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Goal setting: 5 reasons your past goals have failed

a successful goal setting involves various elements

There’s already plenty of goal-setting advice out there. But if you’re reading this, it’s likely that none of that has worked for you.

You know what you want, but for some reason, you feel blocked from obtaining it. You’ve tried writing down your goals, finding accountability partners and setting big, ambitious New Year’s Resolutions—all to no avail.

That’s okay. It’s likely that you, like many of us, have a blind spot when it comes to which of the five key elements for achieving goals you’re missing.

But before we outline what those elements are, let’s go over what goal setting is, the different types of goals and how you can boost your chances for success.

Table of contents
What is goal setting?
What does goal setting theory say?
The different types of goals
What are OKRs?
What about SMART goals?
The 5 reasons you're failing at goal setting
4 key steps of successful goal setting
Become a goal-setting go-getter

What is goal setting?

Goal setting is the process of:

  • Defining what you want
  • Determining how you’ll achieve it
  • Committing to carrying it out

Much of what we know about goal setting is based on Edwin Locke's goal setting theory and his research, which we will discuss throughout this article.

What does goal setting theory say?

Goal setting theory posits two main points about goals. Through his research, psychologist Edwin Locke determined that in order to inspire the highest effort, goals must be:

  1. Specific - A more detailed goal is better than a vague one. For example, “I want to go on a two-hour hike every Saturday morning” is better than “I want to get outside more.”
  2. Challenging - If a goal is too easy, you won’t feel motivated to achieve it. But if a goal is too difficult, you’ll lose motivation too. Locke found that you need to strike the right balance. You need to set a goal that’s challenging enough to inspire you, but not so challenging that you deem it impossible. For example, if you’re a hobby runner, you’ve probably run many 5Ks. Setting a goal of running another 5K (3.1 miles) probably won’t inspire you much. But setting a goal of running an ultra marathon (100 miles) will likely intimidate you too much to attempt it. However, if you set a goal of running a half marathon (13.1 miles), that distance stretches you beyond anything you’ve done before without being so difficult that you feel demotivated.

The different types of goals

Not all goals are the same. There are different kinds that might serve you better in different situations.

Outcome goal

An outcome goal is probably the most common one that comes to mind: It is a goal in which we commit to a desired result.  An outcome goal focuses on the end, not the means.

Examples of an outcome goal include:

  • Achieving a 3.9 GPA
  • Coming in first place in a half marathon
  • Getting promoted to Director of Marketing
  • Winning a short story contest

The problem with this kind of goal is that it focuses on something you can’t control. You can’t control if you get a promotion because your superiors decide that. You can’t control if you win a writing contest because you don’t know who you’re up against, and the judges determine who wins.

Process goal

A process goal is one in which you commit to carrying out a set of steps to achieve a result. A process goal focuses on the means, not the end.

Examples of a process goal include:

  • Studying for one hour every day
  • Training for a half-marathon four days a week
  • Applying for a promotion
  • Writing a short story and getting it critiqued by an editor before submitting it to a contest

The good thing about a process goal is that it focuses on what you can control.

What are OKRs?

OKRs are one method of goal setting popularized by Google. They stand for “objectives and key results.” An objective is a goal, and a key result is how you will measure progress toward that goal.

Here’s a little bit of information on how Google uses OKRs, as explained on re:Work:

  • You shouldn’t have more than three to five objectives at a time. Any more than that, and you’re probably biting off more than you can chew.
  • Keep it at around three key results per objective.
  • Key results are graded on a scale of 0-1.0.
  • The ideal grade for an OKR is 60-70%. The reason is that if someone frequently reaches 100% of their objectives, they aren't setting ambitious enough goals.

While OKRs are commonly used in workplace settings, you could certainly apply them to personal goals as well.

What about SMART goals?

You've probably heard the term “SMART goals” before. It’s an acronym for an effective goal-setting method developed by George Doran, former president of a consultancy. In 1981, he published an article outlining his method for writing meaningful goals. In it, Doran notes that you don’t have to have every element mentioned in SMART; you just want as many as possible.

