Updated on 03.31.11

Routinely Missing Personal Goals

Trent Hamm

Amy writes in:

I have no problem setting goals for myself. I follow the steps you suggest: make them realistic, make them numerical so I can keep track of them, write them down, and so on.

The problem is that when I come up with a plan to reach them, that plan completely falls apart within a week, every single time. I’ll have a four day run of working out at the gym, then a crisis will happen at work or my son will get sick and then I miss a day and once that chain is broken, I feel like such a failure that I don’t go back. I do the same thing with financial goals. I will do good for a while, then an emergency happens and I just give up.

What can I do? Help me achieve some goals here!

This happens to be a very common problem for motivated people who set strong goals for themselves. I usually find that when something like this happens to me, it’s a sign of one of three different basic problems, each of which has a different solution.

So let’s look at each one.

For examples throughout this post, I’m going to stick with the example Amy used of exercise goals, since it’s something many of us are familiar with. The same principles hold true for any sort of self-improvement goal, whether it’s financial or relationship-based or anything else.

Unrealistic or inflexible schedule
Your goal is to get into better shape. In order to do that, you decide that you’ll work out every day, perhaps using a system like P90X. For several days, you stick to it, but inevitably your life hands you some complexity that makes it impossible to work out for a day. Boom – you’ve fallen off your schedule and you feel like a failure.

The problem here isn’t your goal or your general idea for getting there. The problem is that your plan for getting there is so strict and tight that ordinary life will inevitably prevent you from getting there.

My suggestion is simple. Rather than saying “I will exercise every day” and feeling like a failure when you miss a day, say “I will exercise four times a week.” When you’ve set that goal, front load your week so that you have a good chance of knocking out those required four sessions right off the bat, then you can even shoot for exceeding that.

In short, give yourself a bit of room for flexibility. Assume that there are going to be times and days where things are going to keep you from executing your exact plan for that day. What kind of plan can you develop that takes that into account?

Poor measurements of success
As I’ve mentioned before, a good goal is one that offers a very clear way to describe success, often a numerical description, and completion of that goal often leads to the effect you want. “I want to lose weight” isn’t a good goal, for example, because it doesn’t describe what success is. Is it one pound? Is it a lot of pounds?

Of course, at the same time, “I want to lose 50 pounds” isn’t a good goal either, because pure weight loss is a rather poor metric for what you’re likely wanting to achieve.

What is it that you do want to achieve? Do you want to feel healthier? Do you want to look better? Do you want to live longer? Each of these has different things associated with it that you’d want to make happen, from diet to exercise.

Talk to people who understand these issues who can help you figure out what you should be aiming for with regards to success in those areas. These discussions should help you to have a much deeper understanding of what kinds of things you should actually be shooting for and provide you with some reasonable guidance for setting meaningful goals that will get you what you want.

Lack of external motivation
Another problem with many such goals is that they’re entirely internal. If you’re the only person involved with the goal, you’re the only person you let down if you fail to achieve the goal.

One way to break through this is to find a “buddy” who is working on the same (or a similar) goal as you are. This gives you someone to exchange tips and advice and motivation with as well as someone to actually participate in activities with. The key benefit, though, is that you’re no longer the only person involved with your goal. You’ve got another person who’s on the line with regards to your success. If you fail, you’re letting your buddy down, and that can be a huge motivator for people.

If you don’t have any sort of “buddy,” another method is to simply tell people about your goal and your plan to get there and ask them to keep you on your toes about it. When you know your close circle is going to be watching for your success, suddenly the motivation for your goal changes. Others are involved and the stakes are raised.

In the end, nothing can make you achieve a goal if you simply refuse to make progress towards it. However, just a few tweaks can turn something that feels insurmountable and pointless and not important to anyone else to something that feels reachable, vital, and valuable to people around you. That’s a drastic change in the nature of your goal and it can certainly make the difference between failure and success, whether you’re talking about financial goals, fitness goals, or any other type of personal goal.

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  1. Charles Anderson says:

    “I’ll have a four day run of working out at the gym, then a crisis will happen at work or my son will get sick and then I miss a day and once that chain is broken, I feel like such a failure that I don’t go back. ”

    Don’t feel like a failure. You made it to the gym 4 more times than you would have. Just go back to the gym the next time you can, and don’t wait till Monday. Go today.

    If you are doing nothing now, and the goal is four workouts per week. If you go twice, then you haven’t reached the goal, but guess what, you worked out twice.

    Life happens. You work out to improve your life, you don’t live your life to work out.

    The same thing applies to diet. If you fall off the wagon get back on. There is no shame in dieting all year so you can look good for your summer vacation and then chowing down during the holidays.

  2. Suzanne says:

    If you miss a day of the gym and it’s for a good reason…not because you “don’t feel like it” or something equally lame…let yourself miss a day or even two but promise yourself you will go the next day you possibly can, no excuses. Maybe even work a little harder that next day back. Getting to the gym 4 days in a week is quite an accomplishment for many people, so you should be proud you got there that many times!

    Life can get in the way sometimes and that doesn’t mean failure, it just means getting back onto the horse after it tosses you off.

