Paradox

 

You’ve heard it a million times: “Want it enough, and you’ll get it.” We’re taught to set our sights high and to go after our deeply personal goals with unwavering passion. But what if the very intensity of your desire is the obstacle between you and the goalpost? Sounds paradoxical, right?

 

In this article, you’ll learn about the unsettling irony that wanting something too much can keep you from achieving it. Whether launching your own business or writing that book, personal goals demand a lot to succeed.

 

Learn about the 4 underlying risk factors that make your ambition your own worst enemy, their cumulative impact, and what 4 actions to channel that fire from burning you into becoming your power source.

 

Risk Factor 1: Deeper Connection Means Failure Hurts More So Manage Your Expectations

 

When a goal is personal, you connect to it more profoundly. Consider the following areas a personal goal touches:

 

  • Your reputation: any situation where your expertise, skill, and knowledge are displayed is an opportunity to shine if you succeed or be humiliated if you fail.
  • Your livelihood: when embarking on any financial venture or change, such as starting a new business, embarking on a new career, or participating in a new investment, you risk your financial future. Again, the outcome can be stellar or can bomb.
  • Your community: like reputation, if your goal has a significant impact on your friends, family, or customers, then its success or failure affects those you care about.
  • Your identity: if your goal reflects a major aspect of who you are, your belief systems, or your worldview, you may consider the inability to hit the target as a negative commentary on yourself.

 

As you can see, personal goals are different than other goal types. When something is so meaningful, the inability to attain it has mental and emotional costs. As such, anything that hinders goal achievement can be viewed as a personal threat.

 

When you run into concrete obstacles, the good news is the approach is often straightforward. It’s a matter of identifying the problem, finding an answer or workaround, and implementing it. Threat addressed.

 

But what if your anxiety and fears suggest you’re not moving “fast enough.” Or what if your work quality is not as “good as it should be.” In this case, your “shortcoming,” or the perception, is the issue. Now, your opponent is in your head, constantly judging.

 

With personal goals, the “lack of progress” or not hitting the target increases stress. Your brain tells you that unless things get better, you risk failure and reminds you that you have much at stake. In response, you double down rather than lowering your target, increasing the odds of failure again and creating a stress spiral.

 

If not managed, your expectations, amplify any existing insecurities or uncertainties. Over time, this stress grows, inhibiting goal progress and can lead to goal abandonment.

 

Risk Factor 2: Traditional Goal-Setting Approaches Are a Poor Fit

 

Two popular approaches to goal setting are SMART and BHAG goals. The former was popularized by George T. Doran. In his framework, goals should be Specific, Measurable, Assignable (though Actionable is often used now), Realistic, and Timely. By setting goals in this matter, the claim is you will do better than if you select “do your best” or vague targets. Being specific allows you to focus your efforts on a clear target. Being measurable will let you know if you’re moving the progress needle. Actionable means you can do something about it. Realistic states your target must be doable within your current resources, knowledge, and skills. Finally, the goal needs to be timely (have a deadline), or you work forever.

 

BHAG stands for Big Hairy Audacious Goals, introduced by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in their book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. BHAG’s idea is if you set ambitious, challenging goals, you increase your productivity, motivation, and persistence since improving your performance is the only way to reach the target. These claims are based on research by Professors Gary Latham and Edwin Locke, the architects of Goal-Setting Theory, who report thousands of studies support their goal-setting approach in both real-world and lab situations. Because of this substantial body of evidence, experts tell people to set high bars for goals.

 

The problem is both professors glossed over a critical caveat. Performance goals are great when you have adequate resources, knowledge, and skills to execute the goal tasks well. In other words, when you know what you’re doing, performance goals work as advertised. After all, they just require you to push harder.

 

But what if you’re doing something novel or complex? That is often the case with personal goals.

 

In those situations, performance goals often create the worst outcome, especially when pitted against do your best or learning goals. For novel topics, the reason is since you’re still learning, you’re not proficient. As a result, the odds are high that your performance will fall short.

 

Locke and Latham argue that people are motivated to try harder when challenged by tough goals. And they do, but only those who are proficient. They don’t have to worry about mastery. They just need to put in more effort – they have a solid foundation to work off.

 

But for novices, when you set a high target, it stresses them out since they lack the confidence of skill mastery. If you do this repeatedly, beginners get demoralized, falling short each time, and eventually give up.

