Why achieving our goals is so hard

April 1st is just about the time our New Year’s resolutions expire. The time when we finally admit that the gym membership was probably a waste of money, that paying down a credit card isn’t as much fun as filling it up, and that learning to play the piano like Billy Joel or Alicia Keys is a lot harder than it looks. Especially when you can’t seem to get past Camptown Races or Ba Ba Black Sheep after 3 months of lessons.

What’s odd about this time, however, is that you would think our inability to achieve even one of the goals we set for ourselves would cause us to spend the entire Spring season curled up in the fetal position feeling like a complete and utter failure. But we don’t. In fact, we don’t even give it much thought.

Now there are lots of reasons for this, but I will share with you one that may help you in setting future goals. It requires understanding how our brains work and the outside forces that influence the choices we make and the amount effort we put forth.

There has been an awful lot of research around goal-setting and the psychology of making your goals public. The simple explanation is that if you set a certain goal for yourself, the likelihood of you reaching that goal is greatly enhanced when you make your intentions public.  So, if you want to lose 20 pounds before your beach vacation in August, the key to success is telling your family and friends and everyone you know that you are going to do it.  The brain science behind it is pretty simple: We are social animals who rely on social relationships. If I say I’m going to do something, I better do it.  Otherwise, I can’t really be trusted or taken seriously. We worry more about the loss of our reputation than the loss of our weight and THAT is what motivates us to reach our goal.

But recently, a team of researchers in Germany discovered another interesting phenomena that directly impacts the goals we set for ourselves and may explain not only why we often fail to reach them, but why we accept failure without losing much sleep.  It seems that our brain is sometimes confused as to when our goals are actually reached.

Here’s the short version.  When you set a goal that is more...aspirational...rather than specific, our brain seeks very different results and is satisfied much sooner than we need it to be. If your New Year’s resolution is to lose weight, outside forces, such as a scale, your clothes feeling looser, and a friend telling you how great you look, all inform your brain that you have reached your goal.  You lost weight.  It may not be as much as you wanted, but because you weren’t specific with your brain, as soon as it was satisfied, it stopped motivating you to keep going. 

So here’s your challenge: make sure your goals are VERY specific. Don’t say you are going to build better relationships with your clients and staff.  Tell your brain exactly what that means. Don’t say you are going to improve your customer service.  Tell your brain exactly what you need to do. Don’t say you are going to get better grades, lose weight, pay down your debt, or learn to play the piano. Your brain may just quit on you as soon as it senses any progress. 

James Kane