It’s become a yearly ritual for many: Set ambitious goals for the New Year, tackle them enthusiastically for a few weeks, and then give up on them completely by March.
This is a vicious cycle that encourages you to feel bad about yourself, and feel as though you’ll never get out of your rut.
Whether you are setting goals for your finances, or whether you are attempting to substantially improve your life, the yearly attempt (and subsequent failure) associated with resolutions can be frustrating.
If you’re ready to break the cycle, it helps to understand why you fail, and what you can do to create success in your life.
Here are 5 Reasons Goals Fail — and What You Can Do to Overcome the Pitfalls of Resolution-Setting and Succeed This Year:
1. Your Goal Ignores Reality
Too often, we have high-flown ideas of what we can become with just the right goal.
Unfortunately, this often leads to setting unrealistic goals.
While it would be great to pay off $35,000 in debt this year, the reality is that you aren’t likely to accomplish that goal if you make $40,000 a year. You’re going to need to make major sacrifices in terms of what you spend on, and you’re going to have to come up with ways to make more money.
The same is true of losing weight, going back to school, or any number of goals that you might set.
Your goals need to be grounded in the reality of where you are right now and what you can reasonably hope to accomplish by the end of the year. Honestly evaluate the situation, and figure out what you can actually do. You can still set stretch goals that require you to push yourself a little bit, but you still need to be realistic.
Your resolutions need to be achievable.
Without achievable goals, you eventually give up when you realize the futility of your efforts. You don’t want that to happen, so create realistic goals, and set realistic benchmarks that you can use to measure progress throughout the year. You’ll be more likely to stay motivated to reach your goal.
2. Your Goal Focuses on a Process, Rather than a Result
In the past, my fitness goals have included things like, “swim for 30 minutes three times a week” or “kickbox for 20 minutes a day.” While those are specific goals that are, in fact, achievable, they focus on a process instead of a result.
What if I don’t feel like kickboxing today? What if my son is sick and I have to stay home instead of driving to the pool?
It’s easy to be defeated by the process, whether I stop swimming after 15 minutes, I only go twice a week, or I don’t go at all. The same is true of money goals or any other goals.
If you focus too much on some sort of process that you have to complete to be successful, you are less likely to follow through with your resolution for a sustained period of time.
Instead of focusing on the process, focus on the end result.
What result are you trying to achieve? Maybe I want to reduce my waist size by three inches or lose 10 pounds. That result doesn’t rely on a specific process. Maybe I change my eating habits so that I have less junk food in my diet. Or, instead of getting hung up on whether or not I made it to the pool, I ride the stationary bike if I can’t get out of the house.
When you focus on a result, and what it takes to achieved that desired objective, you are more likely to stick with your resolutions. You can substitute different actions and behaviors that can offer the same result over time.
This works with money, as well.
Instead of saying that you want to put $458.33 each month into your retirement account, you can say that you want to be in a position to max out your IRA by the end of the year. This doesn’t require that you put $458.33 each month without fail from the beginning; it means that you build up to that over the course of the year. At the end of the year, you’ll have a result: You’ll be set up to max out your IRA. However, you do this by making gradual changes, either spending less or earning more (or doing both) and gradually increasing what you set aside.
Focus on the end result, and break it down so that you are looking at the big picture, rather fretting about the process.
3. Your Goals are Too Vague
One of the main pieces of advice that goal-setting gurus offer is that you should be specific.
If your goal is to “get healthy” or “save money,” chances are that you are going to fail at some point.
What, specifically, would make you healthier? Do you want to bring your cholesterol down to a certain (realistic) level? Would you like to increase your lean muscle mass by a specific amount? What are you saving money for? Do you want to save up $5,000 for a family vacation? Are you planning to save up $15,000 for a down payment on a house?
Really think about what you want to accomplish with your goals. Be specific.
Without some sort of specific goal, you have no way of knowing how much progress you have made, or how to tell when you’ve accomplished your objective. Don’t forget, though, that you do want to keep the overall result in mind. If you haven’t quite reached the exact and specific goal you have set, but you are still in line with the general result you want by the end of the year, that’s still a win. You can keep working on it moving forward.
Set realistically specific goals, and make sure to break your goals down into smaller, bite-sized chunks that can be digested by you as you move forward. That way, you can measure your progress along the way and stay excited about what you’ve achieved. Being able to see your progress can create good feelings that encourage you to do even more to reach your goals in the future.
4. You Get Hung Up on Time Limits for Your Goals
One of the big reasons that your New Year’s resolutions are likely to fail is that you get too hung up on time limits.
While a brand new year is a great time for reflection, and a good time to set goals, the reality is that you don’t have to limit yourself to a year to reach your goals. The idea behind setting goals is to make a true improvement in your life, not create some mad dash to a finish line.
If you get hung up on time limits for the accomplishment of your goals, you are more likely to make sweeping changes that last for only a short time before you revert.
In order for goals to truly improve your life, you have to be able to assimilate them into your lifestyle. Even if your goal is to run a half-marathon in a certain period of time, the reality is that, as you work toward achieving that goal, you make changes in your life that are likely to “stick,” as long as you approach it as a long-term journey, rather than something you have to accomplish by a certain date.
Once you achieve a goal like that, you can tweak it for the next goal.
Your goal-setting should be more about improving your life so that you create long-term habits, rather than encouraging you to do something and then stop once the goal is reached. Don’t get hung up on having something done by the end of the year. Instead, focus on the result, and work toward it consistently. It might take you two years to save up your desired down payment for a home, but that’s ok.
And, once you do reach your specific goal, make sure you have another goal to replace it with and take advantage of the good habits you have been building up.
