The psychology behind why you haven’t achieved your goals… and what to do about it
I was recently having coffee with a girlfriend, Kate, while she was in town. Since she lives a few hours away, we only get to see each other every few months. The last time I saw her over the Christmas holidays. We had a big conversation about our goals for 2019.
I have been trying to focus on really big aspirational goals that are super concrete, and push me further out of my comfort zone.
Kate was also trying to come up with one big goal for 2019 - she wanted to start and finish writing a book, an entire novel. She’s been a phenomenal writer her whole life, and has always dreamed of writing a book, but life always seems to get in the way. This year, she decided she was going to put pen to paper and finally finish her first novel. As I was getting ready to leave and meet her, four months into the year, I was so keen to find out her progress in finishing her novel.
I haven’t achieved my goals for the year yet, but I have made a lot of progress. I’ve made progress not only on achieving the goals, but also in shifting my mindset from my perfectionist tendencies. I’m trying new things that make me a little more uncomfortable and that I probably won’t be successful at, at least not the first time. Because of this, I think I went into the conversation a little too excited, imagining that she was having the same experience.
We were still standing in line at Starbucks when I asked about her book. Immediately, her face sunk.
Kate had made almost no progress. She had laid out the storyline over the holidays, but had not truly written one single word of her book.
As I listen to Kate, I could see that she was embarrassed, disappointed, and full of self-doubt. I could see her starting to compare her progress with mine and her confidence spiraling out.
But Kate is brilliant. She is an incredible writer. She has an excellent idea for her book, and I absolutely know that she can do this.
So many women are in exactly this situation. They know what they want, but question if they can get there, and it makes them feel like a failure.
But Kate is not a failure.
And, if you are feeling this way, you are not a failure.
Kate needs a different approach to reach her goal. She needs to understand how to transform this ambitious goal into achievable actions and then to understand what is holding her back.
1. What is one thing you need to do every day in order to reach your goal? What is the one habit you need to make?
When we think our goals, we are often thinking about what we want to achieve in the end. It’s about the book we want to write. The triathlon we want to complete. It’s not about the daily habit that we need to create to get us there. We think about the end product, not the work that goes into it. In order to have a finished book, to complete a triathlon, to lose 100 pounds, you need to create daily habits.
Kate is trying to write a book, so every single day she should be writing. Her daily habit should be about writing, and then doing it over and over and over again. It’s about doing it even when you’re busy. It’s about doing it even when you’re bored. It’s about doing it consistently, because that is what will result in having enough words that she can start editing, so that she can put together an entire book.
Beth, my partner in Balancing Bravely, has been talking about doing a triathlon. That means that she needs to be showing up every day and working toward that goal. Sometimes that means she might be running, or swimming, or getting better at bike riding (which she struggles with the most). If Beth wants to be able to complete a triathlon, she’s has to put in the work. She won’t be able to just show up one day and complete it without preparing first.
So what is the daily habit you need to reach your goal? What one thing do you need to do every single day to help you got there?
2. Do you have the knowledge and skills to get there?
In order to reach your goal, you need to have some foundational knowledge and skills. If you, like Kate, want to write a book, you need to know about grammar and language structure. You need to understand genre tropes and reader expectations (e.g., if you are writing a mystery, you need to know that readers expect the mystery to be solved by the end of the book).
If you are like Beth and want to complete a triathlon, you need to know how to run, swim, and bike. And you need to understand how to moderate your speed and energy in order to finish. You probably won’t start the journey with the required knowledge and skills, so you need a plan in place to figure out how you will gain the knowledge and skills you need. Maybe you will buy a book. Maybe you’ll watch YouTube videos. Maybe you will join a running or biking group.
If you do not have the knowledge and skills, you are probably not going to get there. And it may even be holding you back from working on your daily habit.
3. Do you have opportunities to practice your daily habit and an environment that supports this new behavior?
In order to successfully do your daily habit, you need an environment that supports that change. It would be extremely hard to write a novel if you try to write all the words while your children were in the room. That is just not an environment that is supporting you to do your daily habit. If you want to complete a triathlon, you will need a place to swim. You will need a bicycle and a place to bike. It’s going to be much harder if you try to learn to bike in the winter in the snow than if you learn in the summer when it’s warm.
Do you have the equipment and tools you need for your daily habit? Do you have an environment that is supporting that change? For so many working moms, I think this is a big challenge. We try to squeeze in activities while our children are there. Sometimes it might be possible, but for some of these harder tasks, like writing a novel, you need to create opportunities to make it happen.
Sometimes those opportunities might be unconventional. My time for Balancing Bravely happens between 5:30 and 6:30 am on the days I work from home. I also write posts on the subway, and more recently dictating into my phone as I walk in between activities/meetings. I do not have much (or any) spare time, so I need to maximize on the available time I can find.
You also need to schedule it in advance. If I hadn’t scheduled that I would wake up at 5:30 or 5:45 in the morning to write a blog post, I definitely would not do it. If I didn’t have a plan that I would write a blog post on my subway ride home, I wouldn’t do it. So you can make sure you have the equipment you need and then schedule a time in your calendar to do this thing. You are better off spending 5 or 10 minutes a day working on your goal and doing it every single day then waiting until you have a full hour. Habits are created when you do them every single day, so try to do this every day. Honestly, spending one minute is better than nothing.
4. Are you truly motivated to change?
A lot of people think that they need to figure out the daily habit, gain that knowledge and skills, and create the right environment. But that is not enough. If you are not motivated to put time and effort into this daily habit, you will not get there. Motivation is an essential ingredient.
You might realize that you’re not that motivated to reach your end goal. Maybe you’re doing it because you think you should, because other people think you should, because it’s this idea of something you believe you want, but you don’t actually want. If you decide after a whole bunch of thinking that your goal is not something you’re truly motivated to do, embrace that. That is a major win. You have created an opportunity to step back and figure out what you actually want and what you actually value. You are creating the life you want, enabling you to have a better work life balance. You can now pick a new long-term goal. It’ll probably be really easy to feel deflated, but this is a huge success. You will not waste your time on something you don’t want.
On the other hand, you may realize you want to reach your long-term goal, but you’re not that motivated for your daily goal. This is very common. For example, people who want to lose weight, but don’t want to put in the daily work of eating healthier and exercising more. But you can’t really get to your end goal of weight loss without changing your daily habits – better eating and exercising.
Therefore, you need to shift your thinking, and find value and enjoyment where you can in the daily habit.
Maybe that means working out with a friend, because you enjoy the company. Maybe that means making your favorite cup of tea while you write. Maybe that means giving yourself a small reward after your bike ride.
The key is to figure out whether you are motivated, and to unleash that motivation so that you remember why you’re doing this, how it relates to your deep values and what you want.
Are you ready to redefine your goals and set yourself up for success?
1. Have you narrowed down your long-term goals and figured out the daily habits you need to change?
2. Do you have the knowledge and skills you need to change?
3. Do you have the opportunity to change and an environment that supports change?
4. Are you motivated to both achieve the long-term goals and do the daily habits?
Tell us about your goals in the comments, which one of these areas is your biggest struggle, and which one is your biggest strength?