Eight forces that oppose goal-setting, and how to beat them

Something there is that doesn’t love a goal….

I recently read Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall,” which begins this way: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall….” He’s describing the stone walls of New England – simple piles of rounded rocks and boulders dragged by farmers working their land to form property lines. Every spring, they repaired parts of the wall that had been tipped over by the swelling of frozen soil. The frost was an opposing force – it didn’t love the wall.

There are mysterious forces arrayed against those who choose to set goals as well. It’s not easy work to decide what we want in areas like finances, family relationships, spirituality, friendships, or health.

I’ve observed eight forces that don’t seem to love worthwhile and exciting goals. They’re all powerful negative pressures, but there is a way to beat each of them.

1. Doubt. “I’ve wished for changes like this before, but I’ve never seen them come true.”

Some people avoid setting goals because they’ve never experienced the joy of successful goal achievement. They’ve wished and dreamed, but never taken concrete and sustained action.

Have you ever seen a maple seed floating through the air with its wing twirling like a helicopter blade? To me, wishes are like those seeds – potential and possibility blowing around on the wind. If that seed is ever to become a massive and mighty maple tree, it needs to settle into fertile soil and receive sunshine and rain.

If your dreams are ever to come true, they need to be set into a time-bound plan and acted upon – planted and fed. The dream must become a goal. To get past doubt, get moving. What’s one specific step you can take to move you closer to what you want?

2. Fogginess. “I know I want things to be different, but I don’t know exactly how.””

Sometimes we can’t set a destination because we’re enveloped in a fog bank of vague unhappiness. We’ve all felt that tug of discontent, the “blah” that sucks the energy out of our day.

The good news: discontent is a signal that better things are possible for you. It’s a ringing doorbell that motivates you to get up out of your seat. Don’t sit there in your discontent forever – stand up and answer the door! Practically speaking, do something to put a name to the possibilities –– describe the way things could be better.

Here’s one: “It would be good if I had an emergency fund for unexpected expenses.” That’s a start, but it’s still a little foggy. You need more clarity.

“I want to save $1,000 in an emergency fund by the end of the year.” Ah, yes. That’s clear as crystal. You’ve got a worthwhile goal.

3. Complacency. “Things seem fine the way they are. Why bother?”

It’s impossible to find energy for goal-setting when there’s little desire for change. Nothing could make me want something I don’t want, right?

Not quite. No offense to anyone who’s satisfied with the status quo, but I think complacency is the result of ignorance. By ignorance, I mean that you don’t know what you’re missing. You have to be aware of the possibility for a better life before you’ll desire it enough to work for it.

My wife and I visited Albania in 1993, very soon after the fall of a communist dictatorship that had forbidden its people to access the rest of the world through media or travel. By keeping the masses ignorant of their relative poverty and limited personal freedoms, the dictatorship kept absolute control.

Once awakened to the truth by media, Albanians broke through complacency and fought for the opportunity to elect their own president, Sali Berisha, in 1992. When I met President Berisha in 1993 as part of a group doing a video documentary, one of his main areas of focus was privatization – making it possible for individuals to own property that was previously owned by the state.

During our visit, our host family had the opportunity to purchase their one-bedroom apartment. For them, home ownership had never before even been on the radar- they didn’t know what they were missing. Now that it was, they strongly desired it and it became their goal.

4. Faithlessness. “I don’t believe God can or will help me with this.”

When trouble strikes, we often look to Heaven and ask “why me, Lord?” Unless we take the time to relate with Him beyond shaking our fists, the experience can contribute to an erosion of faith.

The best answer to faithlessness is the simplest. Go back to God. Read the Bible and listen for love, help, and encouragement. God has met me in this circumstance over and over again, and I know He will meet you there as well.

5. The prospect of failure. “I might not be able to do this.”

A consultant recently shared with me the fearfulness that can accompany goal-setting. He reminded me that goals are binary – you either reach them or you don’t. You succeed or you fail. Goal-setting may provide clarity of focus, but it also invites the real possibility of failure.

Achievement isn’t magical – it’s logical. While no success comes without focused effort, the reality is that not all efforts will lead to goal achievement. There are no guarantees of success. Therefore it makes sense to consider the prospect of failure instead of ignoring it.

