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Ready, Set, Goal

Updated: Jan 8, 2022


Happy New Year! My guess is that you did not create a New Year’s Resolution. If you did, you’re in the minority. “According to a 2016 study, of the 41% of Americans who make New Years [sic] resolutions, by the end of the year only 9% feel they are successful in keeping them.” It doesn’t take very long to go from good intentions to bad outcomes. You will likely not be surprised to learn that, according to Harry Guinness’s post for the New York Times,

"by February around 80 percent of people have failed to stick to" their New Year's Resolutions. Given this, I’d bet that most people do not bother with New Year’s Resolutions not because they lack a desire to make changes, but because they have not found success in achieving the resolution. As Guinness writes,

"Life-changing commitments are just hard to, well, commit to. If most people can’t stay at it for six weeks, something must be wrong with the whole process."

The process that is in question is one of setting goals. Most adults seem to find setting and achieving goals almost impossible. Why? I would argue it's because we have not been taught how to do it well--if at all.

Interestingly, one of the most common questions I am asked about my books is how I was able to do it in the first place. To be honest, one of the major leverage points is my supportive husband, Howard, my biggest cheerleader and the person who I can count on to take things off my plate so I can spend time doing things like writing. Aside from him, I have had a lot of practice needing to set goals and create actions to achieve those goals and this letter is my way of sharing what I have learned through my own experiences and research.

Goal setting and goal attainment are difficult in part because people do not understand the difference between a goal and an action. Think of a goal as the target on the bullseye—it’s what you’re aiming for.

Actions, on the other hand, are the behaviors needed to achieve the goal. If the goal is to “lose weight,” then the actions would be to diet and exercise. Identifying the goal is important, but insufficient to achieve the goal since you also need to identify actions to take to make progress towards the goal.

Please do not infer from this letter that I am saying that you should set goals; my desire is to provide you with some ideas when and if you are setting goals. This is because so many people struggle to do so. If you are a teacher or a parent, the irony is that you are positioned to help children achieve their goals. Yet, it's exponentially more difficult to help others become good at something you're not good at yourself. (In next week's letter, I'll share the challenges of trying to teach something you don't know how to do well yourself.)

So, if you are like most people and struggle to achieve your goals, here are some common pitfalls and recommendations to consider that have helped me along the way.

Pitfall 1: Vague Goals

Have you ever wanted to lose weight, get active, or start a project and written the goal as, “lose weight” or “get active” or “start the project,” only to find that you do nothing. You’re not alone. The problem with this goal is that is it not a goal. Without a way to know exactly what you’re aiming for, you have a wish, not a clear goal.

Recommendation 1: Make It Measurable

Rather than “lose weight,” identify:

  • how much weight you want to lose

  • how much time you will give yourself to lose the weight

In this approach, “lose weight,” becomes “lose at least twenty pounds within the next three months.” The specificity of identifying "how much" and "by when" creates clarity.


Pitfall 2: No Plan

As the saying goes, you can’t fatten a pig by weighing it. The point is having a goal doesn’t achieve it—you need action. Let’s say that you have a clear goal, “lose at least twenty pounds within the next three months.” However, what’s missing here is a plan for how you will achieve the outcome. What are the actions? Diet? If so, what will you eat? Will you exercise? If so, where?When? How often?

Recommendation 2: Map It Out

In the book 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, Laura Vanderkam writes that if you map out your week to plan for the actions that you want to take, you are more likely to find the time you need to do the things you want. Not only would I recommend calendaring the actions related to the goal, but I would also identify the specifics needed for the actions. For example, if the goal is “lose at least twenty pounds within the next three months,” that would mean I would have to identify my weekly actions like “go to the gym and do 45 minutes of cardio and 15 minutes of weights at least three times each week” or “meal prep on Sundays to create daily meals that do not exceed 1200 calories.” These incremental actions form the map leading to the goal.


Pitfall 3: No Accountability

In The Odyssey, Ulysses directs his men to tie him to the mast of the ship so that when they sail by the sirens he is not lured to steer the ship into the rocks. As I wrote about in Engagement is Not a Unicorn (It’s a Narwhal), "Declaring one’s proactive plan is now referred to as a ‘Ulysses Contract,’ and there is research that shows that the simple acting of sharing your goals with others improves the likelihood of success. This is similar to but different from accountability partners [APs]. With an AP, you enlist a person to help you stay on course, whereas Ulysses Contracts enlist the proclamation of intent to help you stay on course” p. 28. Going it alone often means that you’re on a course for failure. In the losing weight example, you have no extrinsic accountability if you keep your goal a secret.

Recommendation 3: Find An Accountability Partner

Sharing your intent with others increases the likelihood of achieving the goal. Though you may be willing to let yourself down, we are often less comfortable disappointing others.

Again, from Engagement is Not a Unicorn (It’s a Narwhal), “changing behaviors (even when we want to) is very, very hard. …However, have you ever noticed that it is easier to do something difficult if you have an accountability partner (AP)? An AP is someone who you choose to either (a) answer to or (b) do the work with you. For example, an AP can be a friend who you work out with. You do not like to go to the gym, and if you went by yourself, it would be easy to say that you’re not going to go today. Nevertheless, you don’t want to disappoint your friend by being a no-show, so you go.

“An AP could also be someone who you have to share your progress with about your time at the gym. In this case, the AP doesn’t meet you at the gym, but is someone who will ask you about how your time at the gym went. In this example, since you know you’ll be asked about it, you go to the gym because you want to be able to report out on your progress. APs are part of the reason programs like Weight Watchers or even Alcoholics Anonymous work. In programs like these, the public aspect of sharing progress and having a network helps to create conditions for success” (p. 27-28).


