As a coach, I often help my clients achieve their big work and life goals. And unfortunately, I’ve found that many people (my clients included) make some common goal-setting mistakes that prevent them from reaching goals that are meaningful and make goal-achievement more difficult.
Because I don’t want that to happen to you, I’m sharing the 10 most common goal-setting mistakes (that you’re probably making) and how to fix them. To help you NOT make these mistakes (and instead set meaningful goals that you’re more likely to achieve), be sure to download the Successful Goal-Setting Worksheet.
Let’s get started.
Table of Contents
Why Reaching Goals Is Dependent on Your Goal-Setting Strategies
Most people set personal and professional goals in a way that hinders their ability to achieve them (and even predestines them for failure). That’s because they often set goals that:
- Are glorified New Year’s resolutions (with little thought or specificity),
- Aren’t meaningful enough (making it difficult to stay motivated and leading to unhappy results), or
- Are unrealistic or can’t be achieved within a reasonable time-frame (leading them to give up).
Goal-setting isn’t just about deciding that you want to achieve something. It’s the foundation to successful goal-achievement.
And success isn’t just about reaching your goal. It’s also about enjoying yourself along the way and being happy with where you end up. For that to occur, you need to be intentional about how you set your goals and avoid some common goal-setting mistakes.
Before we get into the 10 goal-setting mistakes below, be sure to grab a copy of your free Successful Goal-Setting Worksheet. This simple worksheet will take you step-by-step through an easy goal-setting process for setting meaningful goals that are fun to achieve (while avoiding all the common mistakes).
Get your copy of the Successful Goal-Setting Worksheet here:
10 Goal-Setting Mistakes to Avoid (To Start Reaching Goals that Are Meaningful and Fun)
Goal-Setting Mistake #1: Not Knowing Your Why
One of the worst goal-setting mistakes you can make is to set goals that don’t align with who you are or what you want out of your life.
Goal-achievement is a marathon, and you’ll want to stay motivated along the way. Knowing your deeper why is what keeps you motivated to keep going when things get hard (because they will).
How to Determine Your Deeper Why (So You Can Set and Reach Goals that Matter)
To help determine your deeper why, you need to understand your core values. Your values are your identity and help to bring meaning to your life. They are the foundation to what motivates and excites you.
And they’re your compass for making decisions that feel good. That means that they’re also your guide to successful goal-setting.
If you set a goal that doesn’t align with your values, you won’t be happy while working to achieve it or with your end result. Instead, you’ll be trying to achieve goals that other people might approve of yet you won’t be all that happy with.
[Recommended Reading: To learn more about the relationship between your core personal values and happiness (and how to start uncovering yours), read How to Redefine Yourself Into Happiness].
Why Reaching Goals Is Dependent on Your Values (Case Study)
One of my core values is service. I value serving others to the best of my ability – and also want to serve the world as best as I can.
After I made partner (back in my legal days), the economy was in shambles and I felt forced to develop a book of business in an area of law where I had lots of contacts, yet didn’t align with my value of service. In fact, I felt like I was aiding something I strongly disagreed with.
Although the decisions seemed to make sense, it didn’t work. . . at all.
I felt unmotivated, kept making excuses and adopted some self-sabotaging behaviors as an avoidance tactic. After getting nowhere a year later, I decided to pivot into something that was more enjoyable and made me feel like I was serving people.
Even though I had to start from scratch (and had zero contacts in my newly chosen area of practice), my business quickly took off. I was inspired to take action, less fearful, and much less likely to make excuses. And my exuberance showed (and played to my advantage).
I learned a valuable lesson that year: always align goals with core values ( and don’t set goals that conflict with a value).
Goal-Setting Mistake #2: Letting Your Ego Get In the Way
An ego-based goal is one that’s set primarily to feed your ego. And (as a human being with an ego), it’s easy to sometimes let your ego take over and create a goal that’s primarily ego-based.
There are two big problems with ego-based goals. First, any positive feelings upon achievement are fleeting. You’re left wanting something more because the goal isn’t meaningful enough.
Second, your happiness becomes dependent on your success, which means that you’re likely to feel like a complete failure as a person if you’re unable to fully achieve your goal.
I don’t know about you, but any goal that makes me feel like a failure if I don’t achieve it and doesn’t provide complete satisfaction upon achieving it isn’t worth my time or effort!
Let me be clear: I’m not saying that you can’t have goals that make you feel good about yourself. What I’m saying is that goals shouldn’t be purely ego-based. They need to connect to something that’s more meaningful than that and be framed accordingly.
If you can’t re-frame an ego-based goal by giving it deeper meaning, then it’s not connected to anything you truly value. Drop it.
