Jan 9, 2021

Why Setting Goals Won’t Help You This Year

Why Setting Goals Won’t Help You This Year

Why Setting Goals Won’t Help You This Year

Nathan King

There comes a moment when you realize your life isn’t what you want it to be. You sense that it could become better. Setting goals come to mind to achieve personal growth, improve health, acquire treasures that you long for, or to go on fresh adventures.  

But, you probably won’t set goals. These noble and lofty thoughts will probably recede, crowded out by the pressures of daily life.

Even If you do, optimistically making time in your day to think through them, you will probably fail.

Alas, the odds are not in your favor. Here are the reasons why.

The Reasons You Won’t Set Goals 

Life can fill up so quickly that you never experience enough empty space to even consider setting a personal goal. Life hands you a sometimes dizzying array of situations that occupy your mind, ranging from the sense that you are putting out fires in your job throughout days and weeks, to responding to requests from friends and family for your time, to endless distraction from media and social media. You can get through a stretch of time (years?) without realizing that you didn’t even think intentionally about your life at all. Here are the most common reasons:

1.     You spend your time working on other people’s goals. Other people’s goals shape your daily actions, and you find enough reward in pursuing them that you never set your own goals. The most common context for this to occur is through your work. You can get caught up in goals from social organizations that you are a part of as well, like church or a non-profit that you are part of. Because you have these goals to participate in, you don’t really have to chart a course for yourself.

2.     There is plenty of time to set goals in the future. You will do big things, but right now you just need to clean the windows and then take your car in for an oil change. But just wait until the world sees what you have to offer. Author and business coach Tommy Newberry points out that this is a failure to take responsibility for your life.[1] Refusal to take responsibility also shows up as…

3.     Life is out of your control. It's really easy to justify this decision with so much that disrupts you. COVID, anyone? Newberry points out that external events with sway over people's lives leads them to conclude, "if things are out of their control, then why should they even bother trying to control them?"

4.     You don’t believe you deserve to have goals. This is the most tragic reason people don’t set goals. Often, this arises out of an early life experience in which a critical parent or authority figure pointed out a child’s flaws to the point that the child concluded, "I'm not a good person," which is the definition of shame. In such a situation shame first appears as an emotion, but then becomes embedded in how you think about your life, what you envision in the future, and fundamentally how you behave day to day.[2]

5.     You have a lack of clarity on what you should spend your time on. You aren't sure what the best thing to do would be. You don't want to waste time working towards something only to realize partway in that it is wrong, so you wait…and wait.

The Reasons You Will Fail at the Goals You Set

If you are able to overcome the deterrents to setting goals described above, you will sit down, give some thought to goal setting and articulate a few things that you really want to achieve in the new year. That’s the beginning of what will be a challenging road ahead. Here are the obstacles that will get your goals off track.

1.     You chose the wrong goals. This relates to lacking clarity on what the best way to spend your time will be. For any goal to be strong enough for you to stick with it, you have to pursue it relentlessly. When it gets hard and your phone notifies you of a new post on Facebook, you just go there instead and ignore working on your goal at all. It’s critical to understand WHY you are pursuing a goal. Most people choose not to. When I’ve gone down the path of working on a goal only to understand that it is not worth pursuing, often the reason is that I’ve discovered that I’m working on what I’ve seen someone else choose for themselves, and it isn’t relevant to what gives me meaning. In other words, it doesn’t fit with my purpose.

2.     The goals never became digestible. If the item above is a failure due to why you are working on a goal, this reason is because you don’t appropriately define HOW you will achieve a goal. Take the classic goal of “Lose 20 pounds this year.” There has to be a path made up of many steps in order to know that you are going to make the goal happen. What are you eating tomorrow? Where and when will you exercise this week? What is required today, tomorrow, this week, this month that moves me towards that goal? Not defining the steps of a goal makes it seem so daunting that it isn’t worth pursuing. There’s another way goals aren’t digestible: when you have too many. Every time you commit to something, you are in effect saying no to something else. If you choose too many goals, you are attempting to commit to too many things, and you are saying no to all of them.[3]

3.     The mindset you bring to the process takes you off track. If goals weren’t mentally difficult, we wouldn’t need them. When the going gets rough, what is it like for you to keep going? Psychologist Carol Dweck identifies that people fall into one of two general mindsets[4]: the fixed mindset, which Dweck defines as a belief that your abilities “are carved in stone,” meaning that every situation reveals whether we are capable of something or not. Pursuing goals with this mindset is a terrifying proposition, because if you fail, it reveals that you are inadequate. The result is that people with the fixed mindset quickly abandon goals rather than have to face the possibility of being invalidated as an individual. By contrast, people with the growth mindset believe that they already have value and that their value is not tied to results. She writes that “your basic qualities are those you can cultivate through your efforts, your strategies, and help from others.” Your mindset reveals whether you are managing your emotional state effectively, and your emotional state is critical to the success or failure of achieving a goal.

4.     Refusal to adjust goals when life presents you with surprises. Setting goals is necessarily a process that happens with incomplete knowledge of future events. An extreme example is what happened with the COVID-19 pandemic. With travel canceled, conferences delayed, businesses shut down, and fundamental health at risk, most everyone who had goals discovered significant obstacles imposed upon them with an unplanned event. But even in times without such an extreme event, life presents unexpected events that challenge our ability to achieve goals. The 19th century military strategist Von Clausewitz said “no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.”[5] The same is true for your goal: no goal survives first contact with reality. Often, when your plan gets disrupted, you become discouraged and stuck. You can’t figure out how to overcome it, so you give up.

5.     You don’t write down your goals. Longitudinal surveys show that people who don’t write down their goals are dramatically less successful than those who do. A Yale survey revealed that the graduates who wrote down goals earned more than 97% of the other graduates put together. And a Harvard study that followed graduates over time found that those who wrote down their goals earned 10 times as much as the 97% of graduates who didn’t.[6]

6.     You keep your goals private. Something magical happens when you share your goals with other people. You become more committed to them and more accountable to complete them. If you write them down and update a friend weekly, a study found that you are 43% more successful with your goals than if you don’t.[7]

7. You don’t approach your goals as a system. Your brain enjoys veering from idea to idea. You are susceptible to distraction. Think about it: when you determine that you are going to spend time working on a task and you get going, as soon as a notification pops up on your phone, you stop the task in favor of investigating the notification. Two of the points above are indications of lack of system in and of themselves: not having digestible goals and not writing down goals. But there is more to a system than just those two: without a routine that you can trust to ensure you are working on your goals, you will be pulled off track by the large and undisciplined part of your mind that holds significant sway over your daily actions.

There are so many barriers to successfully achieving goals that it scarcely seems worthwhile to even try. At least, that’s what most of your peers will conclude. And more likely than not, it’s the conclusion you will reach when you start your goals. This is why gyms are usually so full at first and then tapers off.  

Study these reasons well. If you are the daring type, willing to try where so many fail, understanding the barriers to achieving goals will increase your chances of meaningfully accomplishing yours.


[1] Newberry, Tommy. Success Is Not an Accident. 2007. p64.

[2] Thompson, Curt. The Soul of Shame. 2015. Kindle edition. Location 298.

[3] Doerr, John. Measure What Matters. 2018. p56. This reference is to a quote by Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel.

[4] Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. 2016. p6.

[5] I first encountered this quote in a book by entrepreneur and professor Steve Blank, The Startup Owner’s Manual, in which he adapted Von Clausewitz’s quote to “no business plan survives first contact with the customer.

[6] Success Is Not an Accident, p59.

[7] Measure What Matters. p117.




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