Resetting Your Goals When You’re Struggling.
Goals can be inspiring. But they can also be frustrating. If you’ve ever struggled to consistently nail the behaviours that help you make progress toward your big goals (and who hasn’t?) then here are some tips for getting back on track when it seems like you can’t.
If you believe Instagram, all you need to do to achieve your goals is ‘set them and smash them.’ But that’s not reality. Sometimes we set goals and we can execute the necessary steps to smash them, but then sometimes – despite our best efforts – we fail to move closer to those goals in a meaningful way. When that happens, what do you do? Do you give up? Do you focus harder, with more discipline?
What if I told you that there were some small tricks that would give you a better chance at getting you closer to your goals?
It’s not the goal… it’s the behaviour
A goal is an outcome. Yours might be to be healthier, save for a holiday, or write a book. But what is more important than the goal is the behaviours that underpin that goal: like going to the gym three times a week, putting $100 a week into a savings account (and not touching it), or writing for 30 minutes every day. When we feel frustrated because we’re not achieving our goals, we’re really frustrated with failing to execute the behaviours that lead to the goals.
"If you believe Instagram, all you need to do to achieve your goals is ‘set them and smash them.’ But that’s not reality"
Two Elements for Goal Commitment
For us to be committed (and stay committed) to a goal, it needs to have two elements.
It must be VALUABLE
It must be ATTAINABLE
To start, I am sure that you have thought through this goal and that it truly is Valuable. At this point most people will ask you to ‘think about your WHY’ and that’s great, but you probably already did that, and it hasn’t helped. The only other thing to think about before you waste your time reading the rest of this article, is that we can’t be committed to too many things at once. While this goal is valuable, does it need to be prioritised over other goals right now? If the answer is yes, then keep reading.
When we struggle with goals, the problem is usually the ‘attainable’ element. No doubt you believe your goal is achievable, but if you’re struggling to make progress, then your brain might be beginning to think it’s not. One of the easiest things we can change about how we approach the goal is to make if feel like it’s more achievable, feeling a sense of ‘progress,’ is key.
Looking Back Vs Looking Forward:
Progress is a major motivator for the human brain.
When we feel like we’re not making progress, we want to give up. It tells our brain there’s no use going on. However, when we set goals (and are used to achieving them), the default for most people is to look at the end point and get motivation from the fact that you are closing the distance. This is a great strategy…. sometimes. If we are experienced in what we are doing and we have gained a fair bit of success in the past, then that forward-looking vision toward our goal is incredibly motivational.
But it can also backfire.
When we are trying to master a new skill, it can be daunting to see how far we have to go, and if we don’t feel like we are getting closer, quickly, then we might get demotivated. The alternative is to look back, to see how much progress we have made, instead of looking at how much there is to go.
Looking back does two things: Firstly, it helps us feel more of a sense of progress. If you’re trying to save $1000 for a potential holiday, and you have only saved $100 dollars so far, another $20 dollars barely makes a difference, since you have $900 to go. By contrast, if you are looking at what you have already saved, then $20 represents a 20% increase ($100 to $120).
Secondly, it shows us that we have put in some effort, even if we haven’t made a lot of progress. This is important because it reinforces commitment. On the contrary, looking forward when we don’t think we are making progress can decrease commitment because we think the goal isn’t attainable.
Basically, when we’re good, we’re inspired by what we have left to achieve, but when things aren’t going as well, we should find inspiration in what we have done so far.
"When we are trying to master a new skill, it can be daunting to see how far we have to go, and if we don’t feel like we are getting closer, quickly, then we might get demotivated"
Narrow Your Goal:
When our goal is too broad, we can find many different ways to achieve it, and this is usually a net positive. But when we are struggling to execute a certain behaviour, then it might mean we need to narrow our goal.
When there are many activities, or behaviours, that help us reach a goal, the individual activities themselves lose importance. But if there is only one activity to achieve a goal, then that activity becomes highly important.
