Why we fail to reach personal goals
And, Three Things we can do to Fix it
Joseph Rupp, Sugar High Motivation
A relatively infamous study that appeared in multiple publications cited miserable results on our collective ability to hit our New Year’s Goals. Here’s the mind boggling headline: 92% of people who set New Year’s goals failed to reach them? Inc. magazine reported that statistic and the related research in an article written and published here. Its an incredible reference point.
I also find it interesting that when you look more broadly at a different context like company performance tied to large scale organizational change, the results are nearly as dramatic. I get the situations are different, but the purpose of the research is the same — to uncover some of the common failure points in achieving change. Here’s the headline: 70% of organizational change efforts fail?
We are talking big change efforts within companies with lots of brilliant people, resources and experience. Now, that is an oft quoted statistic from change management guru and Harvard Professor, John Kotter — cited from his book the Heart of Change — originally published in 2002. Although that data is focused on large organizations and I have seen some data that disputes the findings, some of the same principles that apply in large companies, apply to individual change efforts. It’s just a matter of scale and complexity.
One more interesting observation from a review of different material focused on this question. Most people start out on their goal efforts squarely focused on the outcome. Visions of being healthier, richer and happier in relationships dominate our mindset. Those categories around health, wealth and relationships are the big three broad categories we pursue and its important to acknowledge them.
To make a fine point: the visions of looking awesome on Instagram amidst a pristine beach in Costa Rica or driving a Porsche 911 you purchased with cash up Pacific Coast Highway or enjoying truly meaningful moments with your significant other as you nestle by the fire fuels our initial drive.
But as we get into the process of change, the shift focuses to the effort required to make the change and that shift can spell doom for change efforts. Check out the article here by David DiSalvo which appeared in Forbes Magazine.
If you start surfing the web for reasons change efforts fail, you will find an array of reasons. In fact, one site listed over forty reasons why people fail. Most listed 8–10 common traps.
What does all this mean? Bottom line: it means that change efforts are difficult. They are especially difficult when you are trying to accomplish something you have never really attempted before — because not only do you need the motivation — the sugar high of inspiration you get from the vision in your head of the outcome you desire — you need the knowledge, skill, ability and determination to get through the process.
You may need other things too, like support, deep awareness, a plan and most importantly: A Why! A purpose. And not just a superficial purpose, a deeper purpose that will get you through the exit points in your journey.
Let me outline a list of what I believe are the seven common areas where people get stuck. Next, I’ll comment on three of them in more detail.
Here are seven areas where people get stuck:
1. Your goal is not well defined
2. You are not committed
3. You do not have the skills
4. You lack the will or determination
5. You have no compelling vision
6. You have no plan
7. You have no plan after you reach your goal. You do not know how to sustain it.
After my friends each handed me a one-hundred-dollar bill, I headed for the cafeteria to indulge what I had abstained from for nearly six months: sugar. The irony of this example is that we designed the bet to build new habits which would last a lifetime. My first act really tested my resolve to keep the habits. The good news is that I learned so much over the six months of the bet, I was able to largely maintain the change.
I mention all of this because I have decades worth of experience working with individuals and teams to meet their goals inside of organizations that were focused every week, every month, every quarter and every year to meet well defined goals. We enjoyed some tremendous success, we also learned from some significant failures — and, that learning was invaluable!
Now, let’s explore three of the reasons I just outlined in a little more detail.
Your goal is not well defined. This one sounds easy, right? Your statements, I want to lose weight, make more money, nurture a better relationship form excellent intentions. Intentions are good, they are important. But they are not well-defined goals.
A well-defined goal establishes a clear target to reach. So, in the simple example of losing weight, be specific. I have lived this example many times. I wanted to lose 20 or 25 pounds at different points in time. When you have a specific number, you now have a target, and you can MEASURE IT. If you cannot measure your goal, not only don’t you have a well-defined goal, but you also really don’t have a goal. I know this statement is an incredible cliché. Still, I will repeat it for emphasis: If you cannot measure your goal, it’s really not a goal. It’s a wish. It’s a hope.
The larger point about having a well defined goal is not only tied to measurement. Once you can measure it, you can form a strategy around how to get to the number.
Commitment. A legend lives on about Spanish Conquistador Hernando Cortez burning his ships as he arrived on the Yucatan in the year 1519 in order to ensure that his men had no recourse but to continue their mission to find Aztec treasure. There is a dispute about whether this is even true. For our purposes: it does not matter! It’s a compelling story about commitment.
I have often used the phrase with my teams, “burn your boats” to emphasize giving yourself no other road but the road you intend to follow.
One of my favorite quotes comes from Lewis Carroll and his novel Alice in Wonderland: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” You must know the road you are on!
Now, by the way, you will often hear business people talk about having back up plans. Believe me, it’s a good thing to have back up plans as part of your tactics following a specific strategy in case one approach fails. However, sometimes, a backup plan is a crutch! Depending on the focus of you goal, get rid of your back up plan.
Commitment means you will not only get through the difficult parts of your goal, but you will also bring determination, focus and resilience to the process. Sometimes you need to ensure that you cannot fall back into familiar patterns.
A familiar story many have undoubtedly experienced themselves. When I was in my early twenties a mentor of mine told me something I will never forget. He told me that he had seen extraordinarily successful people in his lifetime. Intelligence and advantage rarely made the difference in reaching their success. Do not get me wrong: intelligence and brilliance and having resources are great things. But what really made the difference came down to one factor: Commitment.
Sometimes even naïve commitment fueled success. He highlighted people that would not fully comprehend how impossible or daunting the challenge in front of them was. His point: no matter how you come by it, your commitment — your steely determination and focus on making it happen no matter what — is going to make the difference in whether or not you succeed.
That does not mean you will experience moments when you want to quit or take a pause — it means you understand how to get through those moments and continue on despite the urge to quit!
Vision. Tony Robbins has a ton of incredible quotes. One of my favorites is:
“People are not lazy. They simply have impotent goals — that is, goals that do not inspire them.”
What he says can be applied to the vision of your goal. Your vision tied to your goal may not be inspiring enough. I can share with you that findings from modern research show your brain really responds to big goals — grand goals.
So, not only do you need an inspiring vision of what you want, you need to have a vision period. What is it exactly that you want to have? Have you taken the time to really sketch out in the landscape of your mind what it looks like? Have you made that vision your NorthStar or Touchstone?
In my program, we look critically at the three elements we just talked about. We cover other areas, but these three categories form a powerful trio of opportunities to improve your change efforts. I’ll recap:
1. Is your goal well defined? Can you measure your progress?
2. Are you committed to achieving it. I mean, not just that you have made the decision, but you made the commitment to it — an unwavering focus that helps you get through the more difficult times?
3. Do you have a compelling vision of what that goal is and equally important, what it means for you?
I really focus on process — a predictable, repeatable process — that forms a journey you take to realize your destination. When you take a step back, I like to think about the whole process as an interconnected series of steps that form a journey.
Fill the journey with a series of points along the way that support finishing it. You will absolutely experience exit points — places where you are likely to abandon your journey. Its natural. For that reason, its especially important to acknowledge that likelihood and plan for it.
Remember the old saying: it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey? When you see your goal efforts in that light, you create a big picture view that supports you.
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