Top 7 Reasons Why Goal-Setting Fails

A person walks along a dark ridge silhouetted against a multihued sunset. Overhead a dozen raptors fly

“People are not lazy. They simply have impotent goals, that is goals that do not inspire them.”

— Anthony Robbins

Some Goal-Setting Works, Some Fails. Why?

For many would-be goal-setters, coming to a Life Design coach might seem a bit like a dieter breaking down and signing up for Jenny Craig.

Both dieters and frustrated goal-setters try many approaches: read books, listen to podcasts, and watch countless videos. But the pattern is often the same.

Both work, at first. But then, something happens, and people backslide. After chastising themselves for lacking motivation or flimsy willpower, they buy a new book, listen to a new podcast, sign up for a webinar on goal-setting—and the pattern repeats, until the person finally gives up, or surrenders her/his goal-setting to an outside force.

The American Medical Association says that, over 25 years of dieting, dieters experience a net increase in weight.

Seven flaws in conventional goal setting prevent people from creating the results they crave. Understanding these flaws, and knowing how to get around them, can turbo-charge your goal setting process, and lead to the success you long for.

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Seven Flaws In Conventional Goal Setting

1. Setting Process Goals, Rather Than Results goals

“Jog for 45 minutes every day,” is a process goal. It works fine, until you don’t feel like jogging. So you don’t. Let the backsliding begin.

For process goals to be effective, they must be embedded in and support results goals.

An inspiring goal, such as, “A sub-two-hour finish in the 10K,” will generate motivational energy. Then, when you don’t feel like jogging, you can chose to run, or not.

Most runners I know would choose to run, even though they don’t feel like it, in the moment.

They focus on the inspiring end result, and then choose to “jog 45 minutes,” because it clearly supports that result .

It is easy to see if your goal is a process or a results goal.

Process goals start with verbs, action words. They’re not usually inspiring because they’re about work—the process to get somewhere. Putting the work (process) goal first puts your focus on the wrong thing, if you want to energize yourself.

Results goals start with nouns, thing words. They’re about the bigger, higher-order goals you strive for. In the Life Design approach, process always supports the thing you want to create: the end result!

2. Setting “Ideals” Instead Of Goals

Ideals are “should” goals. Visions are “want” goals. This subtle but important difference stops many would be achievers in their tracks.

An ideal such as, “I should run a half-marathon,” is a demand you impose on yourself.

Not only does a demand lack motivational power, if you have even a touch of the rebel in you (and most of us do), it can easily backfire. As soon as you “should on yourself,” you get your back up, and say, “No way, that’s too much like work.”

You can see and feel the difference between ideals (demands) and visions (desires) in this simple test. Take a goal, even a goal you want to achieve, and say to yourself, “I should (or must, ought, need to, have to…) achieve that goal,” and note how you feel.

Then take the same goal, and say, “I want to achieve that goal. I choose to achieve that goal,” and note how you feel.

Ninety-nine percent of the people I’ve studied report that when they “should” on themselves, they feel angry, down, and de-energized. But when they state their goal as a desire, a “want”, they feel up, energized, and eager to get at it.

So don’t should on yourself. Form your goals around desires, not demands. Choose only goals that reflect your heartfelt desires. Then figure out the process of bringing them into being

3. Setting Goals That Are Too Vague

“Be healthy” is a good place to start. It’s a concept, and conception is the first step in creating results.

But, to be effective, you must move to the next step: vision. A vision is a clear, compelling mental image of what your goal would look and feel like when you fully complete it.

Instead of “be healthy,” a vision of “A Fit Healthy Body” would specify the success criteria for health. It could include standards of measurement such as blood pressure, resting heart rate, VO2 uptake, cholesterol ratings, hormone levels. It would probably include weight, waist size, and BMI (Body Mass Index).

It could also include physical capacities such as the ability to walk 5 miles at a brisk pace. Swim 50 lengths of the Olympic-sized pool. Dance all night and feel great in the morning. And, of course, a vision of a fit, healthy body would include how you look and feel: “light, energetic, vital, relaxed and at ease with myself and the world.”

Clearly specified and articulated goals like this have far more motivational power than general concepts.

4. Setting FIT Goals Instead Of STRETCH Goals

To paraphrase the great Italian strategist, Niccolo Machiavelli, “Make no small goals, for they lack the power to stir our souls.”

Realistic goals are important, but like process goals, they really only work when they are embedded in and support higher-order goals.

The goal, “A sub-2 hour half marathon,” might not be realistic for you, given your current fitness level. But that’s no reason for not setting it as a goal.

You want what you want. Big goals don’t have to be realistic, they just have to be highly desired. Your goals are most effective when they reflect your heart’s deepest desires, regardless of your current situation or capacity.

So acknowledge your current fitness state, and then set a series of realistic goals as stepping stones from where you are now to where you want to be.

Those realistic goals will draw power not only from themselves, but also from the visionary goal that reflects your heart’s desire.

5. Setting Goals That Are Not Grounded In Reality

Folk wisdom tells us, “if goals are not grounded in reality, you won’t know where to start.”

To get from where you are to where you want to be, you must clearly know your destination and your starting point.

But too often people ignore where they are, or set goals only in reaction to their current reality. “I’m fat, so I should run a half-marathon.” Neither approach has much power.

The great success of the creating approach at the heart the Life Design Framework is that, as well as having clear, compelling goals, you’ll also have an accurate, objective assessment of current reality, i.e. where you are, now, relative to you goal.