 

For complex goals, you have multiple tasks that interact with each other. Because of that, your level of control is low, so things can drift from what you expect. As a result, you must split your mental energy between doing what you need to and compensating for plan deviations. Since you’re juggling so many balls, you experience significant stress and your performance drops.

 

So, what happens when you can’t meet your BHAG or SMART goals? Science says there are significant negative consequences, such as depression, negative lumping, and rumination. More on these later, but the point is you feel bad. And if you continue using these goal-setting approaches, you will experience more frustration.

 

Risk Factor 3: Beware of the Planning Fallacy

 

Personal goals tend to be aspirational – this is not a bad thing. You want to be inspired and motivated. The problem is when you generate unrealistic targets or workplans for your current budget. Unfortunately, this happens often and is referred to as the planning fallacy.

 

The planning fallacy is the human tendency to underestimate the difficulty of the work (or overestimate their ability to make progress). This is especially the case for personal goals because you pick a target that guarantees a successful outcome if met. No one questions your success if you win first place, but if you place fourth, there is room for improvement. So, the higher the standard, the less controversy about its merit.

 

Thus, your goal target is more what you want it to be than what you can deliver.

 

Given the hard-charging nature of BHAG and SMART goals, this stokes the fire of personal goals aggressively.

 

While SMART addresses the above issues with Realistic and Timely, the theory doesn’t work in practice. Most goals are set in stone at the project beginning. Unfortunately, this is the period when you know the least about how things will pan out. You may underestimate how hard some of the tasks are or be unaware of complications because they haven’t been thought through or not realize critical elements outside your control. The latter is especially true for complex projects because of the number of steps and their dependencies.

 

Bottomline, personal goals are ambitious to begin with. Don’t let BHAG and SMART goals encourage you to set even more unrealistic targets, which if not met, can lead to a wide range of negative consequences. In short, don’t wish for a $100K car when you can afford only $10K.

 

Risk Factor 4: All-or-Nothing Attitude Creates Goal Rigidity

 

The fourth risk factor is being rigid about goal achievement. For many of us, the idea of moving the goalposts seems like cheating. After all, didn’t you pick a goal to be important and meaningful?

 

So, when you find out you can’t hit what you set out to do, it feels like you’re compromising on your principles by settling for something else. Hence, conventional wisdom is to stick to the goals and not be a loser. You just need to grit it through.

 

The above makes sense but assumes you have a rational and realistic basis for picking your goal targets.

 

The problem is our foundation for goal selection is shaky, especially personal goals. As said earlier, when we first decide on a goal or a project, we focus on the benefits we get when we hit the target. So, we are more aspirational than realistic. After all, if we aren’t getting something out of it, then why bother doing it? So, the emphasis is on the rewards, not the cost.

 

And when you do estimate the cost, you tend to get it wrong due to the planning fallacy. But don’t feel bad since even experienced and knowledgeable individuals and teams have fallen victim to this bias. This paper surveyed R&D, software, and technology projects and found the success rate is not great. Only 32% of projects were done on time and within budget. Another study found between 65-85% of projects finished after their due date. In short, the planning fallacy is quite prevalent, and again, this was with folks who knew what they were doing.

 

So, unless you’re lucky, the planning fallacy will likely hit you. Recall when you start any effort, that’s when you know the least about real-world implications. All your detailed planning and goal values haven’t been field-tested, so it shouldn’t be surprising if things don’t work as expected. The universe doesn’t care about how great your goals or plans are. It does what it wants.

 

The main point here is don’t be surprised if your initial target/workplans are off. That’s just part of the process when pushing yourself to do new or complex things, which is often the case with personal goals. Being fixated on what success should look like based on your initial value (BHAG/SMART or otherwise) increases your odds of failure.

 

If the goal is essential to you, recognize that it might take a few attempts and require some less ambitious milestones along the way. You will get there by focusing on progressing and being willing to iterate. Adaptation is the key to success.

 

Above Risk Factors Create the Perfect Stress Storm

 

As stated before, personal goals are ambitious and high-value, often pushing you to the limits of your current resources, knowledge, and skills. If you don’t address the above risk factors, you create the perfect storm to stress yourself out of progress.

 

Consider the following performance traps, science says can happen when you’re under such conditions:

 

  • Choking: you bomb at something you typically excel at
  • Rumination: you have recurring negative thoughts, almost on an obsessive level, that reinforce a negativity bias; often, the focus is on criticizing your behavior or performance.
  • Negative lumping: you dismiss any effort or progress you made when you fall short of the goal target; it doesn’t matter if you hit 10%, 75% or 95% of your goal; this all or none attitude views success as binary. You hit the target, or you didn’t. Progress doesn’t count.

