Why Goals Don’t Work and What to Do Instead

Highway with words Good Habits
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I am cautious about asking my clients to set goals because most goals don’t work. Even if your goal is smart (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound), your brain finds a way to sabotage your best laid plans. Goals don’t work because people don’t create the mental habits that supports the desired change. Articulate the goal you want to achieve and then take the steps below to create the mental habits that will realize the change you want to make.

Humans are creatures of habit. Nearly half of what you do is repeated behavior 1

No matter how invested you are in your goals, taking consistent action to change your habits is difficult. There is safety going back to old thinking and behaviors. You must take deliberate, consistent actions repeatedly over time to defy your brain if you want to achieve the results you desire.

People like change, they just forget they do

Your desire to create different outcomes is not enough to sustain change.2 To create new habits of behavior, your brain needs daily evidence that your goal is achievable and worth the effort. Without evidence, your brain will fabricate rationalizations for not changing, and give you reasons for decreasing the value of the goal. You are better at rationalizing why you can’t achieve your goal today than you are at setting whatever you are doing aside to meet your commitment.

Change is a continuum, not an event

Your brain’s primary function is to protect you from harm and discomfort. You must convince your brain that you will not only be safe if you change, you will be better off.

To convince your brain, you need visual reminders that there is a feel-good payoff for the change you want to make. Why did you set the goal? You won’t sustain behaviors based on what you should do. You have to want the end result badly enough to keep at, and then remind yourself regularly that you are working toward this significant end result. Why do you want to regularly exercise – because you should or because you want to be more active with your children? Maybe you want to inspire others by how you look at your age. Or you love how much more energy you have to get things done. You must find an outcome that you badly want in order to create habitual behavior.

Then every day, recognize every time your remembered and tried to meet your commitment. At the end of each day, don’t focus on what you didn’t do. Acknowledge yourself for what you did do, even if the action was small. You have to show your brain that you will succeed, little by little over time.

Chunk your goals into small steps

First, make sure you define specific activities you can celebrate. Chunk your goal into small behaviors that will move you forward to achieving your goal one step at a time. For example, if you are trying to improve your relationships by being a better listener, you might start with the practice of releasing a full breath before you respond to a question. Notice when you do this until the pause becomes a habit. Follow-on steps you might do one at a might include 1) noticing and shifting your emotions to feeling curious after your breath, 2) making sure you have fully stopped thinking about something else to be present with people you talk to, and 3) seeking to understand more clearly what people need before you respond.

You can spend as many days as you like on each step until you see consistent progress. Keep reminding your brain each day you can succeed so it will support you instead of protecting you.

Write about your victories in your journal. Talk about them with others who support your growth. Send congratulations notes to yourself.

Don’t be impatient. You are making shifts in your well-established routines. Don’t expect overnight changes and perfectly adhering to your plan.

Piece-by-piece, you will shift your mind and behavior. You create new habits. Eventually, you become the person you vision yourself to be.

Talking with others keeps your brain on track

Asking for support and assistance can make you feel vulnerable, yet social support is important to help you override the emotions that can trigger your brain to give up your plans.

Just sharing your desires with others will strengthen your commitment. Research has debunked the old belief that it takes 21 days to create a habit. Making a new behavior automatic can take 18 to 254 days, with 2 months being the average.3 During that time, ongoing dialogue with a coach, mentor, or a trusted friend can:

  • Remind you of your overarching desires when you question your choices.
  • Call on your strengths when you question a goal’s achievability.
  • Celebrate wins with you, no matter how small, as significant steps in your journey.
  • Mine the learning from each lapse so all actions are seen as valuable instead of setbacks.

Your brain needs reminders and applause to rewire new habits

In summary, to override the reality that goals don’t work, the 3 keys to transforming your choices into a long-lasting habits are:

  1. Use pictures and notes to visually remind yourself of what you want to create.
  2. Plan small shifts in behavior so you can see early and consistent evidence that you can be successful.
  3. Document the evidence of each positive step when you journal and dialogue about your progress.

Look for more tips for rewiring your brain in my book, Outsmart You Brain.

References for why goals don’t work and what to do instead

[1] Neal, D.T., Wood, W., and Quinn, J.M. (2006) Habits—A repeat performance. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 15, 198-202.

[2] Nowack, K. (2017) Facilitating successful behavioral change: Beyond goal setting to goal flourishing. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, Vol 69, No. 3, 153-171.

[3] Lally, P., Van Jaarsveld, C., Potts, H., & Wardle, J. (2010) How habits are formed: Modeling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 1009, 998-1009.

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8 thoughts on “Why Goals Don’t Work and What to Do Instead”

  1. Brilliant, as always. I set a goal and every month, I record how I did. I make notations in my calendar. I even give myself a sticker when I exercise. Yep–even adults get to play with stickers. Thanks, Marcia for reminding me the importance of keeping track.

  2. Love this article. I used to think its terrible not to achieve goals until I found new ways that works for me. I work with big picture aspiration, and create what that would look like (more visual) before I break it down into SMART goals that are in small chunks. Many of what you highlighted here really works from my own experience. Thank you for outlining it so clearly here.

  3. Marina Alekseeva

    Right to the point, Marcia! Many times we want a change, but we do not want to change. No matter how inspiring and exciting our long term goals are, if we do not internalize that the road to get there will be hard and that we need to find a way to enjoy the journey every step of the way – we are very likely to get off track. Thank you for your great advise!

  4. This was very helpful and a great reminder. I journal a lot but never thought to use stickers. It would be like having a vision book instead of a vision board ?

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