For example, this year Jenny wanted to prioritise strength training over other outdoor group activities like running and cycling but found herself regularly skipping gym sessions to go cycling with her friends. The problem was that her goal was to ‘be fit and healthy’ – and any of the above activities would achieve that, so strength training by itself became less important. So instead, she changed her goal (for a three-month period) to ‘get stronger’ and put some performance goals in place to measure progress. Now, the only activity that helped her achieve the goal was to go to the gym and it became a lot easier to prioritise.
Maybe your goal is to write a book and you find yourself getting bogged down in research, which makes you procrastinate. In this case, you should switch your goal to something like ‘write the first two chapters’ of my book. When this becomes your goal, writing is the only thing that gets you closer.
For Intrinsic Motivation, Make the Activity the Reward
Intrinsic motivation is the holy grail of goal achievement. When we don’t feel intrinsically motivated, we need to force ourselves to do the activity that we should be prioritising. But when we feel intrinsic motivation, this isn’t an issue. In fact, one of the basic indicators of intrinsic motivation is that people don’t want to stop pursuing the activity.
Motivation research tells us that this is most likely to happen when the activity and the goal are close together.
For example, let’s say you’re saving for an overseas holiday and your goal is to have $10,000 in 12 months’ time. Adding $100 to a $300 bank balance won’t carry a lot of intrinsic motivation. But if you’re at $9,800 and the holiday is next week, then adding that extra $100 today will carry enormous intrinsic motivation. And the biggest chance of us having intrinsic motivation is when the activity, by itself, directly achieves the goal.
For this to happen, we need to change our short-term goals, from milestones to immediate rewards. Another example would be that you’re going to the gym four days a week and your goal is to lose 8% body fat in 10 months’ time. In this case, the activity and the outcome are not very close. To solve this, most people would have some short-term milestone, like losing 2% body fat in 3 months. But a better link would be to move to an immediate reward. That immediate reward might be something like: “I work out to get that feeling of accomplishment or an endorphin rush.” Now each workout immediately achieves a goal in and of itself. This is the ultimate condition for intrinsic motivation - when the process is the reward.
Be Clear on Your Conflicts
Do you know what is getting in the way of executing the behaviours that help you achieve your goals? And no, I am not talking from a broad, philosophical point of view – that you feel like you lack self-discipline, or are self-sabotaging. I mean from a practical point of view: If you are not saving for that goal, what are you spending money on? If you’re not getting out of bed to go to the gym, is it because you are staying up late bingeing Netflix?
Identifying these conflicts has been shown to increase adherence to new behaviours dramatically. A simple exercise is to write down these conflicts in pairs.
For example, your conflict pairs might look like this
- Going to the gym - watching TV late at night
- Saving - spending on things I don’t need
- Study – Xbox
This genuinely is all you need to do. Research shows that just writing out these conflict pairs gives us a better chance of sticking to our goal behaviours by making us more mindful of the activities that are getting in the way.
Changing Your Identity
An enormous driver of behaviour is the extent to which it complements our personal identity. Activities that reinforce our identity hook us in and become a habitual part of our lives. Think about sports like cycling, CrossFit, and running or nutrition identities like ‘vegan.’ All of these examples create cult-like following and lifelong devotees because they change a person’s identity – I am sure you know people who identify as cyclists, runners or vegans, and they might be the most fanatical people you know!
You see, if you identify as a runner, then you wake up and run at least some mornings a week. There is no debate. There is no talking yourself into it. The only decisions to make are about how far to run and which direction to go.
But – what if you’re trying to change a behaviour to create a new identity? What if you’re not a runner, but you want to become one? A simple way to leverage this identity phenomenon is to think about the identity that you want to adopt and speculate about their choices.
When making food choices, you might ask, “what would a health-conscious person order?”
Or when you wake up in the morning you might think, “what would a runner do right now?”
These questions have the ability to break through your auto-pilot decisions and help you make better, conscious choices about the behaviours you want to change.
When our goal behaviours are off-track, it’s easy to become reactive and blame our lack of discipline or laziness. But accumulating habits is not always about pure self-discipline. Sometimes it comes down to how we set ourselves up for success.
These five strategies – progress, narrowing your goal, making the activity the reward, identifying conflicts and choosing your identity – make it easier and more compelling for us to choose the most productive behaviours, more often and can reduce the need for self-discipline.