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How to Achieve & Reach Your Goals When Challenges Arise

By Mary McCoy

setting goalsIf you’ve ever pursued an ambitious goal, you’ve probably noticed that your resolve starts to wane after about four to six weeks. Even savvy goal-setters run into problems after a month of resolve, but the statistics are worse for those who set nebulous goals for their lives. In fact, a 2007 survey conducted by British psychologist Richard Wiseman found that 88% of resolutions end in failure, and that backsliding on resolutions usually begins just a few weeks after the start of the goal.

But you don’t have to let your resolutions and goals fall by the wayside. Before you abandon them in the face of challenges and mistakes, consider redoubling your efforts for successful goal achievement.

Challenges to Goal Attainment

Most goals require a form of behavioral change, and behavioral changes first take place in the brain. An ambitious goal is essentially a choice to change a pattern in the brain – and, unsurprisingly, changing the brain is extremely difficult, often involving setbacks and disappointments along the way.

When a person starts to backslide on goals just a few weeks into their endeavor, it’s usually because they’ve encountered one of the following challenges:

1. Snowballing Mistakes
Perfection is impossible in all areas of life, including goal attainment. The brain is comprised of millions of synapses that are developed by repeating the same patterns over and over again. When you attempt to change your behavior, you’re battling against millions of tiny highways in your brain that are telling you to continue behaving the same way you always have. Essentially, you’re trying to construct new brain highways in place of the old ones. As your brain works to build these new highways, you’re bound to occasionally fall into old patterns along the way. For example, if you want to lose 15 pounds by maintaining a healthy diet, you’ll probably find yourself indulging in ice cream or cheese fries at some point on your weight loss journey, especially if you’re used to using foods to cope with stress. One misstep into your brain’s old synaptic highways is no big deal, but if one mistake causes you to give up rather than press through the failure, you’re more likely to allow your mistakes to snowball, binding you to your old habits and ruts, causing you to backslide on your goals.

2. Too Many Goals
According to a study by Stanford University, the brain does its best work when it’s allowed to focus on one goal at a time. The prefrontal cortex of the brain – which manages willpower, among other things – becomes easily overwhelmed and exhausted when it’s required to focus on multiple tasks or pieces of information. When the prefrontal cortex becomes overwhelmed, you’re less likely to effectively follow through on any of your goals, especially if they require a strong emotional or mental effort (for example, trying to give up desserts and drinking at the same time).

3. Reaching a Frustrating Plateau
There’s nothing quite as exhilarating as making tangible or obvious progress toward a goal. But most progress in life doesn’t follow a set upward trajectory; instead, it tends to go up, plateau, go down, and if you keep working, back up again. This type of unsteady progress can cause disillusionment if you’re not careful. For instance, a person training for a marathon may feel frustrated if he or she successfully trains to run 10 miles, but then can’t seem to effectively increase distance or improve time with subsequent training. Regardless of the goal, this type of plateau can last days or even weeks, and because of the frustration it carries, many people give up rather than keep at it.

4. Unrealistic Goals
According to psychology expert Dr. Timothy Pychyl in a report published by the APS, many people set highly unrealistic goals in an attempt to be someone they’re not. It’s the psyche’s way of bridging the gap between the real and the ideal, but this approach almost always ends in failure. For example, it’s unrealistic for a new college grad to resolve to make it into upper management by the end of the calendar year. This college grad is acknowledging who he or she hopes to be someday, but is approaching it the wrong way. He or she would be better off setting smaller, more measurable career goals focused on expanding his or her current responsibilities within the company. Unfortunately, setting more realistic goals frequently requires an uncomfortable and honest self-assessment.

5. Non-Specific Goals
Goals are always easier to reach if they’re specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely (S.M.A.R.T. goals), but many people set non-specific goals for themselves. Vague goals are easily abandoned when the going gets tough.

6. Lack of Accountability and Support
Sadly, change is often challenging and uncomfortable for the friends and family members who surround goal-setting individuals. Individuals who take an honest look at themselves so they can effectively pursue their goals, require friends and family, by proxy, to consider their own life trajectories. Unfortunately, many people have no interest in adaptation and change, so this can cause considerable friction in personal relationships. When faced with discomfort, social circles often withdraw support for the person resolving to change, rather than surrounding that person with care. For instance, an overweight person may be surprised to find his or her family sabotaging his or her diet by introducing high-fat and high-sugar foods into the home.