Re-framing Ego-Based Goals
Let’s say that you want to make more money. You know it feeds your ego and makes you feel powerful. Although that might feel good initially, it’s not meaningful enough (and is purely ego-based).
Instead, explore why you want to make more money. Perhaps you want to pay off debt and start saving for your future. Those reasons relate to financial security, and are more meaningful.
As another example, let’s say that you want to lose 25 pounds because summer is coming (and you want to look amazing in an old bathing suit that you haven’t worn in several years). Although that seems like a good enough reason, it’s purely ego-based (and hence isn’t meaningful enough).
Explore other reasons for why you want to lose weight. You might want to feel more energized and healthy. And you may also desire to get control of your eating so that you can be a good role model for your kids. Those are more meaningful (and not ego-driven) reasons.
Goal-Setting Mistake #3: Going Too Big
Don’t set goals so large that they aren’t achievable within a reasonable time frame.
Why Going Too Big Is a Mistake
Here’s the thing: your goals must be realistic. You need to be able to believe that you can achieve them. When goals are too big, your mind won’t believe that it’s possible (even if it is possible somewhere in the distant future).
The human brain isn’t likely to stay motivated (or believe fully) if you can’t see that you’re making real progress toward your goal. And if reaching your goal is too far out, then you’ll likely lose heart and give up.
I’m not saying that you can’t set big goals. Your goals (and reaching your goals) should stretch you.
But big goals have unique drawbacks that need some extra attention and planning. And sometimes it’s better to convert your lofty goals into a long-term vision while setting a smaller goal that gets you closer to it (and that’s achievable within a reasonable time frame).
How to Revise Too-Big Goals
Set goals that can be achieved within a 12-month period. If it’s not realistic to achieve your goal within 12 months, then break it down. Determine what needs to be done first (or the first few steps) and set your goal based only on that.
Note that this doesn’t mean that you give up on your overall vision. It’s just that you’ve put part of it off for later. This is a bit of a Jedi-mind trick – but it works. It allows you to create the momentum to get started and to keep going.
Case Study on Reaching Goals By Going Smaller
I have a client that came to me for the purpose of building a bigger book of business (he’s an attorney). Initially, his goal was to get to a certain dollar amount in revenue.
But after I asked him some tough questions, he realized that level wasn’t achievable within a one-year period. Especially since he was pivoting to a new area of law and needed to get that information out into the market.
Although his long-term vision includes getting to that revenue target, he decided to reset his annual goal toward his marketing efforts (which was the first thing that needed to get done to be able to ultimately achieve his revenue target).
[Note: he achieved his marketing goal, massively increased his business and is likely to set his original revenue goal for next year].
Mistake #4: Setting Too Many Goals
How many goals do you work toward at once? In my experience, most people set 3-5 work goals and another 3-5 personal life goals. And that’s too many!
The problem is that when you have so many goals, you end up multitasking them (and your time and attention ends up being pulled in so many directions that you can’t effectively achieve all of your goals).
Multitasking is bad for your brain and your mental health (so stop doing it, especially when it comes to your goals!). Limit yourself to 5 goals at a time. That’s an all-inclusive number (5 total work and personal goals).
Remember: you can set new goals once you achieve your current ones!
Mistake #5: Setting Vague, Non-Specific Goals
Reaching goals requires that you know exactly where you’re going. Otherwise, it’s difficult to determine how to get there. And that means setting specific goals, with clear points of measurement for achievement.
Want to lose weight? Set a specific weight that you want to reach.
Interested in being healthier? Define what healthier means to you and exactly how you’ll achieve it (because it could mean cutting back on fat, exercising more, getting more sleep or all of the above).
The reason most people aren’t specific enough is because it gives you a target to measure yourself by, making it obvious when you’ve missed it. And failure is scary!
But the truth is that you WILL fail if you don’t get specific. Setting goals with specificity makes them more actionable. It helps you to better determine what to do (and your first, and then next step).
Goal-Setting Mistake #6: Going Too Small
Many people set goals that are easy to achieve. But if you’re already likely to achieve something, what’s the point for setting the goal?
The purpose of goal-setting is to help you grow and develop as a person. And to do that, you need to stretch yourself. Besides, you’re more likely to get excited about something that challenges you and to stay motivated (you certainly won’t be bored).
If you’re a bit nervous and question whether you can really get there, then you’ve probably set the right goal for yourself. Just remember that the goal shouldn’t be impossible (or near-impossible). It should be do-able yet push you.
[Recommended Reading: Saying No to New Year’s Resolutions (and Yes to Something Better)]
Goal-Setting Mistake #7: Underestimating Time and Distractions
If you want to successfully reach goals, then you need to be realistic about time constraints, real-life and your abilities. For example, don’t expect that you’ll be able to deprive yourself of sleep for most of a year (or that unexpected events won’t throw you off track).
