Why I haven’t succeeded in reaching my goals (and maybe why you haven’t either)

As a self-proclaimed improvement junkie, I have learned all the common productivity tips, SMART goals, and motivation hacks. Yet applying these techniques can take as much effort as working toward the goal itself. I often find myself getting caught up in the process and not actually achieving anything. Furthermore, if I had the motivation to honestly apply these techniques I probably wouldn’t need them in order to reach my goals, because I had the intrinsic motivation to stick to a technique as I would working toward a goal.

I am not entirely lazy. I have achieved many wonderful things in my life and am for the most part happy. There remains however some lingering goals that are permanently on my to-do list, as well as a sense of emptiness after all that I have done and become. During my latest episode of self-evaluation I have begun to realize why this may be the case.

I tend to group all of my goals into one single package – The Things I Want to Accomplish. I realized today that I must instead group my goals into different categories that must be treated differently. I will explain the three groups below and how they should be tackled.


Group 1: Goals that must become habit

This category includes all the lingering goals that are perpetually on my list: exercise, eat healthy, learn Italian… These are aspects of my life in which the goal is to make the activity a habit. There is nothing particularly measurable about these goals. Of course I could turn them into SMART goals: for instance squat 30 kilos by July, but once that milestone is reached I must create a new one in order to continue the activity in a measurable way. This is a perpetual state of walking a staircase with no top. To view these activities as goals is a mistake, as there is never any real sense of completion.

Instead of seeing these as large over-arching unreachable goals, I need to take these day by day by making small choices. I must be aware every day of the choices I make and whether they are in line with the habits I want to create. It starts with changing my thoughts – as the famous quote by Mahatma Ghandi:

“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words, 
Your words become your actions, 
Your actions become your habits, 
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”

Now it is only the chunk in the middle that I find relevant here, but I still use it as a motivating factor. Sitting on my bed and thinking I want to eat some ice cream instead of yogurt and actively trying to justify this action to myself will ultimately lead to the negative behavior. Making  a choice to actively justify eating healthily in those crucial moments will make the difference. It is only the small daily choices that will allow me to cross these “habit goals” from my list.


Group 2: Goals that allow me to live an interesting life

This is the group that I have always put the most focus on, and is the easiest for me to fulfill. These are the activities that are fun, unique, and interesting – usually known as “life experiences.” Examples include travelling, creating artwork, organizing events. These things make us feel great in the moment and have a sense of accomplishment when each activity is completed. It’s something we look forward to and usually enjoy planning.

Throughout my life I have put weight on these activities because the entire process is enjoyable and allows me to grow and develop throughout the challenges of completing them as well. An example I can take is planning a three-day workshop session with a co-trainer and two mentors. Through the ups and downs of the preparation and implementation I learned so much about myself, and felt an extreme sense of accomplishment and relief when it was finished. What I left with were skills and maturity that were invaluable and unlikely to gain in other situations. This is what life experience is for.

However there is something I have been noticing with these life experience goals. When the adventure is finished, it is behind you. It is a life lesson you have learned and have come out a different person, but it doesn’t necessarily take you anywhere. If you are lucky you gain some realizations about yourself that turn into motivating factors, but this isn’t always the case and it isn’t always directing. I have observed when coming home after a trip I had been looking forward to, the high from the trip lasts for a few days or weeks, but then I quickly begin to plan the next thing. I feel I am running on the wheel of collecting life experiences and I am not really going anywhere.

Because this kind of behavior is natural for me, I have to deal with this group with caution. I love to gather life experience and I want to continue in this way. However I need to be realistic in its effect on my future. This is something that will require more thought.


Group 3: Goals that open new doors

It was only today that I realized how these goals are distinct from the ones in Group 2. The goals in this group are the ones that have the ability to directly improve my future in a measurable way. Examples I can use from my life are when I opened my own photo retouching business and when I paid off my credit card. These are goals that must be worked toward, and the process isn’t always fun or exciting. However the result is the most significant as it provides an opportunity to live a better future. This morning a friend asked me, “What are your goals?” and I had to take a moment to think about it. I have plenty of life experience goals, and habit goals, but I realized I am lacking some “door opening goals.” It is partly due to my current situation, but I was able to identify that this is probably the emptiness I have been feeling.

Upon writing this I just realized that I do have one current goal that could fit into this category: obtaining my Italian citizenship. Once this has been achieved it will open new doors as to where I can live, work, and travel; it will as well be a symbolic statement of my commitment to my new family.

It is this category of goals that I believe require the most steadfast focus and dedication. Unlike the small every day choices of Group 1 and the fun easy planning of Group 2, goals in Group 3 necessitate hard, steady work and sacrifice but have a big payoff. It is here where I can apply the techniques I have learned through all my self-development reading and measure incremental success.


Do you believe I have left out a crucial category? Where do your goals fit into these groups and what methods do you believe are best to tackle them?


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