Why Your Values Might Be What’s Holding Back Your Dreams
And why it’s important to believe you could achieve them
Every time you have achieved a goal, two things have been at play:
- How confident you were that you could achieve it (we call this perceived self-efficacy)
- How much value you place on it compared to how much value you place on other things you feel confident doing
Understand these principles and goal setting gets clearer. They allow us to analyse and discover with pin-point accuracy why our goal setting may not be working. I’ll do a brief overview of them here and expand on them in more detailed articles at a later date, so watch this space!
Self-confidence — Perceived Self-Efficacy
Also known as perceived self-efficacy, one of the keys to setting a goal is to make it one that you believe you can achieve. That’s why everyone gives you the command to set smaller, achievable goals. Generally, a smaller goal is an achievable one. If you achieve enough smaller goals, you grow in confidence. This confidence, borne by the proof you draw from your successes, is what’s called perceived self-efficacy. You perceive that you are able to do the things you set your mind to do.
If you have experienced multiple setbacks or failures in achieving your goals, you’ll get a very low perceived self-efficacy. In other words, you’ll stop believing you can achieve those goals — you’ll have low or no confidence in your ability.
If you believe you can’t achieve these goals, you won’t bother trying. Or at least, you’ll give up a lot earlier than someone who has a higher confidence. The important thing here is that belief in your own ability doesn’t come about by being told to “Just believe you can!” nor by simply trying again and again. With each failed attempt, if your self-efficacy is down, you’ll erode what little confidence you still had left.
To the person stuck in I can’t do it! mode, those things that look so simple to the observer can seem insurmountable. That really is okay. No amount of short, medium and long term goal setting will guarantee the change they need. If it does bring about that change, it’s not because the formula of short-medium-long term goals is great; it’s because in one way or another, the person’s confidence in their own ability was strengthened.
And that’s the key: low perceived self-efficacy can be increased dramatically.
How Much You Value Things
What about if you know you can achieve your goal? If there’s no confidence issues and the evidence is all out there that you’re highly capable of achieving your goals, but you still don’t achieve them?
I suggest that there’s a discrepancy in how much you value things. We don’t have the time for a deep discussion about intrinsic and extrinsic values here. I’ll find the time in another article on another day. Suffice it to say that our intrinsic values are the things we hold close to our heart, our core values, the often hidden ones that drive our behaviour. The extrinsic values are the ones we are conscious of, the ones we’re aware of, the ones we consciously hold in our mind.
They can be in conflict.
When that happens, the extrinsic values will always lose. So if you value your goal extrinsically but you intrinsically value something else more, in the same sphere of interest, then the intrinsically valued thing will be prioritised more than the extrinsic one.
In other words, when you tell me that you value running/cleaning/working but actually do television/reading/eating in their place, then I can see a dissonance of values. It’s all relative. You really do value the first things, you just value the second things more.
It stands for Simple, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely goals. It’s a nice little summary of what goals should look like. But it fails miserably if a person’s values are at play.
If the SMART goal is in conflict with some intrinsic value and if you are battling against perceived self-efficacy issues, you’re in trouble. You can be as smart as you like, as simple, as measurable; it can be immensely achievable and utterly realistic with a good time frame attached to it, but you won’t achieve your goal.
The goals need to align with the things we truly value. How do we discover those things?
By being smart. Using your brain. With people who have problems, the best place to start is empathy and mercy. Give them a safe place where you allow their journey to exist and to be whatever it is to them without judgment and without trying to change them or their perception.
The second step on that journey to change is to look for the rhythms, the patterns of their life. In the rhythms and patterns we can find the answers that make a difference.
When a person procrastinates, they aren’t being lazy. That’s an unhelpful story that belittles the person’s worth. When you procrastinate, even if you think you’re being lazy, I invite you to reassess that thought.
There is usually a pattern to the apparent laziness, the procrastination. And in that pattern lies the answer to what you value most. The underlying push to that pattern is the strength that overcomes your extrinsic values. It is the way to discover how to achieve your goal, when the reason for your failure is a conflict of values. Find the true benefit you get from procrastinating and you may discover a way to align your goal with this inner value.
The thing you do when you procrastinate serves a purpose. To discover that purpose, you could ask yourself some of these questions:
- Do I feel more confident doing my goal or doing my procrastination?
- What benefit do I gain from doing my procrastination? Joy? Pleasure? Comfort? Confidence? Belonging? Love? Alertness? Calmness? Fun? Success? What others?
- What unpleasant feeling do I avoid by doing my procrastination?
- Just before I turn from my goal to my procrastination, what feelings do I have?
- Just before I turn from my goal to my procrastination, what thoughts do I have?
- Just before I turn from my goal to my procrastination, what memories/mental images do I have?
- Just after I begin my procrastination, apart from negative self-judgments about procrastinating, what do I feel change inside myself?
