Key learning outcomes:

  • Learn why goal setting fails in 90% of cases.
  • Recognise that goals should be documented, realistic and limited to the most important goals.
  • Understand the need to actively review your goals and exercise discipline to achieve them.
  • Differentiate between setting positive and negative goals.


Statistics show that less than 10% of people achieve the goals. That means a whopping 9 out of 10 of us will not achieve our current goals. Use the following list as a guide to help you avoid falling into some of the common traps that can negatively impact on your chance of success.

1. Your goals are too ambitious

We all like a good chunky goal, but one of the main reasons goal setting often fails is because the goals are just not realistic. When starting the goal setting process, we suggest that you let your mind run free, dream big and do not set any limits on your thinking. However, after you have compiled your list you need to narrow it down, eliminating or modifying those goals that are just a little crazy or are too ambitious. Our article “SMART goals” will give you some clear guidelines to work from.

It is important to remember that everyone is different when it comes to the ideal level to set a goal. Some people like to set a goal at a more achievable level and are motivated when they surpass it; others like to set extremely ambitious targets and are satisfied even if they fall just short. The key is to set the goal high enough that it is going to drive you, yet not so high that you become de-motivated knowing you cannot possibly achieve it.

2. You have too many goals

Setting too many goals will leave you less focused as you have too many things fighting for your attention. When you start your goal setting process, you may find that you have a long list of things you would like to achieve. The problem is that you will not be able to give any one item the attention it deserves and you will end up with a long list at the end of the year.

Our minds actually work better when we are working on only one thing at a time; “less is more” is the motto when goal setting. Look through your list – you might find that there is some double up and some goals have the same outcome. Once you have your final list you need to identify the three most important goals. Look for the goals that will have the greatest impact and start with these. Then go back to the list and pick the next three. By the end of the year, you will have ticked off a large chunk of your long list.

3. You do not put your goals in writing

One of the biggest mistakes people make when goal setting is not committing their goals to paper. Now this is more than just writing some notes or a list on a scrap of paper – it should be more formal. There are a number of ways that you can do this. One is to start a goals book – we find that it is best to start a fresh one each year. Use this book throughout the year as a reference, and to make additions and review your progress. If you are tracking a financial goal you could set up a spreadsheet that you can update weekly or monthly. There are also a large number of computer applications for entering and tracking your goals. It does not matter what method you use, so long as your goals are recorded somewhere and are accessible.

4. You lack discipline

Like so many things in life, successfully achieving your goals is unlikely to happen without hard work and discipline. Too often we see people who start off well, but they soon lose interest. It takes a great deal of self-discipline to be able to stay on track over a longer period of time. Our article “Self-leadership” will help in building this. One of the keys to maintaining your discipline and focus is to break larger goals into smaller chunks. This will hand you some small victories along the way, which motivates you to continue.

5. Your goals are someone else’s

Be wary of setting goals to please someone else or because they think it would be good for you. There is nothing wrong with getting some guidance or advice from others, and sometimes a push in the right direction might be what you need. However, it is important to ensure that you are setting the goal for yourself and not for them. We suggest you review your goals  24 hours after setting them to be sure that what you are striving for is actually what you want.

6. You don’t review your progress

Another common mistake people make is they don’t review their progress towards achieving goals regularly enough. Too often we see people get to the second half of the year and panic because they are way off track. Regularly reviewing your goals, say weekly or at the very least monthly, enables you to quickly make adjustments if you are off track. One month into your timetable you might find that only a small adjustment in effort or action is required to bring you back into line with your target; however, if you get six or nine months into the process, the cumulative effect of the shortfall may be too much to overcome.

7. You give up too soon

People often give up on a goal without realising how close they were to achieving success. As in marathon running, there will be times when you hit the wall. You need to stay mentally strong so you recognise this moment and push through it. The easy option is to start looking for all the reasons why you should give up; however, this is the time when you need to go back to your written goals and recall all the reasons WHY you should keep going. Once you get over this hurdle, you will find things become easier, you regain your motivation and are can give it that last push through to the finish line.

8. Your “why” is not strong enough

Too often people fail at their goal setting because the reason was not strong enough. A good exercise for goal setting is to keep asking yourself why you want to achieve the goal until you get to the real motive. We explain this tool in detail in the business strategy section of our website in the article “5 Whys”. Here is an example of the tool in action:

“Why do you want to start exercising?”

“Because I want to lose weight.”

“Why do you want to lose weight?”

“I want to get healthier.”

“Why do you want to get healthier?”

Because I am afraid of having a heart attack.”

“Why are you afraid of having a heart attack?”

My father died of a heart attack when he was only a few years older than I am now.”

In this example, by drilling down we arrive at a very powerful “why” that you can refer back to when your motivation wanes. If you do this exercise and the “why” is not powerful enough, then it may be wise to revise the goal. It is proven that the stronger the “why”, the greater your chances of achieving your goal.

9. You set negative goals

Ever wondered why most traditional diets don’t work. It is because they are all about denial – for example, what you can’t eat and what you can’t have. Most successful long-term weight loss programs focus on what you can have, rather than what you can’t. Setting negative goals is a bit like a diet; they focus on stopping things rather than starting things. A good example is the goal to lose weight; this is a negative goal where a more positive spin would be to get healthier. By focusing on the goal of getting healthier, losing some weight is likely to be one of the outcomes.

10. You do not have an action plan

The final mistake that most people make is that they fail to create an action plan for achieving their goal. An action plan will provide the road map to help you to reach your destination. You need to look at each goal individually and write down all the steps that will be required to help you to get there. For example if your goal is to run a marathon this year, you might need to set up a training schedule, hire a personal trainer, buy new running shoes, join a running club, book in for some shorter events and change your diet. Start building a list of what you can or need to do in the next 30 days. For example, if your aim is to run a marathon, the first thing on this list would be to hire a personal trainer and buy running shoes. Try to look at things in a logical order – what do I need to do first and what will have the greatest impact? Our article “Action Plans” will assist you with this step.

Goal setting success is not just about putting a goal out there and hoping that the universe will provide. It takes hard work and discipline. The good thing is that like anything, the more often you set goals and work towards achieving them, the better you will become at it.

Finally, we recommend sharing your goals with someone supportive. This might be a coach, a trainer, work colleague, friend or family member. Sharing your goals automatically motivates you to achieve them. The important thing is to share them with someone you trust and someone you know will give you a little push if you need it along the way.

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