Why People Fail to Maintain Their Goals — And What You Can Do Differently
At 21 years of age, Jonah Hill exploded onto the Hollywood scene. His lead role in the comedySuperbad not only made audiences laugh, but also turned him into one of the most beloved comedic actors of his generation.
It landed him many follow-up roles in movies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Funny People and Get Him to the Greek. In each of these movies, Hill played the chubby, jovial, funny guy — a role that he played with brilliance. But in 2011, Hill wanted to mature as an actor and as a person.
He took the second lead role in Moneyball with Brad Pitt — a role in which he would play a statistics genius, rather than your typical “bro”. With this new role, Hill wanted to get into better shape.
With extra motivation from Pitt, he saw a nutritionist. Hill loves Japanese food, so the nutritionist put him on a “sushi diet”. This diet helped Hill famously lose 40lbs and look remarkably slimmer. A look, Hill said, revealed his new level of maturity as an actor and a person.
“I met you guys — meaning everyone, media, audiences, strangers — when I was 21 or 22 years old, with Superbad. And I was a kid — I was drinking beer, smoking weed all the time — and when I read interviews with myself at that age, it’s horrifying! You know, if you had a public record of yourself at 21, you’d sound like an idiot…Now I’m almost 28, and I’m growing up in front of strangers. So for me, who I was then is a lot different than who I am now. So being healthier came along with maturity…And, you know, I want to live a long time” 
After Moneyball, Hill continued to get both serious and comedic roles. But as an audience, we slowly started to see him put the weight back on. In 21 Jump Street, we saw a slim Hill next to Channing Tatum. But by the time they started shooting 22 Jump Street, Hill was noticeably thicker. Then in The Wolf Of Wall Street, we saw Hill back at the weight he was before he shed so many pounds.
Hill continued to put weight on and hit a new all-time weight high of 270 lbs — a number that his friends were seriously worried about. He was back to eating pizza, junk food and indulging in his favorite beverage, beer. Clearly he still had many problems trying to control his weight, despite his access to the best nutritionists and fitness professionals that money could buy! 
Hill is not the only person, or even celebrity, to have major problems maintaining their weight-loss. Over her lifetime, Oprah Winfrey has famously fluctuated from as low as 120lbs to as high as 240lbs — never seeming to be able to get it off and keep it off.
It is not as if these two celebrities lack willpower either. Oprah is renowned across the world for herprodigious work ethic that helped her get to the top. Hill, too, had the discipline to get paid a mere $60,000 for his role in The Wolf of Wall Street; showing that he is able to put his long-term career goals before his short-term wealth.
So if not due to a lack of willpower, why do these two — and millions of others across the world — have such a hard time maintaining their goals once they have reached them? And, more importantly, what can we do to ensure that when we finally reach our goals, we are able to make them stick for a lifetime?
WHY MAINTAINING YOUR GOALS IS SO DIFFICULT
One would think that maintaining a goal — whether it be keeping weight off, or sticking to a budget — would be the easy part. That the struggle of adjusting your lifestyle and choices to achieve the goal in the first place is the truly hard part, and simply maintaining it is much easier.
However, there are many factors that become a problem for us only once we’ve actually reached our goal.
1. Loss of Self-Awareness
Perhaps the most important factor that prevents us from maintaining our goals is simply a loss of self-awareness. When we are on the journey to achieving our goal, we become mindful of each of our decisions.
We see how the daily choices that we make are a part of a larger picture. We see that the impulse purchase, or the cravings for cheesecake, are both threats to our long-term goals, so we do our best to avoid them.
When we are trying to maintain our goals, however, we begin to devalue these daily decisions. We no longer see them as threats to our goals and think in terms of “what is one slice of cheesecake going to hurt, really?”
The answer, of course, is nothing. But that mentality applied day-after-day, decision-after-decision, eventually adds up and sends us right back where we started. Or, as in the case of Jonah Hill, even worse off than we once were.
2. Moral Licensing
The natural extension to the loss of self-awareness is a trap that our brain plays on us known as “Moral Licensing”. Our brains are incredibly good at applying logic and reasoning to the world around us. This has given us the ability to see problems, brainstorm, and come up with innovative solutions.
However, this same logic has also given us the ability justify “bad” behavior because we’ve been “good” in other areas of our lives. When we accomplish our goal, we feel as if we have earned the right to allow ourselves to indulge. 
