Why goals fail

Nora Akins

There are a number of goal setting practices. SMART, published in 1981, is still used today. Defining Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-Bound aspects of the goal is still a popular model. SMART, as well as other goal-setting models use information to develop a clear statement of intention. These models often fail because they don’t answer “why.” Knowing why makes it emotional, it ties to who we are and want to be.

It’s been determined that people have a trait to be either approach-motivated or avoidance-motivated. People who are approach-motivated may exercise to be fit; while those avoidance-motivated may exercise to avoid being overweight. The goal may fail if it doesn’t match the trait. Linking the goal to how the person is motivated connects to who we are.

Creating a goal hierarchy is needed to succeed. Organizing the goal from lofty, abstract goals to short-term tangible steps allows us to move from answering why to answering how. Moving from why which is emotional to how that is cognitive takes effort. One person cannot engage in why thinking and how thinking at the same time.

Most goals are related to living up to our standards. We can strengthen our emotional bond to the goal when we realize that why is to achieve our personal standard. This kind of thinking engages part of our brain for intention and mental state thinking. The how engages us to think about objects, preparation and action. A critical skill is to be able to adapt by switching back and forth between how and why thinking. This will allow you to manage and navigate roadblocks.

Goals fail because we can’t maintain this effort of goal striving[1]. For a goal to be achievable it must be sustained using little effort; it must become automatic. Behavior rewarded is behavior repeated is another old adage that works. Part of our brain builds associations between actions and rewards. Repetition and reward can result in habit that lessens our effort. Studies[2] have shown learned cues are more powerful than reward. One should deliberately pair a cue to a goal to establish a habit. For instance, before leaving the kitchen, I fill my glass with water. My goal is to drink more water. My cue is leaving the kitchen.

The social environment has a powerful effect on goal maintenance. Building a supportive social environment will help you achieve and maintain goals, develop better goals and learn more from your mistakes.

Intentionally becoming a better you isn’t as easy as “write it down and watch it happen”. It takes a why and a how; then a system to develop a habit. Add a support system to lock in the habit.

Best wishes!

Nora T. Akins, of Strategic Management provides management training and refines human resource systems to help employers build respectful workplaces. Reach Nora at 219 873-1735 or nora@managepeopleright.com

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