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Why do we miss our goals?

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Why do we miss our goals?

Scott Miker

I have done a lot of research into goal setting and the reasons we get stuck and miss our goals.   Despite the massive amounts of research that has gone into this field I still believe it comes down to a relatively simple explanation. 

When I was in college and just after graduation I found myself constantly failing to reach my goals.  I will highlight three in this article but the reality was there were a lot more than three but they all seemed to fall into patterns that looked eerily familiar. 

The first goal that I just couldn’t seem to reach was to quit smoking.  I wasn’t smoking a lot but I could not seem to shake this habit.  I knew in my mind that I should quit; I wanted to quit; yet every time I tried I fell back to same place of disappointment.  In fact I used to joke about it.  I would always tell people “quitting is easy, I have done it a thousand times.”

The next goal was around losing weight.  I was gaining weight and feeling the effects.  I wanted to lose weight but every diet or exercise routine would end after a few days.  Regardless of what I tried I couldn’t get anything to last more than about two weeks. 

The last goal that perplexed me had to do with my finances.  All through college I kept a credit card balance as close to zero as possible.  I would pay off the balance every month and only let it slip a few times.  But towards the end of college I started to build up a balance.  This continued past college and grew quite significantly.  I was starting a business and using the credit card to finance equipment purchases.  But I also used it for excessive things like going out with friends or a piece of equipment that wasn’t really necessary but I talked myself into. 

All three of these goals and subsequent failures are very common.  Many of us struggle with these goals and others like them.  Regardless of how we try to improve, we just can’t seem to get going for long enough to see results. 

I found out that in my case the reason was fairly simple.  It had to do with my approach towards self-improvement.  The pattern reflected my early motivation that this time will be the time it works.   I would set out inspired that I can do it.  I would find a complicated, difficult solution and convince myself that my willpower would get me to the finish line.

But every time the same thing happened.  After a few successful attempts I would start to lose motivation.  My willpower would seem to vanish and I was left with the feeling that I just couldn’t succeed. 

But eventually I had made a shift.  I started realizing that, in business, success was more about the business systems than anything else.  If you could put a system in place to solve the problem it was more likely to work than simply trying to solve this one problem this one time.  I started realizing this new way to approach improvement.  It became more about small shifts in behavior, rather than new workout techniques or smoking cessation tools. 

The reason that I feel that this systems approach has been so successful is because it changes how I go after my goals.  Instead of getting fooled by the early motivation I simply use that to start a very, very small, positive behavior.  Then I keep doing it over and over again.  Once it starts to become habit I then add another very, very small, positive behavior.  After a while I find myself suddenly filled with a bunch of positive habits that are taking me towards success rather than away from it. 

The shift changes the overall approach to improvement.  Now whenever I talk to people about their goals I usually tell them there are three options. 

Option 1 is that it can be easy.  Option 2 is that it can be quick.  Option 3 is that it can be effective. 

But the key is that all three can’t coexist.  You can only choose 2.  It can be quick and effective but that means it will certainly not be easy.  It can be quick and easy but won’t be effective.  Or you can choose easy and effective.  The downside is that it won’t be quick.  It isn’t the solution to lose 10 lbs by summer.  It is the solution that says over time these small, easy changes will add up to something significant. 

Using systems and habits to solve goals removes quick from the equation.  I have not found a quick fix that is actually easy and effective.  But over and over again I have found that small positive shifts can turn into habits and then those habits lead to results. 

I applied this to all three of my failed goals and finally was able to break through.  By shifting my focus to be on slow progress I was able to overcome the typical obstacles and break away from the faulty pattern I had developed.  Once I realized that this approach works, I set out to find other areas where I could use this approach.  I encourage everyone to find ways to work slowly towards your goals and continue to make progress, even if it means success won’t come quickly.