Once you have enough for a down payment, you can set a new goal to build up your emergency fund, contribute to a retirement account, or set up a college fund for your children.
The idea is to keep improving, so you want to build on your successes for the next big goal.
5. You Set Too Many Goals
One of the biggest reasons that you fail at your goals is that you set too many.
Just as you aren’t likely to see solid results from multi-tasking, you are unlikely to see the results you want if you set too many goals at once.
This ties into number four. Instead of setting a whole bunch of goals, pick one or two major goals to be working toward at a time. Once you have achieved one of your goals, have something else to be working toward. You should be focusing on bigger goals that can be broken down into manageable and measurable steps. That way, you are actually improving your life and creating habits that result in long-term life success and satisfaction.
Don’t overwhelm yourself with all of the things you should be doing.
Instead, think of the most important one or two things you want to accomplish first, and then create plans to tackle those items. Then, move on to a new goal. Don’t limit yourself by time, either. If you finish a goal in August, start working on a new goal — even though it isn’t a new year. View it as a journey, and you’ll be more likely to make steady progress.
Here’s what Leo Babauta, author of the popular blog zenhabits.net says about forming one habit at a time:
Habit change is difficult, even with just one habit. If you do more than one habit at a time, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Keep it simple, allow yourself to focus, and give yourself the best chance for success. Btw, this is why New Year’s resolutions often fail — people try to tackle more than one change at a time.
Other Tips for Succeeding with Your Goals
As you work on overcoming the stumbling blocks often associated with goal setting, there are a few other tips to keep in mind. Staying motivated can be difficult, even if you can see the positive changes and progress that you are making in your life.
Here are some other strategies you can employ to help you succeed at your goals:
- Make it public: Sharing your goal with others can create an incentive to succeed. It adds a layer of accountability to your efforts. Even if you just share it with two or three people who can be your “accountability buddies” and check up on you from time to time, the fact that you know that others are watching to see your progress can keep you motivated.
- Join a group: It can help to join a community with similar goals. You can receive support and encouragement from those who are taking the journey with you. It can also be a good way to get insight into tricks and tips that can help you with your specific goal. Having that support system can keep you motivated, even during the toughest of times.
- Put your money where your mouth is: Make a bet. Studies conducted by the founders of the goal-setting web site Stickk.com found that when money is on the line, people were more likely to stick with their goals. If you have a financial consequence associated with your failure, you are more likely to succeed, if just to avoid the financial hit you’ll take. Of course, this is counterproductive if you can’t afford the consequence. It should be something that’s painful, but not devastating to you.
- Work with someone: This is similar to making it public and joining a group. Find a buddy who has the same goal as you. This works especially well if you have a significant other or a family. You can all work together, encouraging each other. And when you reach your joint goal, you can all celebrate together. Any journey is more fun and fulfilling when you have others to come with you, and celebrate with you.
Glen’s note on Goals: One thing I find critical in setting successful goals is to make doing the goal as easy as possible. Back in 2007 I set a goal to run the NYC Marathon. As part of my training I had to do one long run every week. This meant waking up early on the weekends to get my run in. There was no way I was going to wake up early and start bumbling around getting ready to run. I had to have a plan before-hand or I’d be lazy and not go. So by Friday afternoon every week I made sure to map out my miles for my long run. I’d chart a course to make sure I’d get the required distance in. This gave me a specific direction for my runs and it eliminated the decision of where to run when I woke up. To further help me in my groggy morning state I also made sure to have my running clothes set aside as well as my water bottle(s) for the run. This way I could wake up, get ready, and get out of the house. If I left myself with too much thinking and preparation in the morning I KNOW I would have gotten too lazy to head out.
We can make financial goals easier too.
Tools like Quicken can help you plan out goals and track them. Setting up automatic savings and investing takes the thought out of putting money away for your goals.
Know your tendencies and build plans into your goals to make sure you stay on top of your intentions.
Final Word On Making Your Goals Succeed
There’s no reason to let goal-setting get you down. Change the way you approach your resolutions, and there is a good chance that you will see more success this year — and in the years to come.
Where have you failed at goals? Where have you succeeded? Share your stories in the comments!
Bonus to help you with your goals and habits: Here’s Google’s Matt Cutts talking about trying new things for 30 days.
And here’s Jerry Seinfeld’s “Don’t break the chain” motivation and productivity technique (via Lifehacker): Jerry Seinfeld’s Productivity Secret
Poor Student says
I would also say that it has something to do with focusing too much on the result, rather than the process, too. You have to know how to get there.
Glen Craig says
True, but I think a lot of times we get stuck thinking we need some elaborate preparation before we can get started. Like you don’t need an expensive gym to start on your fitness. You don’t need a quill and ink and artisan parchment to start writing (just examples). You don’t need a fancy app to get going.
And then you can end up punishing yourself if you didn’t do what was exactly in your plan. Focusing on the result let’s you tailor your goal as you need to.
Rebecca @ Stapler Confessions says
I agree that you need to set a goal to be achieved by your resolution. It’s great to be able to celebrate when you’ve achieved the actual goal.
Glen Craig says
Completing a goal, even seeing a goal take action, feels awesome!
Mike Goodman says
Well said. Goals that are unrealistic are just a waste of effort and time. You should know yourself, what you are capable of, your limitations and your present situation before making any goals.
I bookmarked this page so I can refer back to it. I had a goal to not overspend for the Christmas holiday, but I did anyways and now I’m broke with no savings and I’m beating myself up over it. Starting next paycheck, my goal is going to put $25 away for the holidays, so I’m using a separate fund for gifts. The bills are now due and I have to play catch up. Thanks for your articles, I enjoy them all!