 

For one-time goals (events such as championships, presentations, limited performances, etc.), choking is a significant risk if your stress levels get too high. What’s nefarious about this is you have all the resources, knowledge, and skills to be successful. But the stress kills your ability to perform or respond to unexpected obstacles.

 

For longer-term goals, they require more sustained effort. In this case, rumination and negative lumping can happen when your performance doesn’t meet your expectations.

 

In rumination, you become critical that you’re not moving fast enough or your quality is not at the level you feel it needs to be. This occurs when people make inappropriate comparisons of their current performance either to some idealized perfect standard or to some high performer. For example, you might think adopting a champion’s workout routine should put you at their level since that’s what they do. But that would be wrong. This is not the Matrix, you can’t upload mastery.

 

Mastery requires acquiring experience as well as knowledge. You need to do trial-and-error to learn what works for you.

 

Social media is a primary culprit in creating this expectation distortion. What you see are the wins and successful outcomes. You miss the more numerous trial-and-errors, bloopers, failures, etc. So, if these videos/tweets/stories inspire you, that’s good. Just reign in your expectations and start with where you are, not where you want to be – at least not yet.

 

Negative lumping is tied to having an all-or-nothing view on goal achievement. This reaction is especially a problem with challenging goal targets. When you don’t hit your mark, you must understand if it’s by a lot or little.

 

A lot means your goal was overly ambitious for where you are and should be revisited.

 

If the shortfall is moderate, the danger is getting into a “Just Forget It” mindset, dismissing all the progress you’ve made. For example, if you’re dieting and kept below your calorie count for the day, but at dinner, you ate more dessert than you should have. A common thought is, “Aww, screw it. Might as eat as much as I want and start tomorrow since I didn’t adhere to the goal.” The progress you made early in the day is now wiped out.

 

The point is progress matters unless you say it doesn’t. A goal is not only about the destination but also a compass direction. So don’t dismiss your movement.

 

Next are 4 strategies to reduce these risk factors and quell the storm.

 

Solution 1: Consider OKRs For Personal Goals

 

Objective and Key Results (OKRs) is a goal-setting framework popular with many fast-paced Silicon Valley companies. Developed by Andy Grove at Intel, this approach emphasizes an action-oriented approach towards goals.

 

In the OKR framework, “Objectives” are overarching, qualitative goals that are aspirational and inspiring. They focus on the why of what you’re trying to achieve with your goals to provide a source of motivation. Typically, Objectives range from 3-5 in number. “Key Results” (KRs) are specific, quantitative outputs that measure progress toward the objectives. They provide evidence that you’ve reached your target.

 

So, for personal goals, specify the objective and the 3-5 Key Results that represent what you want to achieve. Some goals may need more than 1 objective, but cap them in the 3-5 range, else you have 9-25 KRs to meet. And that’s too much since KRs are what you need to get out.

 

The advantages OKR provides are numerous:

 

  • Flexibility. You have multiple shots on goal because you have 3-5 KRs for each Objective. As shown later, OKR doesn’t need you to hit 100% on everything. This flexibility allows you to go where progress is maximized. If one KR is proving faster to achieve, focus on that. If another is becoming a slog, work on a different one.
  • Alignment. Since 3-5 Key Results support each Objective, this relationship shows how your efforts are connected to what you want to achieve. Ideally, there should be some overlap among the KR’s. That way, your action towards one might be leverageable for another.
  • Focus and prioritization. To be effective, standard practice is to have no more than 5 Objectives, same for KRs per objective. These constraints balance flexibility but also recognize if you have too many paths, you are splitting your effort in too many directions and unlikely to make progress on any.
  • Measurable outputs. Like traditional goals, OKRs have a quantifiable element. But this is divided between the Objectives and Key Results. It involves a more sophisticated scoring scheme. As OKRs like to encourage (or recognize) ambitious goals, they realize progress is just as significant as hitting the target. So, they use a scorecard-based system. For each KR, the grading is as follows:

 

    • Hit 0-30% of the KR target value: significant shortfall, so failed to make progress.
    • Hit 40-60% of KR target value: made progress but short of completion.
    • Hit 70-100% of KR target value: advanced far enough to be delivered.
    • You make a judgment call for the gap intervals (30-40%, 60-70%) on how to grade them.

 

For Objectives, their score is the overall KR performance. Score each KR and then take the average of all of them. So, if you have 3 KRs with scores of 50%, 70%, and 90%, your Objective is 70% and rated as delivered.

