Why we fail at our goals (and what to do about it)

publishedabout 1 month ago
3 min read

Have you ever pursued a goal and then given up on it? Join the club.

But why is goal-setting so difficult and what can we do about it? Here are a few thoughts I got from reading Succeed: How we can reach our goals.

Big mistake: We set superficial goals, like getting famous. Obtaining other people's validation and approval is a recipe for failure. We live in this delusion that famous people don't have problems. But when we look closer at it, we realise how absurd this is. Famous people have a ton of problems. They struggle with strained relationships, insecurities and self-doubt like everyone else.

"That's great Olle, but what can I do about it?"

A few things. You can pick goals that:

  • Give you the freedom to choose your own direction (autonomy)
  • Build your skills and abilities (competence)
  • Strengthen friendships, family ties, and relationships (relatedness)

Take a look at your current goal. Does it focus on autonomy, competence or relatedness? If so, you're off to a great start. Let’s take it one step further.

Be good or get better?

How you frame your goal matters. On a general level, goals are either:

  1. promotion-focused (achievements and accomplishments), or
  2. prevention-focused (think safety and security).

This framing has ramifications for how you reach your goals.

A promotion-focus often results in “be good” goals: Get a straight A on the exam. Hit a 250k sales target at work.

With a “be good” goal, you need to prove yourself. Either you get the A or you don’t. Either you're a good salesperson or you're not.

It increases performance short term but you need to be very good in your area. You risk poorer self-confidence when you run into obstacles and difficulties. That’s because “be good” goals promote a fixed mindset (you’re either smart/good/etc or you’re not).

Another alternative is “get better” goals: Focus on progress and improvement. You didn’t get the top grade, but you learned something new. It increases your ability to tackle difficulties and overcome obstacles. As a result, it builds your self-confidence in the long term.

You’re also more likely to ask for help. Why did you get the question wrong on the exam? You ask the teacher.

Sales might not be your strong suite. Who can help you improve your pitch? You learn how to become a better salesperson.

"Get better” goals promote a growth mindset. These make you more likely to succeed because you focus on the work that is necessary to improve.

Quick recap

Most goal-setting fails because we chase external validation and approval. But superficial goals won't make us happy. We’re better off focusing on:

  • Autonomy Choosing your own direction/approach.
  • Competence building skills and abilities that matter to us.
  • Relatedness forming closer ties and strengthening relationships with people we care about.

Are you ready to pursue your goals? Try this powerful technique to find out

  • Write down your wish or concern.
  • Picture your happy ending. Think about it in vivid detail and write it down on a piece of paper.
  • Now, identify an obstacle to reaching that happy ending.
  • Now, write down a positive aspect of this obstacle.
  • Identify another obstacle.
  • Write down another positive aspect of this obstacle.
  • Identify another obstacle.
  • Write down another positive aspect of this obstacle.
    And you keep going like this until you have identfied nine obstacles.

Congrats: you've engaged in mental contrasting! It helps you make more sense of your goal by balancing the positive and negative aspects of pursuing it. How do you feel about your goal now?

More on goal-setting:

Let's talk about your goals

What goals are you working on? Are you stuck on a problem and need someone to offer you a different perspective? I'd love to hear what's stopping you from reaching your goals. Maybe I can help. Just reply to this email and let's chat.

Have a great week!


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