Starting a new challenge seems straightforward. Once we’ve realized we have a new goal to try and achieve, we ideally do everything we can to set ourselves up for success. We make a GPS, create our own 411s, and use Goal Setting to the Now to make sure we stay on track. But, sometimes, we face the harsh reality of messing up from the get-go.
While it may be said that it’s better to have set a goal and lost than to never have set a goal at all—the truth is, setting the right goal matters.
When you reach a point where you realize you need to adjust or re-roll on your goals, don’t feel discouraged. Take action. Going after the wrong goal isn’t the end of world. That realization is just one more step on toward a more satisfying journey of success.
There are dozens of cases of successful people who changed goals mid-career after realizing they were pursuing the wrong goal: Julia Child worked several jobs (including in the intelligence game during World War Two) before picking up a chef’s knife in her 50s. Walt Disney was a newspaper editor who went bankrupt several times before betting it all again on Walt Disney World. Both of these people experienced failure when chasing their goals, and in many cases, realized found that the goals they had already set for themselves just wasn’t enough. And that might be the case for you, too.
In this post, we want to explore some of the different tell-tale signs that might help indicate that we need to set new, better goals for ourselves.
Your Goals Aren’t Aligned with Who You Are
Much like building habits, accomplishing our goals relies on something known as “self-determination theory.” Self-determination theory is a psychological theory that delves into the how’s and why’s of human motivation, growth, and personal needs. In the realm of goal selection, picking a goal that will succeed relies heavily on three basic principles: Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness.
We’ve covered these topics before, but to give a quick refresher:
Autonomy is the degree to which we actually want to do what we’re setting out to do. When it comes to goals, for instance, there can be a number of outside forces that may push us toward one goal or another. Our parents, our family, our loved ones, our bosses, our coworkers, and our friends all influence the direction we take, but it matters that we are ultimately the ones who make that decision. When we’re doing something we don’t want to do, it’s a safe bet that we either don’t do it very well or we wind up doing nothing at all.
Competence is tied to our own ability to do something. When we have a knack for doing something, it makes pursuing goals attached to that skill more likely to succeed. Take famed fashion designer Vera Wang, for instance. Initially, Wang trained extensively to become a figure skater. From age 7, she worked toward achieving her ultimate goal of getting into the Olympics and medaling in figure skating. But, as she got older, she began to realize that her goal was simply untenable for her personally. As she put it in one interview:
“As hard as I tried and as hard as I worked, I never really achieved the level that I wished. It was a very hard realization that since I was in my late teens, I was never going to get better. I wasn’t going to make the Olympic team, and there were younger skaters coming up. So I quit. And I think quitting was a sign to me that I failed. I didn’t know if I was ever going to be able to find something else in my life that meant quite as much. I knew no other life. There was no other reality for me. […] To bounce back from that, it takes so many different things. It takes time. It takes an acceptance that you have to move on. And it takes being open to new experiences.”
Wang had a goal – make it to the Olympics – but it proved to be one that was beyond her own ability and motivation. For goals that rely solely on competence, there can be natural ceilings to what we can achieve. These ceilings aren’t necessarily unbreakable, but they can make the path much more difficult and trivial than we sometimes are willing to endure. Sometimes it’s better to find a smarter way to achieve your goal or to revisit the intentions behind your goal and find fulfillment through a different objective.
In the end, Wang realized that her passion was creativity: she went on to serve as the editor of Vogue for a number of years before moving on – at age 40, no less – to become a famed wedding dress designer. By reframing her goals around her love of creativity, something she was competent at, she was able to create a goal she was able to achieve.
Relatedness is how connected with others we feel while working toward a goal. The more we feel that pursuing a goal will bring us closer to people in meaningful ways, the more likely we are to stick with it. Closeness is a basic psychological need every human possesses. So, when we have a goal that aids us in our ability to connect with others, we’re significantly more likely to achieve it. The same can be said for those that are pursuing goals that separate us from others. If our goal is alienating us from those we wish to grow closer with, then we may be pursuing the wrong goal.
Research has shown that setting goals that enforce autonomy, competence and relatedness are more likely to experience high-quality performance, maintained change of healthy behaving, and have better mental health.
You’re Just Sticking With it Because You’re Afraid
It’s not uncommon to find ourselves sticking with a goal because we don’t know what else we want to do.
The world can seem like an uncertain place, and staying put nearly always feels safe by comparison. In fact, according to the American Institute of Stress, starting a new career or taking a new path is one of the top 20 things listed on the , an inventory of the top 43 life stressors compiled by psychologists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe starting in the 1960s.
This problem isn’t about motivation or self-determination, but rather a lack of knowledge or understanding around what our options are and the fear of uncertainty. Staying in place due to a fear of change is actually part of The Transtheoretical Model (TTM) of Behavior Change. (Warning, another model developed psychologists is up ahead!)