Over the years, many have modified the meaning of SMART and added more details to it, but in its original form as Doran suggested it, here is what it means:

  • Specific: What specific area do you want to improve? Recalling Locke's research, the more detail you can provide about the goal, the better.
  • Measurable: How will you measure progress on this goal? If you have an outcome goal, this will be aimed toward a specific end result. If you have a process goal, this will be aimed toward ensuring you take the necessary steps (regardless of outcome).
  • Assignable: Who is responsible for carrying out this goal?
  • Realistic: Given the resources at your disposal, what can you realistically expect to accomplish?
  • Time-related: When will you achieve the results? You can break this down into smaller goals and deadlines on the way to the bigger goal and deadline.

Setting SMART goals provides you with a framework that may increase your chance of obtaining your objectives.

The 5 reasons you're failing at goal setting

If you've followed all the goal-setting advice out there, but you still fail to achieve your goals, you are likely missing one (or more) of the following.

1. Self-efficacy

The American Psychological Association defines self-efficacy as “an individual’s subjective perception of his or her capability to perform in a given setting or to attain desired results."

Based on research by Edwin Locke and colleagues and published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, self-efficacy plays a big role in your performance toward a goal. In fact, the study authors wrote, “the most unexpected finding of this study was the very powerful effect of self-efficacy.” So if you’re struggling to achieve a goal, it may be time to evaluate whether you truly believe you can do it.

2. Ability

We all have limitations. Having the self-awareness to realize when you lack the skills to achieve a goal will save you a ton of time and frustration. Your ability is tied to self-efficacy. But self-efficacy, remember, is one’s “subjective perception” of their ability. To get an objective opinion on your ability, ask for feedback from someone who knows the particular domain well or take assessments. For instance, if you have a goal to become a professional dancer, a dance instructor (not your mom or a friend) would be a great person to ask for an accurate assessment of your ability.

3. Commitment

Often, a lack of commitment occurs when a goal is pushed onto you by someone else (such as a manager) or when you feel pressured by external influences (such as society or your parents). These are all elements of extrinsic motivation, which means you're being motivated by outside factors. It may be time to develop your intrinsic motivation, meaning you're driven by internal factors, such as a deep sense of purpose or enjoyment.

Other times, your commitment decreases when you can’t see any progress toward your goal. It could be that you are making progress but just aren’t seeing it because you’re not tracking progress and appreciating how far you’ve come. Try keeping a journal, spreadsheet or chart that measures your progress in small milestones along the way. That way, you have proof that you are not where you were when you started.

If you find that you lack commitment to your goal, it's time to reassess whether you want to keep striving for the goal or not. You can either try to increase your commitment to it by revisiting your values or you can modify the goal or even scrap it altogether.

4. Feedback

Feedback is a necessary part of setting and achieving goals, so if you’re feeling stuck, this might be what’s missing. Because we all have blind spots, we all can benefit from having someone who will shine a light on those so we can improve.

For example, as a writer, I would never grow without an editor to tell me what I’m doing well and what I need to work on. If you need feedback on your goal progress but feel like you have no one to ask, consider coaching. A coach is an outside observer who is trained to spot areas for improvement and help you gain insights you couldn’t get on your own.

And if you’re looking for free coaching, look no further. With our Goal Catcher program, you get online personalized coaching through our AI-powered Coach Marlee app. She has a framework for helping you set and achieve goals-all based on more than 20 years of research!

5. Resources

And finally, if you’ve followed all the advice but still can’t seem to reach your goals, take stock of your resources. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to the necessary resources to get where they want to go. If you want to be a professional singer, for example, it helps if you have parents who have connections in the music industry and can afford to pay for your voice lessons from a young age. A child without access to those resources is less likely to achieve their pro singing dreams (though it can still happen!).