The success literature of both the past and the present is filled with claims that “you can achieve it if you can believe it.” Sorry – not true. You may sincerely believe you can walk through walls, but all you’ll get is a broken nose. It is true, however, that you probably won’t achieve anything if you truly don’t believe you can.

You might not be able to do the thing you’re about to try. Then again, you might. Nobody can guarantee success. One thing that is guaranteed, however, is this: you won’t achieve it unless you try it.

6. Fear of ridicule. “I don’t even dare to try this – people will just laugh at me.”

Nothing is a more powerful goal-suppressant than the fear of being made fun of. Ridicule strikes deep into the self-perception, creating self-doubt and fear. Maybe you try a new skill and get laughed at when you fumble at first. Right away you begin to believe that because you’re not perfect at it yet, you’re no good. If this happens over and over, you’ll start to give up before you’ve even started!

Just as the destructive wounds of ridicule are hidden deep inside you, so is one of the antidotes to ridicule’s venom. Way back when you were a preschooler, before anyone bothered to pick on you or put you down, you believed great things about yourself. Do you remember that?

If not, spend some time with four-year-olds. You’ll meet people who are going to be teachers, dancers, singers, artists, astronauts, even the President. Nobody’s yet told them that they can’t do it. When they see, hear or do something they really like, they say “I want to be like that” or “I want to do that.” And with childlike simplicity, they believe they can and will.

That part of you – the hopeful, childlike, optimistic part – still exists inside of you. Because the opinions of others are simply irrelevant to this part of your core self, it is impervious to attack. It is a resource from which to draw when others have drained your self-esteem. To tap into it, ask yourself questions like this:

  • What makes me feel really alive and energized when I’m doing it?
  • If my resources were unlimited and I knew I couldn’t fail, what would I aim to do?

If you put the answers to these questions into writing, you begin to define yourself not based on the reactions or opinions of other people, but based on who you really are. Get comfortable with the person you discover yourself to be, and ridicule will bounce off of you. You’ll find energy to set and achieve amazing goals for your life.

7. Distraction. “I’d love to set goals – I just don’t have time….”

As a coach, I regularly hear people complain that they don’t have time for this or that. I feel their pain, but internally I’m saying ‘you have as much time as everyone else on the planet.’ What matters is how the time is being spent. A college advisor once challenged us to think about the phrase “spending time.” She asked us to take literally the verb “spend” – to think of hours as currency like we would a crisp, new $20 bill. When we spend money, we expect to get something of value in return – we call that a purchase. If someone takes our money without exchanging it for something, we call it robbery (or taxes.) When we spend time, the professor reminded us, we ought to examine the value of what we get in return.

Think about the value of your time when you’re faced with the various urgencies that interrupt your day. “Urgent” is often an illusion. Time-takers that seem urgent are often tiny, inconsequential things that appear larger than they really are. They’re like the Wizard of Oz hiding behind an elaborate façade. It takes discernment, discipline and planning to conquer these distractions and focus on important goals.

Here’s a simple example. If you begin your workday by checking email, you’re going to get snagged and dragged into stuff that isn’t on your high-priority to-do list. Email can wait until you’ve devoted at least your first 60-90 minutes to the important stuff. When you do read email, look at the clock and decide when you’ll be done. Then stop. And close the app. And shut off notifications.

Being connected  can be great, but it can also be like a pack of yipping dogs that constantly interrupt the precious flow of conscious thought. For me, doing a good job at anything takes concentration. I can’t focus well when I’m constantly seeing or hearing social media notifications – noisy puppies of technological distraction. The barrage is near-constant: “Yip! yip! yip!” If you could translate the yipping doggie language (or the subtext of many emails, posts and tweets), you’d discover that all they’re saying is: “Hey! Look at me!” They get your attention but there’s no real content.

The other morning I got to work early to catch up on critical tasks. Things were going well until an email notice popped up. My mind wandered, I clicked, and 20 minutes later when my co-workers arrived, my catch-up work wasn’t done.

Please be better than I was that day. Don’t get waylaid by distraction. Take control of your inputs and you’ll be able to focus and get some amazing things done.

8. Real life. “I’m overwhelmed already.”

Not everything that consumes our time is a distraction. We all carry a load of responsibility that’s real and significant. Whether you’re an entrepreneur, an executive, a parent, or a student, you’ve got a lot going on. Good stuff. Important stuff.