 

Google views a score of 70% as ideal. Their logic is if you’re consistently hitting 100%, you are probably “sandbagging”- purposely lowering your targets to increase your success odds but not fully leveraging your talents with room to spare. A score of less than 60% implies that the Objective or KRs may have been overly ambitious and that it is time to revisit or rescope. In this regard, OKRs give you more flexibility than traditional BHAG or SMART goals and recognize there may be several factors in play.

 

With a more tangible view of progress and greater flexibility, OKRs are well-suited for personal goals.

 

Solution 2: Consider Learning or Action-based Goals – Gain Something During the Goal Pursuit

 

Most of us formulate goals in a performance language. You achieve X in time Y. When your tasks are routine or you have considerable experience in execution, that’s not a problem. You know how to do X and have a gut feeling about Y. However, as listed in the earlier Risk Factor, personal goals tend to be new or complex. In other words, you want to achieve X but have some vague way of getting there, and Y is a wildly optimistic guesstimate, courtesy of the planning fallacy.

 

Research has shown that specific and challenging goals underperform in those situations. When dealing with novel matters, your familiarity will be low so will your proficiency. For complex things, the challenge is unpredictability and lack of control. Even if you know what you’re doing, if the goal demands a lot of coordination, much can happen outside what you do. A great example is an air traffic controller who juggles flight data from multiple planes. As planes are both arriving and departing, a controller’s job is to ensure the planes operate safely. If the aircraft follows their instructions, everything is fine. But if there is a communication breakdown, then chaos happens.

 

In the above cases, performance goals, by being hard and specific, leave little flexibility and increase opportunities for frustration and setbacks. What researchers advocate is to set learning goals. You strive to acquire knowledge and mastery around the goal tasks first. The emphasis is on learning to do the work before focusing on what you can generate. For example, if you have never run before, you want to know the proper form and technique before you start a marathon.

 

The reason why this approach works is cognitive load. It’s hard for your brain to learn something new or complex and execute it well simultaneously. You need to stage the effort. First, learn and practice to gain mastery or at least proficiency. Once familiar with the motions, you can increase output, but don’t do them all at once.

 

Action-based goals are similar but focus on just starting the task and are helpful in situations where you don’t know how long it will take to finish the job. For example, with code debugging, writing, or problem-solving, sometimes they are quick; other times, it’s forever. So, setting a performance goal of eliminating 10 bugs by the end of the week may not be realizable.

 

The key here is to timebox the action, as some goals/tasks are open-ended. You set an effort/time budget and decide whether to stop or continue when you get to the end of it. For example, write 2 pages or spend 60 minutes writing – you’re done when you hit one of them first. Generally for future planning, you want to track how well your budget works so you know what to expect next time.

 

The advantage of this approach is you’re emphasizing taking action over task completion. That may seem odd since you don’t want to leave unfinished tasks. But this technique forces you to accept that if you don’t start, you can’t finish.

 

But more importantly, if you aren’t where you want to be at the end of your timebox, you can assess whether you need to increase your budget or your goals/tasks are too big.

 

Either way, both goal types leverage your time on the journey to the goal. With learning goals, you can document what knowledge and skills you have acquired since you started. For action goals, you build consistency and develop a sense that you’re actively putting in effort.

 

Solution 3: Focus and Celebrate Your Small Wins Along the Way

 

Another approach to consider is breaking your goal/task into subgoals/subtasks. This provides a couple of advantages. One immediate benefit is being smaller makes them appear less overwhelming and easier to start. Another is the opportunity to reality check. It is crucial feedback if you can’t progress on the smaller targets. Either you need to make changes to how you operate, or you need to rethink your goals. Because you aren’t waiting until the end to find out what’s wrong, you can course-correct early.

 

And while laborious, breaking things down makes all the work you need to do apparent. A challenge with personal goals is focusing too much on the benefits, not the costs.

 

A drawback, unfortunately, when you do task breakdowns is you create a massive to-do list. The trick is to divide the list into a backlog and a daily to-do list. The backlog is the inventory of all your tasks for your goal/project. This represents the total effort cost of your goal. If it’s overwhelming, then think about scaling the goal down.

 

The key is populating your daily to-do list with small-to-moderate tasks from your backlog (If your tasks take a full day, you must break them down). Typically, the daily list can be 3-5 in number but smaller if the tasks are demanding. To minimize overwhelm, keep the backlog accessible but out of sight. You want to focus on knocking out the dailies.