So if you’ve been slogging through the process of achieving a goal for a long time and haven’t gotten to it or made progress, take a step back. Look at what you’ve tried in the past and review the five items mentioned above. If you’re missing one of them, figure out if there are ways you can work around that. If not, consider adjusting your goal.

4 key steps of successful goal setting

1. Define your desired result.

Goal setting begins with that simple yet often difficult question: What do you want exactly? The answer may begin as nebulous, but through proper goal-setting tactics, you will shape it into something more distinct.

For instance, you might know that you want to grow more in your career as a business professional. That is vague and could lead you down all sorts of paths.

Remember the different types of goals we went over earlier? Decide which one you want this to be. If your goal is to simply enjoy the process or learn something new (regardless of outcome), set a process or learning goal. If your goal is to win or improve over your previous performances, set a performance goal. If your goal is a specific end result, set an outcome goal.

So professional growth could look like any of these goals:

  • Outcome goal: “Get my MBA.”
  • Learning goal: “Learn as much as I can about supply chain management.”
  • Performance goal: “Improve my department’s employee performance over last year’s employee performance.”

Next, be as specific as possible about what the objective will entail. And lastly, make sure it’s challenging enough to be exciting for you while still being an achievable goal.

2. Identify your “why.”

Significant life goals-like going back to school, switching careers, moving abroad, etc.-need a strong purpose. Knowing your “why” will help you power through the ups and downs that will inevitably follow anytime you’re setting out to achieve an ambitious dream.

So before you dive into the details of how you’ll accomplish what you want, ask yourself this: “Why?”

  • Why do you feel the need to achieve this goal?
  • How would you feel if you never achieved it?
  • What are the alternatives to this goal?

There are shallow reasons for achieving a goal, and then there are deeply meaningful ones. The latter are more likely to keep you going.

2. Identify the resources you'll need to achieve that result.

This is a crucial step in goal setting that many people, in their excitement, overlook. What resources will you need to achieve your objective? And do you have access to these resources?

For example, if you decide to obtain your MBA, you’ll likely need the following:

  • An undergraduate degree
  • Money to pay for tuition
  • Time and energy to attend classes
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Passing scores on the GMAT or GRE

And this is where you’ll need to be honest with yourself about whether it’s a realistic goal. If you’re working full time, for example, will you really have the time and energy to study for the GMAT and then attend MBA courses?

3. Set a deadline (actually, set multiple).

Picking a date for when you’ll reach your goal prevents you from drawing it out perpetually. If you decide on an outcome goal of obtaining your MBA within the next three years, you’ll likely have a higher commitment to that goal because of the time urgency. With a clear due date in mind, you’ll have more motivation. Plus, it helps with accountability: Your accountability partners will know when to check in with you.

In reality, though, you’ll likely have more than just one deadline. When you break your goal down into milestones and baby steps (highly recommended), that makes it more manageable to achieve. So even though you want to graduate from an MBA program in three years, you’ll have smaller deadlines like the due date for taking the GMAT, submitting the application and so forth.

4. Bring in relevant support.

It’s rare that anyone achieves a goal completely on their own. Having emotional support from friends and family and accountability from someone like a colleague or a coach can be the difference between success and failure.

But what happens if you can’t think of anyone who can support you as you tackle your objective? We’ve got you covered. In our Goal Catcher program, you can receive personalized coaching online at your own pace. This program will help you define your goal, create an action plan and track your progress. Best of all, Coach Marlee will regularly check in with you to help with accountability.

Become a goal-setting go-getter

Setting goals is critical to obtaining what you want in life. Without it, you’re merely daydreaming.

Achieving your objectives requires careful planning, sufficient ability and resources, commitment to the goal and constant feedback. If you find that you’re lacking in any of those areas, coaching can help you identify blind spots and create a plan for improvement. With that kind of outside perspective, you’ll be unstoppable.

Get better at goal setting with online personalized coaching. Sign up for our free Goal Catcher program.

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