Developed by James O. Prochaska and Carlo Di Clemente in the 1970s, TTM breaks down change into five stages (the possible sixth being “relapse” – but lets avoid that):
- Precontemplation: During this stage most people don’t plan on taking any action in the foreseeable future. Usually, people are not fully conscious or aware of the fact that they need a change. While they may know that something is amiss, they aren’t fully able to articulate what is wrong.
- Contemplation: Usually during this stage people intend to change within the next six months. They know something must happen and are aware of the upsides of changing – but mostly they’re focused on the downsides. Contemplating these pros and cons can end up leaving people stuck in a holding pattern for a long time. Usually, people experience a great deal of procrastination and hesitation toward moving forward.
- Preparation: Here’s where people get ready to take action. Typically, they have already taken some significant action in the past year. These individuals have a concrete plan of action and are actively seeking out communities or mentors to support and guide them.
- Action: During this stage, people begin to make overt modifications in their lives. For instance, a smoker swapping out their cigarettes for a patch, grabbing a salad instead of a chocolate bar, or going to a dance class instead of binge watching something on Netflix.
- Maintenance: In this stage people have made specific changes to their lifestyles and are working to prevent relapse by maintaining habits. It isn’t quite as action oriented as the previous stage, because you’ve already put the foundation in place. A metaphorical weeding the garden.
If you’re too afraid to make a change to a different goal, chances are you are either stuck in the precontemplation or contemplation stages of the TTM. And that’s not a good place to stay in for long. If you’ve been feeling uneasy about the progress you’ve been making but can’t quite determine why, maybe take a moment to look over the stages of the TTM in relation to your goals. It could be that you’ve already realized there’s something amiss, but haven’t been fully able to articulate that fact. Or, if you do know, now is time to start to make a list of pros and cons to decide whether or not your current goal is salvageable.
You’re Extremely Unhappy
Even the right goals don’t guarantee that we’ll be happy while we pursue them. I’m sure at some point during a diet, we’ve all felt we’d be happier chowing down on a cheese burger or pizza. But there’s a difference between having a feeling of uncomfortableness and spiraling into a place that simply provides us with no satisfaction. In those cases, your unhappiness might be a sign that you’ve chosen the wrong goal.
If you’re feeling the slow creep of burnout, overwhelmed with anxiety, or constantly plagued by feelings of unhappiness – it’s probably a sign you need to stop doing what you’re doing and realign your priorities or strategy.
According to a Gallup poll, only 13% of employees worldwide are actively engaged and happy with in their jobs. That’s a shockingly low number! And many of us have goals that are directly tied to our jobs and careers. Unhappiness while pursuing a goal can be an indicator that the goal you’re trying to achieve doesn’t align with who you are as a person. That includes internal purpose, personality, abilities, and values. When all of those things align into a single goal, special things happen. In fact, it has its own special, scientific name: the “self-concordance model”.
Self-concordant goals are goals that tie into our inner self and beliefs. By making sure these goals are not simply tied to external values or ideas, personal satisfaction and overall happiness increases. And a number of studies have shown that when our personal satisfaction increases, we’re significantly more likely to see a goal through.
Here at The ONE Thing, we help people walk through a goal setting exercise during our Goal Setting Retreat that helps us do just that. We have people answer the following to help them figure out their goals and what type of person they want to become.
- What are the roles that you play in your life today?
- Look over your list: what roles are missing?
- Now review all of your answers and rank them in order of priority.
- Make a decision… based off of what you have listed by order of priority, who do you want to become?
If you’ve listed out your various roles and find that the ones associated with your current goal aren’t really a priority for you – it may mean that the goal you’re pursuing isn’t the right one for you. And that’s okay! Realizing that we’ve committed to the wrong thing isn’t necessarily bad – but following through despite knowing that fact can be.
Whatever has led you to the realization that your goal is the wrong one for you, the important thing to do is to figure out what to do next. While that may sound easier said than done, it’s important to realize that sometimes it is better to let go of our fear of the unknown and take steps to make a change.
Consider Your Actions
It can be easy when we first start down a path to feel like we’re making a lot of momentum: everything is new, we’re excited, and we’ve got the drive to propel things forward. But if we aren’t careful, things can start to peter out.
Here at The ONE Thing we talk a lot about two important things: willpower and priority.
If you feel like you aren’t making a lot of headway, it is important to stop and consider willpower. As we like to say, willpower isn’t always on will call. It is a limited resource, and one we need to make sure we keep replenished or we just aren’t going to be able to focus and get our work done. If we want to make sure we have those reserves to tap into, it’s important to make sure we’ve primed ourselves to make the best of what we have. That means making sure we’re eating the right foods to help keep our energy up, finding the right motivation, refocusing our attention to outcomes, and changing our mindset.
