Top Ten Mistakes Most People Make When Setting Goals and How to Avoid Them

by Jennifer A. Gardner, M.D. on January 03, 2014

This is a time of year when we all make New Year’s Resolutions. Yet astonishingly, 70% of people abandon their resolutions in the FIRST week! Since we all start out with good intentions, what goes wrong?

This is a topic near and dear to me, as I want to see all our families succeed on the Healthy Kids Program. The roadblocks that separate success from failure are the same for adults and children; fortunately careful planning removes most of these.
 When engaging in goal setting, these tenets should be adhered to for the greatest chance of achieving our goals.

1. Failure to set transformational goals

For us to exert the significant effort required to achieve our goals they must be compelling; we must truly believe they are worth the time and effort. In other words, we need a really good reason to change!

The goals we are most likely to meet are the ones that get us excited. The best goals challenge us to change by making at least one aspect of life better:

  • physically or emotionally energizing
  • life stabilizing
  • spiritually moving or meaningful
  • intellectually stimulating

A goal should always be realistic and achievable with hard work, however. Challenging or outside of our comfort zone is good. Unachievable or outrageous is not.   

2. Failure to write down the goals

We are forty-two percent more likely to achieve a goal if we write it down.  So, write it down to make it happen! Even better: if the goal can be chunked into smaller successes, list them and then cross out as they are accomplished.

3. Creating too many goals

A Chinese proverb says it best, “Man who chases two rabbits catches neither!”  We shoot ourselves in the foot when we lay out too many goals. A maximum of five to seven goals are ideal (psychology tells us we focus best on this number or less).

4. Lack of variety in goals

Variety is the spice of life, and it turns out, a great foundation for successful goals. People tend to only focus goals in one area of their life (business/work goals, financial goals, intellectual pursuit goals, marital/relationship goals, parental goals, social goals, personal improvement goals, spiritual goals, weight/diet goals). Consider several of these areas to have balanced goals!

5. Goals are not specific enough 

Being specific helps bring our goals into focus. “Write a book” or “get into Harvard” are both dreams, not goals. But “finish insert book title and submit to a publisher by the end of the year” or “study every weekend for the SAT’s” is a well defined goal with a clear end-sight established.

6. Goal is not measurable/trackable

To sustain motivation long term we need to be able to measure success. “Lose 10 pounds this year” is specific and measurable, so we can check progress along the way.
“Increase SAT scores by X each month” is also specific and trackable.

When we can recognize success along the way we stay motivated. Conversely, when we have gone astray, we can recognize it and get back on track while still a small misstep, not a major failure. 

7. Goals are not front and center

Goals must be highly visible on a daily basis because the old adage, “Out of sight is out of mind” is very true. Even if a list was made, but not a daily reminder, this puts us at a disadvantage for reaching our goals.

Keeping them on the computer (such as Evernote), blogging about goals, creating a vision board/Pinterest board surrounding goals, journaling, or something that ritualizes goals keeps them visible and focused.

8. Failure to assign a deadline

Deadlines help prioritize and is the difference between a goal and a DREAM. This creates a sense of urgency that propels us toward our goal. Goals with closer deadlines helps us focus on what’s important.

9. Failure to identify what comes next

We don’t need all the steps identified, only the next step! If there are several options for the “next step” choose the easiest one first to build momentum. Sometimes the path is only clear one step at a time. Believing we need the entire plan often prevents us from starting.

10. Failure to envision what it will be like (feel like) when the goal is accomplished

We must really be able to visualize and feel it. If the goal is noble and worthwhile, it should give us a rush. Just the thought of achieving the goal should spur us on. We must go back and recapture these emotions when the going gets tough.


11. Failure to identify (and write down) the potential pitfalls before beginning 

With a little planning, envisioning, foresight, and pencil pushing we can give our goals the best chance of coming to fruition. 

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