 

If you’re wondering if all this work is worth it, use small wins to get the force multiplier effect. Popularized by Professor Teresa Amabile and Stephen Kramer, small wins focus on small events that move the progress bar. Naturally, small wins can include completing subgoals/subtasks, but they can also simply be starting on tasks, overcoming minor obstacles, reflecting on new things you have learned, or getting positive feedback on your work. Amabile and Kramer studied the work diaries of 234 knowledge workers and found that when you recognize these small wins, you increase motivation, productivity, and overall well-being.

 

In short, celebrating small wins makes you feel good about what you’re doing, even when facing obstacles. And given that you will spend more time putting in the blood, sweat, and tears than being at the winner’s circle, you must ensure your goal pursuit is as painless and enjoyable as possible.

 

Solution 4: Be Self-Compassionate When You Stumble

 

Finally, while applying the above solutions is crucial, not everything will go as planned. There will be periods of frustration and failure in any worthwhile endeavor. Personal goals often require you to be ambitious or go outside your comfort zone. And given their importance to you, it’s essential to be self-compassionate. Being hard on yourself is counterproductive since you’re already pushing your limits.

 

Self-compassion is about viewing yourself with kindness and compassion when encountering shortcomings or difficult times. It is not about self-criticism, self-pity, or letting yourself off the hook.

 

Consider the nature of mistakes, as one psychologist described it, they aren’t intentional. No one starts with the idea of screwing up. (If you did, you “succeeded” since you got what you wanted.)

 

Mistakes happen because things don’t go as we thought. There could be various reasons for this: poor initial assumptions, incorrect understanding, improper execution, bad luck, who knows.

 

But if you start attacking yourself, you spend energy assigning blame, not fixing the problem. It’s hard to problem-solve when someone yells at you, and that voice is yours.

 

Failures should also be viewed with self-compassion. If the cause is internal, this implies something you have control over. Identify what went wrong and how to improve it –  treat the failure as feedback for a learning lesson. But be self-compassionate in your expectations. Sometimes, we are our worst critic. A good tactic is to talk to yourself as if advising a good friend under similar circumstances.

 

If the failure is due to external factors, it’s essential to distinguish between what you can control and what you can’t. While you can’t prevent every setback, you have two fundamental options. First, take steps to reduce the likelihood of bad events occurring. Second, prepare strategies to mitigate their impact should they become unavoidable. It is about taking control where you can.

 

Self-compassion recognizes that you will be upset, angry, and frustrated, but self-flagellation sends the message that you get punished for making an error or having a setback. And this self-criticism forces you to stay inside your sandbox and not push you to where you need to go.

 

The key is to accept those errors/failures and then figure out the lessons learned. Try to understand what went right and what could be improved. This is the power of self-compassion. You need to be forgiving about yourself so you can look at the situation without being emotionally hijacked. This calm view significantly enhances your problem-solving capabilities since you’re looking at the data rather than being driven by hurt feelings.

 

Summary of Takeaways

 

Personal goals are among the most meaningful ones you will pursue. As a result, it’s vital to increase their odds of success. This can be done by recognizing and reducing the risk factors and taking the following actions to enhance your goal fulfillment.

 

To avoid the performance traps of choking, rumination, or negative lumping, which can lead to demotivation, depression, or goal abandonment, be aware of the following 4 risk factors when setting personal goals:

 

  1. Deeper Connection Means Failure Hurts More – be mindful of unrealistic expectations
  2. Traditional Goal-Setting Approaches Are a Poor Fit – performance goals aren’t for everything
  3. Beware of the Planning Fallacy – it’s more complicated than you expect
  4. All-or-Nothing Attitude Creates Goal Rigidity – be flexible and willing to adapt

 

Implement 1 or more of the following to maximize your success odds:

 

  1. Consider the OKR Approach to Personal Goals to Give You More Shots on Goal
  2. Consider Learning or Action-based Goals – Gain Something During the Goal Pursuit
  3. Focus and Celebrate Your Small Wins Along the Way to Keep Your Motivation High
  4. Be Self-Compassionate When You Stumble

 

If you enjoy what you’re doing along the way, achieving the target is a side benefit. Remember you spend more time on the journey than the destination.

 

Find this Useful? Want to Learn More?

 

If you enjoyed this post, please join my email list. You’ll get the latest updates on this and other related topics.

Learn how to become better, faster, smarter.

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.

Almost there. Please check your inbox and confirm subscription. Thanks!