A friend of mine pointed out that this is one reason people find goal-setting such a challenge. They’re faced with so much in the “here and now” that planning for three months, much less three years down the road seems daunting.

I have a suggestion that might help. When you plan your day tomorrow, make time to take yourself to lunch, if you can. Go somewhere quiet, enjoy your meal, and then sit with a notepad and spend ten minutes writing your answer to this question: “What do I want to be different in the future?”

Maybe you’ll make a bulleted list of five or ten things – things about yourself, your relationships, or your vocation that you want to look different at some point. Perhaps you’ll jot down a paragraph or two that describes what you want to change about your organization or department.

That’s a start – you’ve created a glimpse into a future you can look forward to. With this act, you’ve taken control. You’ve actually got a vision statement in thumbnail sketch form. At your next lunch date with yourself, turn a few aspects of your future vision into goals. What are you going to do? By when?

Yes, it’s true – something there is that doesn’t love a goal – lots of things. Whether you’re facing doubt, fogginess, complacency, fear or distraction, the way to beat the opposition is to face it, deal with it and move beyond it. Wishing, whining, hiding and complaining aren’t for you. You’re better than that – you’re a goal-setter! Happy 2016!



What’s Sapping Your Motivation? Find out!

Google the word “motivation” and you’ll get back over 265 million results. It’s a hugely popular self-help topic for at least one reason: motivation is difficult to sustain over the long haul. It needs to be nurtured by the right conditions, sustained by an environment that reinforces and energizes the activity you undertake to achieve your goals. Too often, however, we find ourselves in an atmosphere at work, at home, or at school that does the opposite. It drains our motivation and leaves us exhausted.

What kills or builds motivation will be different for different personality styles. See where you fit in the list below:

  • Delighted by Details – if this describes you, then one major drain on your motivation is being put in a position where you have to act before you completely understand the situation. You enjoy getting all the facts and comprehending all the implications. Until you’re satisfied that you know precisely what will happen as a result of an action, you’re not ready to make a move.
  • Like to Take it Slow – if you’d prefer a steady, even pace, then sudden changes in direction will sap your motivational energy. Interruptions and pressure cause you to shut down. You need an environment in which you’re allowed to take time to adapt to change. If change is forced on you, you may react with passive negativity.
  • Driven to Achieve – for you, the least motivational atmosphere is one in which you’re given direct orders without getting a “say.” You much prefer to be in control and in charge, especially in situations where your leadership can be recognized and appreciated. When you feel pushed and bossed around, you don’t shut down. Instead, you push back. The conflict quickly drains any positive motivation.
  • Loving the Social Life – if you’re a talkative, relational person, then what messes with your motivation is the feeling that you’ve been rejected. You enjoy developing rapport with others, giving and receiving affirmation in equal measure. The unexpected sting of being criticized or put down will deplete your positive energy.

 If you can relate to one or more of the behavioral styles above, watch out for the motivation-busters listed. If you can, try to insulate yourself from the negative influences that consistently weaken your resolve. Choose to spend time with people whose positivity has an uplifting effect on you. If possible, express your desire for a change in the environment. If you’d like more time to think through a problem, ask for it. Want more control and responsibility in a project? Volunteer to lead it. Sometimes you can’t escape or change the difficult atmosphere. In those cases, try to take the long view – remember that the pressure can’t last forever. Hang in there!

Stop waiting for permission to change the world

Another read-through of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has me focusing on being proactive – the first habit. Its opposite is reactivity – responding without thought – a habit that induces a victim mentality and a feeling of powerlessness.

This concept reminded me of  the time a group of friends were lamenting to me about a situation that needed to be addressed. The problem was in their area of responsibility, but the leader of their group had made no effort to address it.

My friends were waiting to be told what to do, even though they knew both what needed to be done and how to do it. My suggestion was to go ahead and solve the problem, then report the results to their leader. I encouraged them to be proactive.

Covey said that we’re all endowed with the complex, powerful attributes of imagination, conscience, self-awareness, and independent will. Can you imagine what would happen if we all intentionally put these “powers” to work in creating solutions every day?

This quote, attributed to Napoleon Hill, describes what seems to happen when we stop waiting for permission to change the world:

“The world has the habit of making room for the man whose actions show that he knows where he is going.”

Do you have the solution to a problem in your sphere of influence? What’s keeping you from moving ahead and solving it?