge what you have already accomplished over the last year. Whether you consciously set goals or not, you have probably achieved many different goals.

Stop for a few moments just to raise your awareness of how much you have achieved. Take the time to write down a list of every little and big thing that you achieved last year, despite the odds...