It’s also a good idea to make sure you’re making smart choices based on priority. More often than not, we end up compiling a to-do list full of various tasks we need to complete. But everything doesn’t matter equally. Some of the action items on our to-do lists are bound to take as significantly farther along on our path than others. What we need to do is figure out which of our tasks those are. A handy tool to use is the Eisenhower Matrix.
The Eisenhower Matrix is broken down into four quadrants numbered one through four.
All of our most pressing and demanding tasks belong in quadrant one — they need to happen, and they need to happen now. These are the big tasks that are both time sensitive and important. Tasks that may not demand as much urgency, but still rank as something highly important, go in quadrant two. These are things that are important to your goal, but that don’t necessarily need your attention yet. Everything in these two boxes needs to be time blocked. Quadrants three and four are tasks from our to-do list that are less important. They can either be delegated or put off for us to deal with at another time.
Using the Eisenhower Matrix to help us figure out what our priorities are can be a great way to make sure we’re not just doing something, we’re doing things with an eye to priority.
If You’re Afraid
If you have somehow managed to miss the happiest film ever made, The Wizard of Oz tells the tale of Dorothy Gale, a young country girl with dreams and aspirations for a much larger life. But, she’s afraid to leave home and venture forth on her own adventure. It isn’t until a tornado crosses her path that she’s thrust outside of her comfort zone and forced to go on a journey to find her way back home.
It’s a good idea to not wait for some extraordinary event to occur before we change our course.
What we need to do is lean into our fear, and pursue what Dorothy pursued: the monomyth, or the hero’s journey.
The concept of the monomyth was popularized by the mythologist, Joseph Campbell, in his 1949 book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. In his book, Campbell analyzed thousands of mythological stories of heroes and legends from cultures all over the world over a number of years, before creating what he – and a number of modern social scientists – believed to be the general structure of all hero’s tales: the monomyth.
As Campbell described it, the monomyth was a means of conducting people “across those difficult thresholds of transformation that demand a change in the patterns not only of conscious but also of unconscious life.” (Campbell 2008, p6)
Every journey begins in the ordinary world: your home, your office, the things you’re familiar with. In the sense of other stories, it would be Luke Skywalker at the moisture farm in Star Wars or, in keeping with the theme, Dorothy in Kansas. In any case, the hero lives in what they are already familiar with.
But in every great story, there’s a call to action. For us, the call to action is a desire to attain a goal—or possibly, reading a book with the right message like The ONE Thing. After receiving the call, they venture into their fears and begin a journey of change.
However, facing our fears is a transformative process. Campbell’s work reframes failures as a natural part of our journey. Like the classical story of the phoenix, the hero is reborn. Where once they were filled with uncertainty, now their actions are guided by a sense of reason and purpose. With this newfound knowledge, they’re able to go forward and face their final challenge, returning home victorious.
Instead of viewing change and the unknown negatively, it is important to reframe struggles as simply part of our journey. But before we take our first steps on our new path, we need to know what direction we want to go in. And that means taking some time to consider what it is we actually want.
Get to Know Yourself
There’s an ancient Greek aphorism that is commonly thrown around: “Know Thyself.” The words may sound trite, but they’re actually an incredibly important part of setting goals for ourselves.
As researcher Kennon Sheldon put it, “people will be most successful in taking action to ‘become themselves’ if they are able to identify and commit to goals that are somehow consistent with their innate talents and implicit processes.” That means taking time to figure out who we are, what we’re good at, and a sense of what we really want to achieve.
We need to be smart about our goals, and that requires a certain level of self-awareness. According to Sheldon’s research, one of the leading causes of tension between the goal and the goal-setter is a lack of self-awareness. For instance, if you disliked math and weren’t particularly adept at doing complex equations – a job as a chemist or a mathematician would be an ill-advised goal.
The problem is, self-reflection doesn’t really help us on the front end because more often than not, we don’t know what we’re capable of until we give something an earnest attempt. If you’re pursuing a goal and you find that it’s not leading you where you want to be, or you believe it’s just the wrong goal entirely, then be proud. You just got to know yourself a little better.
From here, reevaluate your goals and reset them so you’re on the right path.
Revisit the Focusing Question,
walk back through our and goal setting to the now, and make some plans to change your trajectory for the better.
Mapping all of this out will help you create an actionable plan that will move you from the precontemplation and contemplation stages of your new goal, to action and maintenance.
Letting go of a goal can be difficult, but it’s something we all have to do every now and then. But more often than not, it ends up leading us down paths that prove far more fruitful. What are some of your stories about starting over? Let us know on our Facebook page!