  3. BrentABQ says:

    “What can I do from here to move forward?” Yesterday is the mountain that wont move, but today is where you act and nobody knows what tomorrow has in store. In a goal that is continual (diet, exercise, saving money etc) you got to give yourself breaks. 5-10% break. make it a 90-95% goal. Its that last 5% thats the hardest, don’t let it be the part that makes you fail. When I was working out towards a goal I had 2 partners that were training for their army entrance. The rule: each person is allowed to miss 1 day a week. Some days I bailed on them, some days they bailed on me.

  4. Meagan says:

    I actually plan to fall off the wagon with my diet at least once a week.

    I tend to eat a lot of chicken, so I end up craving beef. I usually go out for a bacon cheeseburger (and onion rings) on the weekend to satisfy that craving.

    In order to keep myself working out i actually have pretty minimal goals. One walk/workout video for either 20 minutes or 1 mile, if I feel like doing more thats always good, but I don’t beat myself up over not doing more.

    Days I don’t/can’t workout are usually days that are very active at work so I excuse not working out by telling myself I got some exercise at work.

  5. Tracy says:

    I would also add that if you’re consistently failing really early on, your expectations might actually be more realistic on paper than in reality.

    Make sure you’ve built some room for error into your goals. For example, try budgeting 10% more than you really expect to have to spend. Or try breaking up savings into smaller amounts.

    I do a thing personally where I automatically transfer a set amount into savings every week – that amount is actually *more* than my savings goal for the month, allowing me the flexibility to cancel it for a single week if an unexpected expense occurs and 1) still meet my savings goal for the month and 2) helps keep me from needing to dip into savings for minor unexpected expenses, which is good because I really, really hate transferring money out of savings even for legitimate purposes. It’s a thing :p

    I still win (achieve my goal) if I cancel a transfer, I just win more (save more) if I don’t need to. That won’t work for everyone but it does for me.

  6. Hunter says:

    It’s so difficult trying to keep all the balls in the air. It’s commendable that you even set goals. That’s puts you ahead of the pack.

    I think it’s ok to use external motivation. Have a buddy keep you on track, or have an inspirational book you can pick up when you feel yourself faltering.

    Never give up.

  7. Karen says:

    Amy, Trent and the comments give you a great starting point: make sure your goals are realistic, don’t be too hard on yourself, and restructure your motivational tricks.

    However, if you do all that and find yourself in the same place, consider a biological or neurological reason for the situation. I don’t know you, so I can’t be specific for you, but your letter could easily have been written by someone with either of the following:
    a) Hypothyroidism (often mimics depression)
    b) a history of being emotionally abused
    c) hormonal imbalance
    d) ADHD (with or without hyperactivity)

    That’s just the short list. Try the suggestions others have made, and track or document your efforts at those suggestions. If they work, wonderful! If you don’t see improvement, see you doctor.

  8. jackson says:

    Being flexible and attacking a goal indirectly may help. In Amy’s example, if you can’t go to the gym, how about walking around the block, doing sit-ups at home, etc. Anything to get some exercise.

    Your goal shouldn’t be going to the gym four times a week but exercising four times a week. Then break that goal into subgoals such as going to the gyn, riding a bike, etc.

  9. Cam says:

    I have a button that says “The beatings will continue till morale improves” to remind me that beating myself up about “failing” doesn’t help me do better or feel better about myself.

    Building a little leeway into your plans and being kinder to yourself when things don’t go as planned will go a long way. All that energy you are spending feeling bad can be directed into actually getting back on track!

  10. EngineerMom says:

    One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as an adult, a wife, and a parent, is to forgive myself.

    Amy needs to learn how to do that first. Falling off the wagon is no excuse not to get back on. That wagon ain’t going anywhere fast.

    I’m pregnant and have a mild form of gestational diabetes. Working with my body to control my blood sugar has really been a lesson in not allowing past mistakes to govern future choices. Say I have a doughnut in the morning and my b.s. shoots way up. I know that I want to bring it down, so I go for a walk and am more careful with what I eat for morning snack, lunch, etc. In my previous guilt-ridden mindset, I’d think “oh, I screwed up on my diet by having that doughnut, might as well go to McD’s for lunch and finish off the evening with a pizza and ice cream.”

    Now, I can’t do that – high blood sugar is dangerous for my body, for my baby, and for my chances of having a non-c-section delivery. So every time I make a mistake and don’t stick to my plan, I immediately go back. Every day I don’t make it to the gym for whatever reason, I try to go for as many walks as possible, after lunch, after naptime (I have a 2-year-old), after dinner, whatever.

    Interestingly, this has spurred DH to start doing whatever he can to exercise, too, including just doing a batch of pushups when goofing around with our son!

  11. Andrea says:

    I recently completed a 10K after setting a goal to do it seven weeks earlier. I’m in reasonable shape working out in a very hit or miss patern, but having the ‘looming’ deadline of race day helped me stay on track; mostly.

    BrentABQ suggested thh 90-95% rule. I always shoot for 90%, but usually end up with the 80/20 rule. I did keep track and for my race I met 77% of my planned work outs. That was sufficient to beat previous best time in a 10K from back when I was just 13 (31 years ago).

    Keep at it!

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