Every small step brings you closer to your goals.
We have all been in that situation where we have set wonderful goals for ourselves but struggle to accomplish them. Our failure to achieve our goals are our ongoing struggle with both our internal and external demons – distraction, doubt, and delusion. Going from making goals to achieving them doesn’t have to be a daunting journey. Sometimes it takes a simple strategy like if-then.
Once in a while I make the decision to be more structured, create a to-do list and work on it. As a parent I’m picking some goal I want the kids to do, like learn scratch. But often, nothing happens. It remains a goal. What happens is that I’m just setting goals and having the intention to reach them without developing a strategy. The tools that I’m relying on to achieve my goals are not really effective. They don’t help me remember what my goals are when I’m in the situation. According to scholars on goal attainment the two most prominent challenges of achieving your goals is getting started and staying on track.
4 reasons why people fail to achieve their goal
Making goals and achieving goals, while related, are not the same. Often, as set out in the beginning of this post, individuals do have good intentions and really want to achieve the goal. However, it seems that willingness is not sufficient. Stronger intention to achieve a goal has only moderate impact on the ability to achieve it (Webb & Sheeran, 2006). Let this sink in: You made the decision to be more fit, work less, be happier, spend more time with your family etc. You really want it to work, but in many cases your will is not enough to act upon this mental decision and follow it up with actions.
According to goal attainment scholars there are four main reasons individuals fail to reach their goals.
1. First, procrastination and other forms of self-handicapping are the first reasons individuals don’t achieve their goals.
Self-handicapping was first defined in 1978 by Steven Berglas and Edward Jones as “any action or choice of performance setting that enhances the opportunity to externalise (or excuse) failure and to internalise (reasonably accept credit for) success.” An example: A person pretends or appears to suddenly fall sick before a major presentation at work. If they underperform they blame it on falling sick. If the person delivers results they take credit for performing well despite their ill-health.
2. Second, temptations and distractions are other reasons to lose (momentary) focus on goals. Nudge Theory attempts to solve problems to goal attainment by changing aspects in the environment. These changes which reduces the impact of temptation and distractions.
According to Thaler and Sunstein (2008), a nudge is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates forcing people to change their behaviour.
An example: Putting the fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.
3. Third, escalation of commitment or in other words keep on trying something that clearly doesn’t help you reach your goal. Certain goal-striving behaviours are not helpful in achieving a goal and are actually counterproductive. In other words, it’s staying committed to behaviours that are not helping you achieve your goals but you persist simply because you have started with them.
Example: Your goal is to be more calm and less anxious. You sign up for a paid meditation app without truly understanding the philosophy, process or practice. The app puts you on a generic meditation program. It sends you reminders to meditate at a particular time, tracks how you perform and compares your practice with other members. You slowly realise it’s not helping you even after committing to it for three months. On the contrary, it stresses you more in order to keep up with other members and reach meditation milestones set by the app. You continue using it as you paid the subscription fee even though you see no benefit from it as it has become a part of your routine and something you just check off your ‘must do’ for mental wellness.
4. Finally, trying to achieve too many things. Research on ego depletion shows that this is another reason why individuals fail to achieve goals. At some point we must have tried to juggle too many balls in the air by setting unrealistic goals for ourselves that are bound to fail. Hopefully we have learnt our lesson there in terms of goal setting and achieving.
In order to achieve goals Peter Gollwitzer proposed, back in 1996, that individuals should form implementation intentions. An implementation intention or an if-then plan is a description of what is needed in order to achieve a goal. However, it goes beyond listing the behaviour, and also describes when the behaviour is executed. A meta-analysis (i.e., a statistical summary of studies) investigating implementation intentions showed a moderate to large effect for achieving goals if implementation intentions are formulated (Gollwitzer & Sheeran, 2006). In other words, several scientific experiments have reported good results when people use implementation intention to achieve their goals. The implementation intention can include details about when to disengage from a behaviour if the behaviour does not help in achieving the goal. Thus, it can reduce escalation of commitments (Henderson et al. 2007).