These seven questions (and there are many more we could use — can you think of some that relate to you or your clients?) bring the insight we need. We may never have seen that procrastinating served a purpose. It may create an internal state that we prefer or it may prevent us from the possibility of experiencing a negative state in the future. Using these questions to probe your reasons for doing something other than your goal is the smart way to set goals.
What’s Probably Going On If Someone Can’t Reach Their Goals
The diagram below is one I developed for the coaching courses I run. It diagrams the stuff I’ve just talked about.
At the bottom is the Goal. If you follow the arrow to the right, it leads to the place where the Goal is not as highly valued as Something Else. If you keep trying to achieve the Goal, you’ll get a diminishing return on your efforts — you’ll put less and less effort in because you’ll get less and less results.
Running up the centre toward the top is the alternative to this scenario — the Goal is Highly Valued compared to other things. When it is Highly Valued you will probably attempt the Goal.
You will start with one of two things: Strong Perceived Self-Efficacy or Weak Perceived Self-Efficacy.
The arrow running diagonally up and to the right represents what happens if you start with Weak Perceived Self-Efficacy. Even though you highly value the goal, you will get a diminishing return on your efforts. When you hit obstacles, you are more likely to stop your efforts because it seems to be futile. It seems you cannot achieve the Goal, so why bother trying to?
The arrow running diagonally up and to the left represents what happens if you start with Strong Perceived Self-Efficacy. You highly value the Goal and you believe you can achieve it, so you set out to. When you hit a setback, you are more likely to keep at your Goal until you achieve it, because you believe you can.
That is what is happening when someone achieves a goal! So simple, really. They value it enough to pursue it above other things and they believe they have the ability to complete the goal successfully. That doesn’t mean they find it easy to do. Often far from it. It does, however, mean they believe they can do it.
What To Do About It All?
We talked already about some ways you can explore your values — see the seven questions above. What about your self-efficacy?
I will give you some easy tips on increasing perceived self-efficacy. Yes! You can increase it and the changes can be dramatic. I have unashamedly adapted these tips from the extensive research about self-efficacy and social learning spearheaded by the great Social Psychologist, Albert Bandura and colleagues.
- Set ridiculously easy goals for yourself, ones that you can’t help but achieve. If you want to run 10km this time next year, don’t set yourself up for failure by aiming for 2 km every day of the week. Rather, aim to run 150 metres three days of the week for two weeks. When you can do this, increase that to four days. Then five days. So on.
- Only progress the difficulty of your goals once you have had repeated success at the smaller ones. You need to get to the place where you are convinced you can succeed in the face of adversity (not necessarily where you believe you will succeed, but where you believe you can).
- Slow down the clock. Stretch out the time frame. Give yourself a very generous helping of time in which to achieve your goals. The less pressure, the better.
- Find some role models who are successful at what you do, or something similar. Role models work best when they are actually successful, achieving success repeatedly and when they share key attributes with you, such as age, gender, experience or demographic. Watch them, read them, listen to them, learn from them. I often instruct my sporting clients to watch videos on YouTube of their favourite sporting heroes doing the things they need help in.
- Reduce your stress response. You know how you feel when it’s difficult to achieve something or you fail at it again? Learn to listen to your body’s reactions in those moments and interpret them differently. An increased heart rate is not the sign of failure but it may indicate the body’s working harder— is there a way you can lower the effort required; perhaps it’s usual to feel this effort because it’s an emotionally rich goal, with much meaning? Racing thoughts might be an indication that the mind is feeling unanchored and uncertain — can you learn to wonder at the uncertainty and find one simple thing to focus clearly on?
- Encouragement. Find some people who have a realistic sense of encouragement. There are some people in my world whose encouragement is cheap; there are others who strive to speak the truth, and their encouragement I highly prize. We all need to be encouraged on our journeys. Look at online communities that are positive and full of other learners, people who have walked the journey longer than you and are wise with age and experience, or just friends you know understand your struggles at achieving this goal.
Wrapping It Up
Goal setting can be helped by using tools like S.M.A.R.T. and short-medium-long term goals, but they are only tools and they don’t work with everyone all the time. When goals just aren’t being reached, perhaps it’s because there’s something deeper going on.
The most likely candidates are perceived self-efficacy, values conflict or both. If you are confident you can finish the task but you just don’t do it, then it’s likely there is a values conflict at work. Seek it out. Ask questions about what you are trying to avoid by doing the alternative thing (procrastinating) or ask what benefit you will receive by doing the alternative thing. These questions may just lead you to understand what’s actually happening.
If your values are high and you really push to achieve the goal, then chances are you may have weak perceived self-efficacy, or be on the verge of it weakening. In this case, try the suggestions above. The most important thing is that you are confident you can repeatedly achieve a smaller goal successfully before moving on to a more difficult one. Otherwise you will undermine your confidence. Find ways to boost your confidence that are honest, encouraging and specific to your goals.
Finally, enjoy the journey. We’re all on it together and we’re all struggling to do the things we want, at one level or another. One slow step forward at a time is key to building your confidence. You really can do that first step. Give it a try!