In this state of mind, when we come across a temptation, our usual internal debate gets cued up. The primitive part of our brain sees the temptation and immediately tells us “YESSSSS! Get it! Now!!” But then in comes our logical, rational, pre-frontal cortex (the self-control area of the brain) to calm things down and control our emotions. It will then use logic to debate the emotional brain and say “But if I give in, then I won’t reach my goal!”
Under normal circumstances, if the pre-frontal cortex doesn’t win, it at least puts up a good fight. But if we have already reached our goal, then what reasoning does our pre-frontal cortex have? Instead it will use logic to agree with the primitive brain and rationalize our right to indulge.
This is exactly what takes place with moral licensing. Instead of an epic battle between temptation and self-control, we have the two sides agreeing with each other, leaving us no defense against temptation.
3. The Zeignarik Effect
Whenever we attempt to remember something important, our brain will set up an internal reminder system to help us out. We use this to remember what to buy at the grocery store, what tasks are on our to-do lists, and also what our long-term goals are.
However, once we have completed the task, our brain will essentially “check it off the list” and no longer store it in our memory . This is known as the Zeignarik Effect, named after a psychologist who was blown away by his waiter’s ability to remember his order perfectly, then completely forget it once he served it to him.
This same phenomenon happens when we are achieving our goals. We set up an internal reminder in our brains to “stick to your budget” “say ‘no’ to that cheesecake” and “get to the gym”. But once we have completed our financial or weight-loss goals, our mind naturally “checks it off of our internal to-do list”.
We no longer receive those reminders when we come face-to-face with the cheesecake, or the clock turns 5pm and we are supposed to head to the gym. Because the reminders have been essentially wiped from our minds, it is harder for us to find the motivation to do the small things on a daily basis that will help us maintain our goals.
TO MAKE YOUR GOALS STICK, FOCUS ON THE PROCESS, NOT THE RESULT
All of the traps listed above stem from the fact that you have “completed your goal”. Because you have completed your goal, you no longer need to worry about it as much any more. You “deserve” to indulge and you can check it off of your internal to-do list. All 3 of these things can be overcome by simply switching the focus of your goals to the process, rather than the result.
By focusing on the process, you will never lose your self-awareness. Rather than thinking that you are “done” by losing 40 lbs, you begin to focus on the next step in the journey. You continue to find healthy foods and experiment with healthy recipes that you enjoy eating. You begin to get stronger, faster and more fit in the gym and start to enjoy the process of getting better.
You will also avoid the trap of feeling that you “deserve” to indulge. It is important to reward yourself, of course, but you should never take your foot off of the gas pedal. Focusing on the process ensures that you will always be thinking about how indulging will affect your progress.
Finally, because you are focused on the process, your internal reminder system will never stop helping you. It will constantly be recognizing the things that will help you progress, or potentially derail you from achieving your goals. This will give you the ability to stick to your goals for the long term.
To be truly successful in achieving your goals for the long term, you must embrace the fact that greatness is a journey without an end. It is important to have deadlines, it is important to have rewards, it is important to achieve small wins, but your goal should never truly be finished.
The minute you take your foot off of the gas pedal is when you start to lose focus on what was once so hard to accomplish. Jonah Hill and Oprah Winfrey went through a lot of pain and personal torment to lose weight and become healthier. But just as soon as they accomplished their remarkable results, they began to slip right back to where they started — and ended up even worse.
You can avoid this fate very simply by focusing on the process and not the result. You must embrace the idea that no matter what you have accomplished today, it is will always be merely good compared to what you can accomplish next. Greatness is a journey and not a destination.
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- Jonah Hill on Moneyball, Idolizing Joe Pesci, and Being All Grown Up. (2011, September 23) http://www.vulture.com/2011/09/jonah_hill.html
- Gusmaroli, D. (2014, April 9). Wolf Of Wall Street star Jonah Hill struggles to keep his weight down after shedding the pounds to become ‘a serious’ actor. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2600461/Jonah-Hill-struggles-weight-shedding-pounds-actor.html
- Sachdeva, S., Iliev, R. & Medin, D.(2009) Sinning Saints and Saintly Sinners: The Paradox of Moral Self-Regulation.” Psychological Science 20.4 : 523–28
- Baumeister, R., & Tierney, J. (2011). Willpower: Rediscovering the greatest human strength. New York: Penguin Press.