Why We’re Horrible at Achieving Goals (And What to Do About It)
We’re naturally wired to set horrible goals. We usually think in terms of results, outcomes, and what we want to get at the end. For example:
- $100k in my bank account by the end of the year
- Lose 20 pounds in the next 90 days
- Find my soulmate this year
These are the types of goals that I see my clients set all the time. And yes, they are specific, measurable, time-bound, etc. All in all, they seem to be very reasonable goals to set on a first glance.
Yet the vast majority fail miserably. Just look at the success rate of new year resolutions. Why?
While these really are the results that we want in the end, we’re not in control of those results. We can’t influence the results directly, only through indirect action.
E.g. we can’t directly create a $100k in cash. We can’t directly manifest our soulmate and make them fall in love with us. We can’t directly remove the fat from our body (yes there are shortcuts, but I’m talking about the long-term sustainable results here, not liposuction or get rich quick schemes.)
So, if setting goals that are end results doesn’t work, what does?
Action Oriented Goals
What does work is to set goals that we are directly in control of? Goals that will likely lead to the end result that we want (lose 20 pounds), but we’re able to achieve them with direct action. For example:
- Instead of “$100k in my bank account” make it “invest 90 minutes every morning working on my side business”
- Instead of “lose 20 pounds” make it “cut out all processed sugars out of my diet in the next 90 days”
- Instead of “find my soulmate” make it “go out and meet 10 potential partners every month”
So now, instead of hoping that the universe will bring you that end result, you can start working on it directly.
Measuring the Progress
Once you start setting action-oriented goals that you’re directly in control of then measuring how you’re doing makes much more sense.
Using any habit/goal tracker (or a simple spreadsheet) you can track your daily and weekly actions. You can see if you’re doing better or worse with your task. You can see where your strong points are and where you need more work.
Compare that to measuring just the end goal, e.g. the money. You can measure the increase or decrease of money in your bank account month to month, but so what? You don’t directly control how much people pay you.
Since we don’t control the end result, we can only make an educated guess as to what is going to produce it. Even if we achieve the action-oriented goal a 100% (we completely change our diet for example) we still don’t have any guarantee that it will result in weight loss.
That’s why we have to constantly track our actions and see if they lead us to the end result. We have to calibrate our approach and strategy until we figure out what type of actions lead to what we want in the end.
- If that type of business doesn’t generate the money you want, change your approach. Try something else.
- If reducing the processed sugar doesn’t help to lose fat, try a different diet or exercise.
- If the people you meet are far away from what you’re looking for in a partner, change your environment or approach.
Testing and trying different strategies is what learning is all about. Only after getting the feedback we can learn what works and what doesn’t. Until then, it’s just a guess.
Using this approach, it’s just a matter of time until you find what types of action and strategy lead you to the end result. You just have to keep calibrating, keep cutting what doesn’t work and do more of what does.
For easy outcomes, like learn how to ride a bike, one or two action-oriented goals might be enough — e.g. practice riding the bike for 30 minutes every day.
But for more complicated long-term results, we need to orchestrate many different changes and actions to produce the result. Planning all these actions is your strategy to get to the end goal.
Let’s take the fat loss goal for example and create an example strategy.
Knowing about measuring and calibration, we can predict that the first thing that we try is probably not going to work. That’s why we need to plan for failure and create a strategy with a few action-oriented goals to test, in order to increase our chances to get to the end result.
Another helpful thing when creating your strategy is to plan different “paths” to your end result and separate them into different groups. For fat loss, two example paths are Diet Change and Exercise.
- Cut all processed carbs (table sugar, pasta, flour)
- Stop drinking soda
- Go vegan for 30 days
- 30 minutes of cardio every day
- Strength training 4 days/week
- CrossFit session 3 days/week
See how all the goals here are action oriented? You can control all of them directly. Of course, those are just different options, you don’t have to try them all at once, in fact, it’s better not to.
If you try it all simultaneously, first it’s going to be very difficult to make that huge change. Second, even if it works, you don’t know which actions produced the desired results because there are so many variables. If you pick one and try it for 30 days though, you have only one variable and you can be sure that it’s working or not.
So to sum it all up in 3 simple steps:
- Set goals that are action-oriented and will likely produce the end result that you want.
- Track your actions every day and see how well you’re doing with the goal that you set.
- If you’re doing well with your actions but it’s not producing the end result that you want, change your approach and calibrate.