Why You Aren't Reaching Your Goals

Because you stink. No, that's not why. But you tell yourself something along these lines every time a goal eludes you, right? I know I do.

It's like, I told myself I'd do XYZ, I wrote it down, I even told my friends and family I was going to do it, and now look at me, washed up, never going to achieve XYZ, or probably anything else I set out to do. I'm lazy and lack willpower and might as well give up and lay on the couch for the rest of the day. And then I go eat a pint of ice cream.

The thing is, we've been going after goals all wrong. And nobody bothered to tell us.

Based on sports psychology research, we've been told we should make our goals SMART:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-Bound

We've also been told to write those goals down. (For a particularly hilarious example, check out the uber-detailed list midway down this post by Rebecca Cao). And to commit to the goals by telling others about them.

Goal Setting

By that reasoning, I should be on my third published book by now. HA!

In actuality, what psychologists call "goal intentions" - such as, Update my LinkedIn profile. Get a job in a museum. Avoid going insane from the overwhelmingly lost feeling of leaving college. - don't work much better than having no goals at all.

This is especially true for goals that can be waylaid by emotions, including the overpowering fears we've been discussing lately. (Show me a goal that isn't susceptible to emotional influence and I'll show you a camera-shy Kardashian.) For instance, researchers told spider-fearful (but not phobic) people to set the goal "I will not get frightened" and then showed them spiders. These people did no better at staying calm than spider-fearful people who didn't set a goal at all.

The problem is that setting goal intentions doesn't help us know HOW to reach the goal.

In walk "implementation intentions," which researchers have been studying since the mid-90s (why didn't anyone tell me?!). Psychologist Schweiger Gallo and colleagues describe them like this:

Implementation intentions are if-then plans that spell out when, where, and how a set goal is to be put into action: “If situation x is encountered, then I will perform behavior y!”

And these little nuggets of power really work.

In the spider study I just mentioned, a group of spider-fearful participants were told to set the implementation intention "if I see a spider, then I will remain calm and relaxed!" And guess what? When they saw a spider, they remained as calm as people who had no fear of spiders. The fear was completely eliminated.

It turns out that implementation intentions work for a variety of goals, ranging from dieting to exercising to recycling to doing breast self-examinations to writing reports. Sure as heck we should be able to apply them to career goals!

Implementation intentions work for two reasons:

  1. They draw our attention to a particular situation (the "if" part of the statement.)
  2. They tell us what we should automatically do if we encounter that situation (the "then" part of the statement.)

And the beauty of implementation intentions is that they DO become automatic. Very quickly. They require little cognitive effort on our parts, psychologists find. Goal intentions, on the other hand, require us to THINK about them to get them to work. That's why I used to try taping my goals to my bathroom mirror. And then, you know, ignored them after a couple of days.

Most importantly, implementation intentions work even when things are fighting against our goals, including external circumstances (such as distracting images being shown while we're taking a test) and internal states (such as fatigue and hunger). And there's no doubt that we have plenty of those!

So let's try setting some implementation intentions related to the Twentysomething Career Search:

  • If I sit down to job search and feel like I'd rather be prying my toenails off, then I'll tell myself that I just need to send out ten resumes each day and I will get 'er done.
  • If I try to work on my "All I Want To Be" Statement and feel so overwhelmed that I seriously contemplate running off to become one of Hef's concubines (yes, even if you're a guy), then I'll tell myself this is only a first draft that I can change anytime and I'll write something down.
  • If I start to tell my parents that I don't actually want to follow the career path they'd hoped for me and I fear pangs of fear so intense I think we might need to call 911, then I will tell myself to stay calm and to breathe and to remember that my parents love me (or so I hope) and I'll tell them anyway.
  • If I look at my bank statement and start to call myself all sorts of nasty names because the balance is so low, then I will remind myself that I can search for a stop-gap job to help me through this rough time and that this will not last forever and I'll keep searching for a fulfilling career. (And then I'll go find a loan. Right quick.)

So bottomline, if you enjoy avoiding a fulfilling career, by all means, keep setting your goals. Type those bad boys up, hang 'em high, announce them for all to hear!

But if you're ready to actually start meeting your goals, it's time to get down with some if-then implementation intentions.

What's the first implementation intention you're going to set for yourself? (It doesn't have to be career related; we still have many psychological blocks to work through before we're fully there...!)


Schweiger Gallo, I., Keil, A., McCulloch, K. C., Rockstroh, B., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2009). Strategic automation of emotion regulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 11-31.

See if doing this actually helps you. As if. (Photo credit: lululemon athletica)