For example, in downhill ski racing, each racer sets clear, specific goals, not only for the race, but for each section of the race. During training they assess how they do, not only on the whole course, but on each section as well. This data determines how they practice before the race.

If they won the steep, fast middle section, but were slow on the top flats, and the rolling bottom, they practice generating more speed on the flats and being more stable over the rolls. Then, hopefully, on race day they put all their practice together in support of their results goal: to win the race.

There’s a bonus to grounding your result goals (visions) in current reality. The gap between vision and reality generates a useful, creative tension that can add motivational energy. In fact, creative tension can supply energy even when motivation is missing. Together the two forms of energy greatly increase your chances of success.

6. Setting Goals That Are Too Ego-Driven

While most of us set goals to achieve results that reflect well on us, we must be careful not to put the cart before the horse. If our goals are primarily about us, and not the result we want to create, there is a strong tendency to go off the rails.

I worked, for example, with a frustrated woman writer whose goal was, “A best-selling book that will tell the story of AIDS orphans in Africa, and get me on the Oprah Show.” She’d been having a lot of trouble actually writing the book.

When I asked her which of the two goals was her primary goal, she was confused. “What do you mean?” she asked.

“Is your primary goal to help orphans with AIDS?” I asked. “Or get on Oprah? ”

She paused for a while, and then said, “I guess it’s to help orphans, but I’ve always wanted to be on Oprah. It’s confusing.”

We talked for a bit, and I showed her the difference between ego-driven goals and heartfelt results goals, and how they can conflict. She quickly realized that she had been letting her ego get in the way of her heartfelt desire to help the orphans.

At the end of our chat, she was clear that the primary goal was “helping the orphans” and that’s where she’d put her focus.

She also saw that, if the book was successful, then she could further it’s success and help the orphans by telling story on Oprah.

Instead of a conflicting arrangement, in which she oscillated between two goals, or stalled between them, she re-aligned her goals in an integrated relationship. The primary goal drove the action, and the secondary goal supported the primary one.

From then on her writing flowed easily and effectively.

7. Setting Goals But Not Taking Sustained Action

A big disservice has been done by the motivational schemes that claim that all you have to do is visualize, dream, or ask, and the Universe will deliver.

“A vision without action is a daydream,” cautions an old Japanese prover.”

Even Shakti Gawain, the author of Visualization, apologized to followers for suggesting that vision by itself was enough to generate desired results, after she’d realized it was not.

To create effective results, ground visions in reality. Set up the energy and framework of creative tension. And then within that framework, take consistent action.

Creating is an experiential process. Experience and experiment come from the same Latin root, prier, “to try.” So explore, experiment, invent, create and adjust, and be open to surprise, novelty, coincidences, and your deepest intuitions.

It doesn’t even matter if your action works. In the creating approach there is no failure, just feedback. Create and adjust, create and adjust… learn as you go.

Creating is a learning experience, in which you teach yourself what you need to know and do to move from where you are to where you want to be.

It’s best to start with small actions because they have a high likelihood of success. A pattern of small successes leads to increased confidence and momentum.

Momentum is a third form of energy. Together with motivation and creative tension, it empowers you to overcome adversity, and follow-through to completed, successful results.

An inscription found on a church in Sussex, England, circa 1730, sums up the effect of marrying goals with action:

“A vision without a task is but a dream,
A task without a vision is drudgery,
A task with a vision is the hope of the world.”

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Goal Setting To Create Real and Lasting Results

Goal setting is a powerful tool for creating results and generating success. Studies show that people with written goals, significantly outperform those who do not.

If you want to turbo-charge your goal setting, and ensure that you achieve your desired results, apply these seven principles to setting your goals.

1. Set clear, compelling results goals

See and feel your result as if it were fully completed. I recommend writing out your result, in the first person, present tense. Then stand up and read it aloud. If it gives you shivers, goosebumps, or makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up, it’s a powerful vision of a meaningful result.

2. Follow your heart

Make sure your goals arise from heartfelt desires, not demands. Don’t should on yourself. It’ll feel bad, drain your energy, and probably backfire on you.

3. Make goals/visions as clear, compelling, and detailed as you can

Include specific detail and success criteria. Establish standards of measurement with which you can measure your progress, and know when you’re done.

4. Set “stretch” goals that far exceed your current capacity

Big goals stir our souls, and draw out the best in us. Set realistic goals only in support of your stretch goals. That’ll provide you maximum motivational power.

5. Ground your goals in reality

Doing so provides you a solid platform on which to take action. It also sets up the energy of creative tension that energizes your actions.

6. Be wary of your ego

It’s OK to want the rewards that come with successfully creating results, but remember it’s the result that comes first, not your ego.

7. Take action

Start small. Try things. Learn from both your mistakes and successes. Build the momentum you need to work through dips, overcome momentum, and to finish fully and successfully.


If you apply these principles, you will rise above your current situation, learn what you need to know and do, and make consistent progress toward realizing your dreams.

Not only will you be better able to create the kind and quality of results you want for yourself, but you will also be better able to help others create what they want.

You will set in motion a virtuous circle in which others will help you when you need it. Together, you will not only create personal and professional results, but you may well create results that change your community, your city, and your world.

As Bobby Kennedy said (paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw), “Some see things as they are and say, “Why?” I dream things that never were and say, “Why not?”

If not you, who? If not now, when?