The mechanism that explains the success of implementation intention is strategic automaticity. When developing an if-then plan, an association is formed in the brain between the environmental cues, the if-part, and the behaviour that should follow, the then-part. The consequences of forming this association in the brain is that it is retrieved quicker from memory once the environmental cue is detected. In brief, implementation intentions are a form of a mental rehearsal or learning. Behaviours that are learned (e.g., stop at a red light), come to our mind and are executed without much conscious effort. You don’t have to think what to do if the light is red, you just do it. The same process of automaticity is at play when you form an if-then plan. In addition to creating the mental representation of what to do when you are in a specific situation, implementation intentions also increase attentional and perceptual priority. This means that because you decided what to pay attention to, your brain is more geared towards looking for them. You devote more of your cognitive resources paying attention to the cue you decided to look out for, than for other things in your environment.
List your goals and rank them based on how motivated are you to achieve them.
Think about what is the most common reason for failing to achieve your goals
Think about a strategy or process that has helped you achieve a goal.
Making if-then plans
Implementation intentions are nothing more than an if-then plan. It does not only describe the goal (what to achieve) but also when to do it and how to achieve it.
The if-then plan has two components. An if-part and a then-part. The if parts contains a description of the situation or situations in which we want to engage in a behaviour. These are the cues you want to pay attention to.
For example, if the goal is to sleep more, then the situation could be:
• After 10pm, I will …
• When going to bed I will …
This sets out when a certain behaviour should be done. The next step should be a description of what will be done.
• Take a book to bed
• Turn off the TV
• Do not leave the phone next to the bed
Together the if-part and then-part form concrete plans that can be done:
• When I’m done with dinner, I watch one movie and then go to bed.
• When I’m done with dinner, I work until 9pm and then I go do bed with a book.
• After watching the 9pm news I go to bed.
• After dinner I do my language lesson and then go to bed.
• After putting the kids to bed, I clean up the kitchen and go to bed with a book.
James Clear in his book on Atomic habits suggests the following structure for implementation intentions:
I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION]
But you could also follow other structures, depending on what you want to achieve:
• If I [SEE/HEAR] in [LOCATION], then I will [BEHAVIOUR].
• When I/he/she/they [DESTRUCTIVE BEHAVIOUR] in [LOCATION] at [TIME], then [CONSTRUCTIVE BEHAVIOUR]
Need some more examples for better understanding?
I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION]
• I will do my language lesson at 8am at the kitchen table.
• I will go for a run at 6pm in the nearby wood.
If I [SEE/HEAR] in [LOCATION], then I will [BEHAVIOUR].
• If I see a promotion for skin care in a store, then I will walk pass it and will not buy it,
• If I see my kids clothes on the floor, then I will call them and tell them to pick up their mess.
• If my boss gives me negative feedback in front of the team, then I will ask him to tell it to me privately
When I/he/she/they [DESTRUCTIVE BEHAVIOUR] in [LOCATION] at [TIME], then [CONSTRUCTIVE BEHAVIOUR]
• When my friends ask me to go out for a drink on Thursday, then I will not join.
• When I’m tired at 8pm, then I will go straight to bed.
Interested to understand more about this strategy and the power of if-then ritual? Here’s a great piece by Bina Venkataraman who teaches at MIT.
While these plans may sound simple they work. By making the plan your brain is creating an association between the situation and the behaviour. This helps to remember to do the specific behaviour in the specific situation. You might still forget the actual goal (going to bed early), but you remember when to engage in what behaviour that will lead you to achieve your goal.
Create your own if-then plan
Write down where you want to do this behaviour
(e.g., office, when working, before going to bed, outside), what most often stops you to engage in this behaviour (e..g, phone, too much work). Now write out an if-then plan.
Take your time to think about the right wording.
Berglas, S., & Jones, E. E. (1978). Drug choice as a self-handicapping strategy in response to noncontingent success. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 405-417.
Bieleke, M., Legrand, E., Mignon, A., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2018). More than planned: Implementation intention effects in non-planned situations. Acta Psychologica, 184, 64–74. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.actpsy.2017.06.003
Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Implementation Intentions and Goal Achievement: A Meta‐analysis of Effects and Processes. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 38, pp. 69–119). Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0065-2601(06)38002-1
Henderson, M. D., Gollwitzer, P. M., & Oettingen, G. (2007). Implementation intentions and disengagement from a failing course of action. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 20, 81–102.
Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. (2008). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Webb, T. L., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Does changing behavioral intentions engender behavior change? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 249–268.
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