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Feb 22, 2019

Why We Don’t Achieve Our Goals

Written by Dr. Caroline Leaf

We all have those resolutions or goals that, whether we like to admit it or not, have fallen by the wayside. Goal-setting and achieving can be hard, especially when there are so many demands on our time. So why do we fail to achieve our goals?

Most likely we are focusing on the wrong things. 

When it comes to making a plan, it is far better to focus more on the process than the goal. In fact, we need to spend more time on how to achieve a goal rather than the goal itself. As the renowned artist Pablo Picasso once said, “our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.” 

Here are some tips to setting goals you can actually achieve:

  • Work around your schedule. It is so important to tailor the plan to achieve your goal that fits in with your schedule, rather than trying to plan your schedule around a goal. This makes achieving the goal more realistic, and makes it more likely you will stick to the plan because it will fit into an already established routine rather than disrupting your flow, which can cause mental fatigue and stress. 
  • Start smallStart with small changes and add, incrementally, more changes that will help you achieve your goal. It’s important to cultivate the correct “time mindset”, as I discuss in my book Think, Learn, Succeed, which means recognizing that change takes time (roughly 63 days to form habit), even if we can’t always see or feel the change daily. Remember, everything we do is first a thought we build into our brains. The root of everything you say and do is based on the memories you have built into your brain through your thinking. Memories take time to build (twenty-one days to build a long-term memory and another forty-two days to build this memory into a thinking habit). Nothing worthwhile happens in an instant. Achieving a goal is not just a neat, simple, quick-fix process that will guarantee instant victory. Patience is essential. 
  • Expect things to go well. Due to the mind-body connection, a positive “expectancy mindset”, which I speak about in Think, Learn, Succeedproduces real, neurophysiological outcomes in your body. Expecting that the effort you put into planning for a goal will succeed, or expecting you will have a good day, or expecting things will work out in a relationship can change you mentally and physically, and increase the likelihood of what you hope coming about, preparing your mind and body for success and helping you find the strength to persevere!
  • Know what you want. It is important to always ask ourselves why we want what we want in life. For instance, ask yourself if this goal is something you want for yourself or is it a goal you think you should achieve because other people have said so? Analyze your motives! If achievement of the goal is based on other people’s opinions, it is more likely a goal not worth pursing, as it can put your brain and body into toxic stress and affect your mental and physical wellbeing. A goal based on pleasing others is not sustainable and you will lose the motivation to carry on, whereas a goal based on what you want for yourself can help make your life more meaningful. Indeed, we cannot all pursue the same goals in life. We all think, feel and choose in different ways—even identical twins have incredibly different likes and dislikes, behavior, and life choices! As I talk about in my book Think, Learn, Succeed, we need to learn to capitalize on how our customized thinking works (the unique way each of us thinks, feels and chooses) so that we can function at the highest level possible to achieve success in life. Essentially, our goals need to be defined by us, not by what people tell us we should do.
  • Be prepared to change. We should always ask ourselves if we are prepared to persevere through the process and adjust our goals. We need to recognize that changing or adjusting a goal can be a learning experience that opens the road to success, not a failure. So be intentional about learning every time you fail, which will allow you to appreciate the journey (with all its bumps!) and the destination. Indeed, every bump can become an opportunity to learn, grow your brain, and develop mental resilience, and help you recognize how many possibilities life has to offer! In my book Think, Learn, Succeed I talk about how important it is to learn from our failures, and see that when one door closes, another one can open—we all need to have a “possibility mindset”.  This type of thinking taps into the optimism bias of the brain, helping us get up when we fall because we learn to see all the potential opportunities in any given situation, and we don't get thrown when our plan doesn't go, well, as planned. All goals are essentially hypotheses that we make, so being prepared to change them in this way, especially when our circumstances change, helps develop mental flexibility and gives us hope because we just keep on trying till we achieve our goals! 

Whether we are pursuing a short or long-term goal, it is so important that we develop healthy mental habits and mindsets from the start, which can be adjusted to each goal we are pursuing. If you lay a good foundation, you really can live the life you want to live.  

For more information on goal-setting and mental habits that lead to success, see my book Think, Learn, Succeed. 

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