That means that you need to (1) consider how much work will be involved to achieve your goal, (2) think through how long it will likely take, assuming interruptions and that things won’t always go as planned, and (3) build wiggle room into your plan for unexpected events and contingencies.
I’m not telling you to go through every potential pitfall that could possible occur (or to get stuck in “what if” mode). However, you do need to take some time to account for the fact that life happens (and you’re only human).
For this reason, I recommend setting goals with 3 achievement levels: good, better and best. This allows for flexibility without getting caught up in thinking that you’re a failure if you don’t reach your top-level goal.
Goal-Setting Mistake #8: Not Paying Attention to Habits
Reaching goals is dependent on your habits. That’s because they are what ultimately help and hinder you from reaching goals.
When setting goals, it’s important to identify (1) what habits could get in your way, (2) which habits can help you, and (3) the habits you want to develop.
When it comes to your current habits, pay attention to:
- What triggers you into your behavior (and how you might want to change or amplify it),
- The actions you tend to take (i.e., the actual behavior), and
- The benefits you get from your habits (even your negative habits have some benefit, so identify what that is).
This analysis will help you create a framework for where you’d like to make changes and how to best make it work.
As for how to develop new habits: start small and build from there. Most people go too far and make it difficult to change their habits. You don’t have to take a big leap, just one small step at a time.
Note: sometimes you’ll discover that you want to set a new goal around developing a new habit.
Goal-Setting Mistake #9: Setting Negative Goals
You’re more likely to get things done when you’re happy and in a positive frame of mind. That doesn’t change when it comes to goal-achievement. If you want to achieve your goals, you need to stay positive and focused when things get hard.
Make no mistake: goal-achievement isn’t easy. It requires hard work. And life happens – unexpected and unplanned things will occur that can get you off track.
Your thoughts influence your behavior. They create emotions and feelings, which directly affect your actions (i.e., what you’re willing to do and how motivated you are to do it). Your mindset around a goal is one of the biggest indicators of whether your not you’ll achieve it.
It’s difficult to achieve goals that are negative because negative goals just aren’t attractive. They don’t motivate you like positive goals do. That’s why it’s so important to frame your goals positively.
So, how do you do that?
How to Frame Goals In Positive Manner (So You Can Start Reaching Goals With Ease)
If your goal is about what you don’t want, then it’s important to flip it into a positive. For example, instead of setting a goal around how much weight you want to lose, set it around where you want to end up.
But there’s more to being positive than just setting the goal in a positive manner. I also want you to identify everything you’ll get out of your goal. What will you learn or develop along your way to achieving it? Where will you end up (and why does that matter)?
Remember that the goal-achievement process is beneficial to you. You’ll be developing positive habits and cultivating new skills. Get clarity around all the benefits.
This will help you stay the course when things get hard.
[Recommended Reading: How to Be More Self-Confident at Work by Changing Your Mindset].
Case Study for Reaching Goals By Re-framing a Negative Into a Positive
One of my clients came to me with a goal of wanting to lose weight. She’d had this goal previously and didn’t understand why it was so difficult for her to achieve.
After some coaching, she discovered that she associated weight loss with deprivation, dieting and long (difficult) workouts. So we re-framed her weight loss goals into 2 separate goals that would get her to the same place:
- Develop a habit of working out while having fun, and
- Eat a real food diet 95% of the time (by year-end).
To get her where she ultimately wanted, she started with 10-minute workouts 5 days a week and built up from there. By the end of the year, she was regularly working out 4-5 times per week for at least 45 minutes per workout (and enjoying it).
With respect to her food, she started by eating fresh fruits and vegetables several days per week, and worked from there. And she lost the weight!
Goal-Setting Mistake #10: Not Identifying Your First Action
Reaching goals requires that you take action to achieve them. After all, that’s the whole point of setting goals!
And at the beginning, it can feel overwhelming to get started – too far off. Even specific, measurable goals that are achievable within a year can feel that way.
That’s why it’s important to think about where you’d like to get started. I’m not telling you to create a big plan of action. Doing that will likely have the opposite effect than what you want (and keep you stuck).
Instead, identify your first step and a due date for that step so that you’ll actually get started.
[Recommended Reading: 7 Secrets to Staying Peacefully Productive and Overwhelm Free]
It’s Time To Start Reaching Goals That Are Meaningful and Make You Happy
Reaching goals that are meaningful (and fun to achieve) is possible. But to do that, you need to be sure NOT to make the mistakes noted above.
You can either check your goals against the common mistakes above (which can work, but is pretty time-consuming) or download the Successful Goal-Setting Worksheet, which has everything you need to set goals that are meaningful while avoiding all the mistakes above.