• Leanne Brownoff

Goal Setting: Why is it so hard to achieve… And why do we keep doing it?


Regardless of when the word was coined, goal setting has been around since the dawn of story telling. It plays an important part in our human evolution and has been an underlying theme of many fables and folklore.

Not all those who wander are lost J.R.R. Tolkien


This maybe true in some situations, but we are constantly searching for a magic formula to follow, in order to achieve the euphoria of successfully hitting a target. Sometimes we blindly believe fabricated statistics regarding goal setting and its success rate, without question. Recently a commonly quoted, but completely fictitious study was recently discredited, as it simply never happened. The study in question refers to The Harvard Business School Study of Goals. The story goes that 3% of said business school’s graduating class of 1953 had made clear goals for their future. When revisited 20 years later, those same 3% had claimed to earn 10% more than the graduates that had not made goals upon graduation. No study had ever occurred. It seems to have been fabricated to support the logical supposition that success would follow if a carefully crafted plan were to be followed versus no plan at all.


Fortunately, there are some real and well-documented studies that offer a glimpse into what it takes to set and achieve goals- what works and what doesn't. Edwin A. Locke, who first coined the term goal setting, published a study in 1968 entitled Toward a Theory of Task, Motivation and Incentive. Over the past 50 years, Locke and his associates have statistically determined that there is a scientific process involved in setting and achieving goals.


Why do we set goals in the first place?

This is a complex question, but there is measurable scientific evidence indicating that when people have goals to guide them, they are happier and achieve more than they would have, without them.

It’s all in your head…literally.


When you experience goal achievement, you produce a chemical in your brain called dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of pleasure. As benchmarks are achieved, dopamine activates a neural pathway resulting in the desire to continue.

Goals provide focus, but a plan provides a measuring stick for progress. Each small success towards the goal results in the release of dopamine, which enhances self-esteem and productivity and ultimately increases commitment, a vital and fragile ingredient in achieving a goal.


4 things that challenge goal commitment:

Locke’s research suggests there are 4 categories that support progress to successfully achieve a goal.

  • · Open Choice: When one is given options to choose from, the experience becomes engaging increasing the likelihood for progress. Without engagement, sustaining change is difficult.

  • · Effort: Effort correlates to the value of the goal. The path of least resistance may look attractive at times, but it will inevitably pull one away from their target and back to old ways.

  • · Persistence: Working through setbacks requires support. Regardless of a person’s ability to self-focus and be goal-driven, a support network offers greater quantitative results.

  • · Cognitive change: Only through persistent effort in the presence of open choice will there be a change in behaviour to support the goal. To sustain a goal, cognitive change must occur or you will revert back to the way things originally were.

Flaws in Goal Setting that often result in failure:

  • · Someone else sets the goal: There is a fine line between support and sabotage regarding outside influences. If a goal comes from the individual, there is greater chance for success. This is not to say that a person with authority can’t set a main goal but the means by how the goal will be achieved should involve the individual. One-size-fits-all is not effective in goal setting.

  • · The person setting the goal is not a credible role model. “Do as I say and not as I do” mentality can sabotage efforts right away. Success in achieving a target comes with seeking role models that have been successful with the target.

  • · Allowing the belief that “Doing your best” is ok. This allows the window of mediocrity to always be open. So when a stumble occurs, which will happen, it is easily excused. Goals require change and this takes effort, time and patience to achieve. If you truly believe you are doing your best, then you have just admitted that there is no further change to be had.

Do or do not, there is no try.” Yoda

Processes that support goals:

  • · Self-efficacy is paramount, as it is the personal belief that you can achieve the goal, but first know that the goal is SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time based).

  • · Maintain a conscious awareness of the value the goal will bring. Surround yourself with visual reminders or mental mantras in order to push passed thinking you are doing your best and believing you are capable of more.

  • · Commitment to others, improves adherence to the process. In Japan, Daruma Dolls have been widely used for centuries, to maintain focus and commitment in achieving goals. The dolls represent Bodhidharma, the monk accredited with the founding of Zen Buddhism. The story of the doll is rich in symbolism and speaks to the higher power and effort required to take on a goal. The eyes of the Daruma are presented as blank circles and when one decides on their goal they are to visualize achieving the goal and then colour the left pupil of the doll’s eye. The process highlights the importance of sharing your goal and when the goal is achieved you fill in the right eye. With one eye watching you, there is the sense of having made a commitment to more than yourself.

Call to A.C.T.I.O.N.:

  • Select a personal goal that follows the SMART criteria

  • Commit to your goal to others

  • Select a support system that will help you stay on target

  • Follow-up on your progress and recognize progress

We are fundamentally programmed to attempt to achieve goals. In fact we have an overriding chemical mechanism that is built-in that acts as a positive reinforcement. Success lies in understanding the flaws in the process that sabotage our efforts and embracing the supportive systems that will strengthen commitment.


Leanne Brownoff is a Business Coach who works with entrepreneurs, small business owners and start-up operations. She is the Author of Freezing My Ass Off on Kilimanjaro, the entrepreneur's survival guide for building traction on a changing business terrain. www.leannebrownoff.com

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