If New Year’s resolutions are anything to go by, we’re not particularly good at achieving our goals. Yet we continue to set them year after year, and many times in between. Why this desire to have goals? And why our general inability to achieve them?
The answer, in short, is that we’re human. We have a high intellectual capacity, and the ability to step into the future. Which is why setting lofty goals comes naturally to us. What doesn’t is the effort and focus it takes to plan and execute them, which is why goals can often remain unfulfilled dreams that eventually crumble.
The reality is that the brain is divided. Deep in its recesses lies a fear-based motivational system whose sole function is to avoid pain and approach pleasure. This system often takes over in the journey from visualization to completion. When we’re called to step out of our comfort zone, it scares us away with visualizations of a catastrophic outcome. When the going gets tough, it entices us with pleasures we’re trying to avoid—like the scrumptious double chocolate cake waiting to be consumed, even though our goal was to lose 10 pounds while training for a half-marathon. So we give in to its demands and often feel relieved in the moment. Until, of course, our capacity to think clearly finally catches up and reminds us of what we dearly wanted to achieve. Some of us are then shaken out of our momentary trance and get back on track. But most of us make a bad situation worse by beating down on ourselves, or doing more of what we shouldn’t be doing simply because we “failed,” or convincing ourselves that the goal wasn’t worth pursuing in the first place.
If any of this sounds familiar, read on to discover the two-pronged approach that will help you set goals that are compelling, and build practices that propel you along the way.
Set Powerful Goals
Here are 3 questions that will help transform momentary flashes in the pan into powerful goals.
Question 1: Are my goals personal?
You’d be surprised at how often our goals are based on what others want of us or what society expects of us. Which is why we tend to give up when a new idea or a conflicting goal gets in the way. But if you ground your goals in your values and in a deep desire to make a difference, you can withstand the fears that pressure you to avoid what you most want to achieve. Make your dreams bigger than your fears, and you’ve given yourself the best start possible.
Question 2: Are my goals challenging enough?
Research shows that goals that are too easy do not keep us engaged. Needless to say, nor do goals that are far too challenging. The sweet spot between easy and impossible is where we’re in flow, a state where our perception of time shifts and we’re one with the music. Think of your goal and reflect on the strengths you’ll need to develop, the skills you’ll need to learn, and the inner and outer resources you’ll need to grow in order to keep you engaged in your goal pursuit.
Question 3: Are my goals specific?
Know the difference between an intention and a goal. While an intention can be something as noble and grand as making a difference to humanity or working toward a more equitable organization, a goal needs to be specific enough to hold you accountable. What will you do to make this difference? By when will you do it? How will you know you’ve achieved your goal? What measurable difference will you see? The more specific you get, the greater your chances of success.
Pursue Them Effectively
These 3 questions will ensure that you stay gritty and motivated as the rubber hits the road.
Question 1: Do I believe in myself?
The Henry Ford quote, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t—you’re right,” is backed by Albert Bandura’s research on self-efficacy. But what the research also shows is that there are actual steps you can take to overcome the self-doubt that underlies “I can’t.” Think back to moments in the past when you achieved your goals. Have role models or cheerleaders who believe in you, as well as mentors and guides who provide you with regular, focused feedback so you can develop the skills and strategies that help you reach your goals.
Question 2: Do I have a plan?
The goals we set are rarely little hops that take no time or effort—and for good reason. The higher we aim, the more we rise to our fullest potential. But these big goals need to be broken down into chewable parts so they don’t disorient us or scare us away. Creating a goal hierarchy is a great way of doing so, where the goal is broken down into medium- and short-term goals that act like milestones. Then, have a clear plan of daily actions that get you to each milestone.
Question 3: Do I have support and accountability?
Support and accountability are essential for overcoming the obstacles that are a natural part of every journey. Make a list of the people you’ll turn to when the going gets tough, so you’re well armed when the emotional brain urges you to give up or otherwise sabotage your success. Also, know how you’ll keep yourself accountable so that everyday demands and distractions don’t throw your goals into the “one day” basket. Simply ticking off a box or having someone check in with you are great ways to stay on track.
With this approach, setting and achieving goals at work, in your relationships, and for your health and well-being can be an energizing part of life. Because we are, after all, wired for growth and progress. As Einstein said, “Life is like riding a bike—to keep your balance, you must keep moving.”
So what goals are you going to pursue? And what steps will you take to do so?