Thankfully, none of these challenges are too great to overcome. Since these challenges arise in the brain, you simply have to apply psychological tricks of the trade to overcome them.

brain synapses

Psychological Mastery

The brain is wildly clever, and highly values its own comfort. Since change and its accompanying behaviors are hard on the brain, the mind usually resists change unless it becomes more painful to remain the same than to change. If you’re truly ready to change, but you’re running into challenges, consider employing the following tricks:

1. Understand Re-Framing, and Do It
Every person who sets off toward a challenging goal will eventually fall flat on his or her face. It’s simply part of the brain making new connections, and it’s impossible to avoid. But people tend to go completely off-course when they’re unable to see failures as part of the process. For instance, I had a client who remained sober for nearly six months, but one night she got drunk and called me when she was on the precipice of choosing to remain drunk for many more weeks or months. Instead of allowing her mistake to snowball, she re-framed her choice by saying, “I was stressed today and made the choice to drink because it felt good and right at the time, but I don’t currently feel good and right, so I am not going to do this again.” She hasn’t had a drink since that day, because she chose to re-frame her mistake as a one-time diversion from her goal, rather than a complete failure.

2. Become a Minimalist
Of course, all people wish they could become their ideal selves overnight, but that’s simply not possible. If you’re trying to start a new business, lose 50 pounds, give up smoking, and bake more with your family, you’re probably not going to do any of it particularly well. Deciding which of your goals deserves the most attention can help you to set the course for future goal attainment. Start with that goal and forget about the rest until you’ve met the first goal. Spend some time thinking about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs if you’re not sure which of your goals deserves the highest priority. The hierarchy suggests that you’ll only be able to pursue higher-level goals, such as love and career fulfillment, when lower-level goals, such as safety and health, are fulfilled.

3. Measure Differently
Plateaus are extremely frustrating, regardless of the type of goal you’re trying to pursue. While you may need to alter your behavior to overcome a plateau – such as by exercising or dieting differently – you should also re-frame your frustration by measuring success differently. For instance, instead of relying solely on the weight on the scale, you may want to also measure inches lost or muscle gained in order to mitigate your irritation with the “lack of progress.” This is just another way of re-framing.

4. Set S.M.A.R.T. Goals
There’s no reason to abandon your goals altogether just because you haven’t seen the progress that you wanted. If you haven’t done so already, set specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely goals (S.M.A.R.T. goals) so that you can see your progress against an aspiration based on reality. If you’ve found that your S.M.A.R.T. goal isn’t as attainable as you’d hoped, feel free to change it up so it continues to work for you.

5. Understand What Triggers Poor Behavior
Since behavior – and ultimately goal attainment – emerges from the brain, it’s vital that you understand the cognitive processes that precede your behavior. For example, let’s say that you continue to employ one behavior that derails your progress towards your goal, and you’re not entirely sure why you keep doing it. If you eat a pint of ice cream every night because you’re stressed and want some comfort, it’s unlikely that you’ll lose the weight you want to lose. But if you spend some time understanding your stress and your behavioral triggers, then you can replace those self-defeating thoughts with healthy ones. This is another way of re-framing, but it occurs before the problem behavior arises, rather than after.

6. Find Accountability and Support
If your family and friends aren’t providing you with the support and accountability you need to stay on track, find other types of support. If your goal is weight loss, online and in-person communities such as Weight Watchers exist to support and challenge you. If you want to quit using alcohol, find support with Alcoholics Anonymous or a counselor. Although it’s not impossible to attain goals on your own, you can set yourself up for success if you find people to encourage you and support you on your journey.

Your ability to stick to your goals when challenges arise all comes down to how badly you want to change and how boldly you pick yourself up when you falter. Falling flat on your face is part of the change process, but you must learn to re-frame your failures and surround yourself with support if you want to move forward.

goal maze

Final Word

Change is a fascinating and frustrating endeavor, and no one has ever succeeded at change without overcoming substantial setbacks and challenges along the way. Anyone who sets a resolution to change is doing battle against a lifetime of habits in both brain and behavior. Give yourself the freedom to make mistakes without seeing yourself as a failure, and set yourself up for success through support and psychological tricks. When you fall down, get back up. You’ll do better than 88% of the population if you just don’t give up.

How do you do battle with your brain when it’s resisting change?

Mary McCoy
Mary McCoy, LMSW is a licensed social worker who works closely with individuals, families, and organizations in crisis. She knows first-hand how financial choices can prevent and mitigate crises, and she's therefore passionate about equipping people with the information they need to make solid financial decisions for themselves and their loved ones. When Mary isn't on her soap box, you can find her hiking, jogging, yoga-ing, or frolicking with her family.

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  • michael r lewis

    Interesting article. I always enjoy your good advice.

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