3 common mistakes we make in trying to achieve our goals

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“We first make our habits, and then our habits make us.” – John Dryden

Changing your life is not about completely transforming everything you do. It is actually about building a positive system of habits, even if they are small behaviour changes that when combined deliver significant results.

It is a well-known fact that at least 8 out of 10 people fail to achieve their New Year’s resolutions. In other words, they get stuck on old habits and patterns of behaviour, not being able to achieve those goals they set themselves.

There has been a lot of research on habits and evidence-based techniques, that by making small positive changes step by step, these are then a catalyst for major changes in your life.

What we do know is that you can form habits with repetition and 21 days has been bandied about as the minimum time you need to turn a behaviour into a habit. Clearly, habits need to be repetitious but without the motivation for the desired outcome, repetition alone will not cut it.

What is needed before anything is the desire for the change. Even the thought alone of reaching that goal or cultivating that positive habit makes you feel good about yourself. However, according to renowned experts in their fields, this is not enough.

Mistake 1: Motivation and willpower are enough

According to well-renowned Stanford- based behavioural expert BJ Fogg, motivation and willpower, although important, are not enough to successfully change habits.  BJ Fogg developed a methodology for cultivating habits and it has proven to be successful over a number of years, with Fogg’s Stanford Behaviour Design Lab in the USA researching and improving this approach with over 40,000 people.

The methodology is simple.  Behaviour= MAP (M- Motivation, A- Ability, P- Prompt). We know we need to have the motivation otherwise why even bother? What we also need is the ability to perform the behaviour and finally a prompt to help us actually take the action.

Clearly you need the motivation too make the change. You also need the ability to be able to follow through on that change. If you don’t have the ability, you need to be willing to learn what it takes to undertake that change.

Finally, having a prompt is a game changer. It’s like having a reminder there for you to take that action. For example, when I learnt to incorporate meditation into my life, I made sure I would do 10 minutes first thing in the morning before I had my warm lemon drink, a habit I had been following for a very long time. It worked and it did not take me long for meditation to become a habit that I was able to embed in my life.

BJ Fogg advocates, taking your desired goals and aspirations and breaking them down into manageable, bite-sized chunks.  It is important to start small with simple and easy actions and not take on too much in one go.

In order to create meaningful, long-term change, you need to start small and you then build on it.

Interestingly, what I have found over the years is that when you successfully cultivate a positive habit, it is easier to start others. Action prompts build on existing habits and are a reminder to you to perform the desired behaviour.

It is in making small and easy changes that are appealing and compelling to your behaviour that you can make a significant difference to your life.

BJ Fogg confirms this. He states “My data shows that over 70 percent of people [who are successful in making one change] report having changed other habits within five days. For better or worse, the behaviors — the changes that we make — seem to travel in packs. Start anywhere you want on the path to change, and if there’s some behavior — like eating kale or meditating — that you don’t want to do right now, don’t focus on that. But as things change in your journey, there’ll be times when you start doing the other stuff naturally. So start where you want to start.”

Another effective technique is to reward yourself for small steps you have taken even if you have not achieved your goal. Any small change in your behaviour deserves a celebration!

We are all motivated by the anticipation of doing something appealing, so making your habits attractive will help you stay with them.

We increase the feel-good hormone dopamine when we do something pleasurable, but we also increase this hormone when we anticipate that pleasurable activity. If you make the habit you are developing something you look forward to rather than a punishment, you will more likely follow through with the habit.

Mistake 2:  Trying to change everything at once

There is a lot of talk about goal setting and whether it is effective or not. Clearly, an important part of coaching and self-development is in the setting and achieving of individual goals which align to your passions and personal vision.

However, a common mistake people make, particularly with New Year’s resolutions, is that they bite off more than they can chew. I am a great supporter of setting goals and it can make a significant difference to your life, enhancing your life in many ways.

One thing I stipulate in the self-coaching model I have created is that 3 goals are enough. Any more and it can be overwhelming and in the end nothing changes!

It is important you define your goals, aligning them to your personal and compelling vision and each week you are put actions into place and monitor your progress. You are tracking the progress of any behavioural changes you are making.

You are cultivating an effective set of habits that you can continue to use throughout your life.

When you complete your actions, you will get a feeling of satisfaction. You also have the anticipation of noting your progress when you do your recording.

I have been using this self-coaching model for a long time. It keeps me on track with my goals, has helped me cultivate positive habits and rid myself of the bad habits that have held me back.

It has very much helped me become more self-aware, resilient and grounded, all qualities needed to flourish in this chaotic and uncertain world.

When I fail and we all do, I pick myself up, learn from it and move on. Yes, sometimes it can be very hard to do but failure is a necessary part of the process.

Mistake 3: Focusing only on the outcome

Goals give you purpose, direction and momentum but it is actually the journey that is more important than the outcome. In many cases the goals may change as you work your way through them. Success is a journey not a destination.

The real value of setting and pursuing your goals is not just in the goals themselves but in the person you become as a result. It is about stepping out of your comfort zone and growing, learning more about yourself, your strengths, capacity for resilience and your potential.

It is not just about the achievement of those goals themselves. It is also about the self-mastery you gain and the person you become as a result of working on your goals.

You may end up not achieving the specific goals you have pursued and goals may change. This is life. What is important though is the energy, goal setting and taking action brings.

It is about consciously changing your habits and behaviours.  In many ways, you are reflecting on what you need to change within yourself.

In doing so, you are changing emotionally, leaning into those uncomfortable feelings that need to be addressed. This is what leads to sustainable change and can enhance all facets of your life.

Changing habits, often habits of a lifetime is particularly hard. It takes courage and a growth mindset, an openness to learning about yourself and a curiosity without judging yourself.  It can be transformative.

If you want to know more about creating positive behaviour change and coaching yourself to a successful and fulfilling life, check out my online course, Life Journal here.


Jeanette Brown

I have been in Education as a teacher, career coach and executive manager over many years.
I'm also an experienced coach who is passionate about supporting people in finding real meaning and purpose in their lives, building a resilient, grounded inner self and achieving their desired goals.

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