Every December, many of us find ourselves scribbling resolutions at the back of our journals or making mental notes on what we hope to achieve in the coming year. And yet, one study suggests that a mere 19 per cent of us achieve those goals, even over the following two years.
There are many reasons for this — not knowing how to pursue the goal, a lack of willpower or the choice of vague objectives, for instance, or the role unanticipated external forces (e.g., illness, an economic downturn).
But another big reason is that, in our quest to lead better lives we often set unattainable goals, ones that are too difficult for us to meet because we don't have the energy, skills or resources required.
Objectively speaking, whether or not a goal is truly attainable can only be known when we start working toward it. When we set goals, we are not always the best at measuring our own ability to achieve them. In fact, many of us sincerely believe in long shots.
Why do people often set goals that they cannot actually accomplish?
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF UNATTAINABLE GOALS
Goal setting is important for self-motivation and gives meaning and purpose to what we do. But humans tend to be overconfident creatures, especially when a goal is linked to our self-esteem. Fundamentally, it is important to our psychological well-being; we want to feel good about ourselves not only in terms of our accomplishments but also in terms of our aspirations. When we assess our own capabilities in taking on goals, we tend to be excessively charitable.
Having said that, some of us are more strategic. When we are uncertain about our likelihood of success — or even when we know that the likelihood is slim — we still choose to set extremely unlikely goals. The hope is that holding such a goal can help us attain more; even if we do not end up reaching the goal, we'll get somewhere closer to it.
ARE UNATTAINABLE GOALS GOOD OR BAD?
On the bright side, the persistent pursuit of unattainable goals can lead to higher achievements. People who suspected beforehand that a goal was unattainable may later think, "If I didn't attempt that goal, I would have achieved a lot less. So, I'm much better off for having tried."
Focusing on smaller accomplishments can bolster positive feelings, motivating us to take on more goals in the same category. As long as we know that unattainable goals are not really about the destination, but the journey, they can be quite healthy.
Οn the dark side, unattainable goals often end in failures and how people react to failure varies greatly. For some, especially those who put a great deal of time and effort into a distant goal, failure can be a crushing blow. If not managed well, fixating on the fact that one has failed may lead to excessively negative or self-critical thinking, and prolonged thoughts like these can trigger a downward spiral.
Another potential mental trap is the "false hope syndrome." In this case, we tend to (mis)attribute the failure to reasons other than the fact that the goal was unattainable to start with. For instance, a failure to get straight As can be attributed to a bad professor, boring assignments or a distracting relationship.
These (mis)attributions can be dangerous — especially when they start to involve other people. Further, the accompanying belief that things will surely be different next time can lead someone to try to achieve the unattainable goal yet again, initiating an endless cycle of failure, with devastating emotional costs.
HOW CAN WE DO BETTER?
Here are some ways to stop yourself from letting failed goals pull you down.
Celebrate small wins:
Don't negate your progress, because there is power in small wins. Suppose your goal was to read 36 books in the year and you read only 10; it's proof enough that you're capable of moving the needle and making a change for the better. This is also known as the Progress Principle, which says that progress contributes to positive emotions, strong motivation and helps spiral your productivity upward. You did achieve something, so celebrate that!
Don't dwell on failure:
Reflect on your journey. Think about what worked and what didn't. Then lay out the specific actions you can take to make improvements. This can help bolster your drive and confidence. Importantly, reflecting can also help you identify activities that were truly enjoyable and facilitated working toward your goal. For example, maybe you liked taking a break from social media to avoid distractions while studying, but didn't like isolating yourself from social interactions for long periods. Knowing what you enjoyed, and what you didn't, can help you set your goal more strategically next time.
Think about accidental or related benefits:
While you may not have fully achieved your goal, not all is lost. Attempting difficult goals may yield unexpected benefits. For example, in pursuing a goal of better fitness, the physical exercise may have helped improve your mood and increase your mental acuity, thereby enhancing your performance in unrelated areas.
Ask for an objective analysis:
We need to understand why we really failed. One simple approach is to ask a friend or family member. For example, a friend may candidly tell you that you failed in your academic goal because you often came up with excuses for not studying, or that you didn't read more because you preferred listening to a podcast. A reality check from a trusted source may help you better understand yourself.
Take a third person's perspective:
Finally, this approach can help you set your expectations from the start. When you lay down a goal for yourself, you don't always have enough information to predict your likelihood of success. For instance, an analysis may reveal that for a person to succeed at an academic goal they would need to study X hours a day or have a Y number of research resources to turn to. If you did not have X or Y when you pursued the goal last time, you should take steps to ensure you have them before you try again.
This year, you may still choose to aim high in your goals, and if you do, use these tips to get better at managing your response to failure. Remember: it's not really about the destination. It's about getting the most our of your journey to success.
- Harvard Business Review.