What Gets in the Way of Goals

September 3, 2020

Successfully accomplishing goals feels amazing—a feeling we want to replicate again and again. However, a failure can be overwhelmingly painful and dissuade future progress. So how can we be more likely to meet and exceed our goals? Put another way, what gets in the way of successful approximations of goal oriented behavior?

1. Not setting a realistic, observable, and measurable goal.

Goals need to be behaviorally specific. Far too often people will set an inchoate goal that is inherently unachievable. For example, “I want to get in shape,” is not behaviorally specific. What does “in shape” even mean? What will progress toward your end product look like? How long do you anticipate it taking? Why is this important? Particularly when working toward a goal that requires prolonged persistence, meeting milestones can be profoundly reinforcing. In addition, it is impossible to reach milestones if the goal lacks specificity. Even more importantly, setting an undefined goal can easily lead to frustration and even dissuade future goal oriented behavior. Using the above example, someone could stop going to the gym after a month because they’re not ‘in shape’ yet. A better goal would be, “I want to be able to run a 5k in under 30 minutes by XYZ race.” This goal is great; however, I have yet to mention how important setting a realistic goal is. Let’s assume that this person currently runs a 5k in one hour (probably mostly walking), and the race is next week. While the optimism is admirable, the likelihood of failure will inevitably lead to frustration, which will punish future goal setting behavior. The take home message is to set a realistic goal that you can quantify through observable approximations of success.

2. Lack of willingness.

So let’s assume for the moment that you’ve set a realistic and behaviorally specific goal. Do you even want to work toward this goal? In other words, are you even planning on following through with it? Willingness is rooted in our value system, which requires understanding what drives our behaviors. Throughout most of our life, we are often confronted with choices in which engaging in a behavior will lead to short term positive outcomes, but long term negative consequences. For example, staying out late drinking with friends, watching one more episode, or eating those donuts. In order to resist the temptation to eat an extra donut or watch Netflix until 2am, it can be incredibly powerful to take a moment to think about your goals and how your goals line up with your values. Using the 5k example from above, if it is in your values to be a healthy person, you may have to remind yourself of that value consistently if you are going to get yourself motivated to run. Again, all of this is contingent on understanding your values, and making sure your goals line up with your values.

3. Procrastination.

I’m going to be perfectly honest; I waited until the very last moment to write this blog post. So many other things kept coming up: distractions, ‘more important things,’ being overwhelmed, etc. For the most part, procrastination functions to reduce acute distress elicited by thinking about working on whatever we’re avoiding. What does that mean? The thought of working on this blog post stressed me out, so I avoided it, and that avoidance temporarily reduced my distress. The only problem was that I had this thing I needed to do hanging over my head. Unless you’re some sort of super human, you’re probably familiar with this phenomenon. Individuals are particularly vulnerable to procrastination when the goal is unclear and/or immeasurable, and willingness is low. Using this blog post as an example, in order to get myself to do it, I scheduled an appropriate amount of time to work on it (made myself accountable), hid my phone (reduced distraction), started by outlining what I wanted to write (reduced amount of choice points), and most importantly, did it (yep).  When I noticed an urge to avoid, I considered that an opportunity to understand what I was avoiding and worked toward understanding how to be more efficient and effective. Key to this aspect was my ability to notice my urge to avoid, as opposed to simply acting on the urge. The practice of mindfulness enables us to space out the response from the stimulus. Mindfulness is in essence, paying attention to the present moment, on purpose, without judgment. It is one of those activities that’s “simple to learn, but takes a lifetime to master.” There are several apps on the market (like Headspace) and treatments (like Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) that help facilitate your control over your urges. If you can increase the specificity of your goals, increase your willingness, increase control of your mind (through mindfulness), and decrease your distractions, the likelihood of procrastination goes way down.

4. Emotions get in the way.

Emotions can be powerful communicators of valuable information about our values and/or the environment; however, they can also get in the way. Anxiety, for example, communicates that there is some future event we need to prepare for. If we didn’t have the emotion of anxiety, no one would ever finish college. However, too much anxiety can be crippling. The key here is to a) figure out what emotion(s) you’re experiencing, b) figure out what they are communicating to you, and c) either change your environment to change your emotion, or change yourself to change your emotion. The magical question to ask yourself is: all things being equal, what needs to change for you to feel better? Again, whatever needs changing needs to be behaviorally specific so you can measure the outcome. However, if you are truly overwhelmed by emotions, you may be physiologically blocked from engaging in any goal directed behavior. At a certain point, the sympathetic nervous system (i.e. the fight or flight reflex) will be activated, which reallocates resources from your frontal lobe to large muscle groups—you simply cannot think. The good news is there are a number of relaxation techniques that are designed specifically to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which will enable you to effectively problem solve. The key here is to catch your emotions early on so you do not become overwhelmed. However, catching them early requires being mindful to your emotions—rather than ignoring them.

5. Letting failures define you

All the advice I had given up to this point is to help you avoid failure; however, failure happens.  The ability to bounce back from the inevitability of failure can differentiate accomplishment from disappointment. How does one effectively bounce back from setbacks? (1) Validation: acknowledge the difficulty of what you are trying to accomplish and cut yourself some slack, (2) acceptance: one cannot possibly learn from what happened unless s/he accepts it, (3) reorientation: take a moment to remember your values and goals, and (4) problem solve: get back to work! Nonetheless, like all new habits, with practice, bouncing back from setbacks is incredibly difficult, but becomes second nature with practice. Nothing gives your ample opportunity to practice these new behaviors like embarking on a difficult goal-oriented journey.  

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