Pitfall 4: Being a Perfectionist

If you are a perfectionist, when there is an inevitable set-back, you will quit. This is the type of thought like, “I’ve been trying to lose weight and I just ate two pieces of cake. I should just give up!”

Your perfectionism may also manifest as procrastination. Rather than quitting after a set-back, you may not even start because you fixate on everything that you think you need in place before you start. So, rather than getting started at all, you spend all of your time planning on getting started. Or, you may make the process so complicated that you look at the process and decide that you’ll never get it right so you don’t start. All of these are examples of perfectionism bogging you down.

Recommendation 4: Progress Over Perfection

Each chapter in Jon Acuff’s book Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done is a lie that prevents people from finishing, AKA, achieving their goals. Want to know what the biggest lie is? You guessed it. Perfectionism. Check out this quick video to hear a summary of the book.

The bottom line is that rather than aiming for perfection, aim for progress. That means instead of saying all or nothing, find ways to get closer even if it’s not perfect.

So, if your goal is to “lose at least twenty pounds within the next three months” you could say, “Even though I ate two slices of cake today, getting back on track is better than stopping altogether.”


Pitfall 5: No Mile Markers

Have you ever planned a multi-day road trip? If so, you likely started the map with your current location and your destination. Imagine if those were the only pins on the map? Every stop you made to go to the bathroom or get something to eat or stretch your legs or go to the scenic overview would feel like they were hindering your progress since they are not the final destination. However, the feelings about those stops would be altered if they were instead indicators of your progress away from the starting line and towards the final destination. Rather than being speed traps, they could be viewed as markers of your success.

If the goal is to “lose at least twenty pounds within the next three months,” those three months will feel very arduous without mile markers that document the progress on the journey.

Recommendation 5: Create Landmarks

If we create big goals, we will likely need some time before the goal is completed. Rather than being disappointed that the final goal is not yet achieved, it is much better to create landmarks to document the progress. I wrote about this in the book The BIG Book of Engagement Strategies. “I am living proof that the Couch to 5K app works. I not only was able to go from a person who was never a runner to running a 5K (3.1 miles), but I have since used the app to build up to a 10K and even up to running 10 miles. The app works by building up the runner’s stamina through interval training. In the version of the app I use (Run Double), the first interval has the new ‘runner’ go through eight intervals of sixty seconds of running and ninety seconds of walking. This means the runner is only running for a total of eight minutes. The runner repeats each interval three times during the week with each weekly interval getting progressively longer and harder. After ten weeks, the once couch-sitter is now a 5K runner” (p. 188). The ultimate goal was to run a 5K, but each week I had smaller, manageable goals that built up my ability to achieve the ultimate goal. These weekly manageable goals were my landmarks that let me know I was making progress.

If the goal is to “lose at least twenty pounds within the next three months,” what if you said that buying a scale and your first trip to the gym would be indicators of your journey? What if you got to treat yourself to a night with your friends when you lost ten pounds? These little victories are worthy of celebration and show momentum towards the goal.


Pitfall 6: Weak Investment in the Goal

Since achieving a goal is hard enough even when you really want to achieve it, goal achievement is practically impossible if the goal is not “emotionally compelling” for the person who has to do it.

If you don’t really want to lose weight, you won’t.

Recommendation 6: Make It Meaningful

While many people are familiar with S.M.A.R.T. Goals, I am not a fan. Aside from confusion most people have about what a relevant or timely goal is, S.M.A.R.T. Goals lack a focus on personal connection. In Engagement is Not a Unicorn (It’s a Narwhal), I write about Jim Knight’s P.E.E.R.S. Goal format. Knight is a Senior Partner of ICG and a research associate at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning and developed P.E.E.R.S. Goals for adults, though I adapted them for use with students. You can see what a student and an adult P.E.E.R.S. Goal look like here (you will see the differences between the original and adapted by noting the underlined words). “Knight emphasizes the importance of the goal being emotionally compelling because if someone isn’t moved to do the work, the work won’t get done” (p. 270).

If the goal is to “lose at least twenty pounds within the next three months,” then that goal has to matter to the person who is losing the weight. Not just a little bit. A lot! The person doing the work has to find value in the goal.


The bottom line is that goal achievement through goal setting is neither intuitive nor easy. If you want easy, make a wish. Have a dream. But, easy doesn't get you outcomes. Outcomes are the product of effort and hard work. Outcomes take a willingness to try and fail and try again. Outcomes are reserved for those who know what they want (make it measurable), create a plan (map it out), enlist the help of others (find an accountability partner), focus on progress (not perfection), find ways to celebrate little successes along the way (create landmarks), and go after goals that matter to them (make it meaningful).

To quote Sheryl Sandberg,

"Your life's course will not be determined by doing the things that you are certain you can do. Those are the easy things. It will be determined by whether you try the things that are hard."

With that, ready. Set. Go!


P.S. My Catches of the Week are three books that have changed the way I think about goals and goal setting. I encourage you to read any or all of them!

Measure What Matters by John Doerr

The 4 Disciplines of Execution by Chris McChesney, Jim Huling, and Sean Covey

Atomic Habits by James Clear

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1 Comment

Jessica Schaefer
Jessica Schaefer
Jan 07, 2022

I just got Atomic Habits for Christmas! Can't wait to dive in!

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