Why Goal-Setting Doesn’t Work

Yep, you read that right. Coming from one of the biggest goal-setting freaks you’ll meet.

Goal-setting, the way most people approach it, simply doesn’t work. Not in the quantum-leap, overnight-success way that most first-time goal-setters assume it should.

This, of course, is where most people go wrong with their New Year’s resolutions — they expect that they’ll suddenly have willpower they’ve never had before, and they’ll use that willpower to get immediate and dramatic results.

Most people — and I’ve been one of them — think that once they’ve set goals, magic should happen. As if that’s all you need to do to: set the goal and write it down, then visualize, visualize, visualize, and untold fortunes will soon come flowing your way.

Or, slightly less airy-fairy but no more true, that the simple act of writing down a goal and committing to it virtually guarantees that you’ll find a way to make it happen.

I’ve got some bad news: setting a goal just isn’t enough.

What Makes Goals Work When They Do

Don’t get me wrong: I strongly believe in the tremendous power of goal-setting, when it’s approached from the right mindset. So what’s that mindset?

There’s a borderline-obscure little workbook called Pick Four, in which Seth Godin, one of my favorite authors, updates and simplifies Zig Ziglar’s classic goals program (a program for which Seth credits much of his own early motivation).

In the intro, Seth (one of the straightest-shooters you’ll come across) writes about the scientific basis for having goals, as set forth in a scholarly paper reviewing 35 years’ worth of scientific findings on goal-setting.

He writes:

According to the paper, goals work:

  1. Goals direct attention and effort toward goal-relevant activities and away from goal-irrelevant activities.
  2. Goals have an energizing function. Goals create effort.
  3. Goals affect persistence. Goals prolong effort.
  4. Goals rally us to bring task-relevant knowledge and strategies to the problem at hand.

(From Pick Four, by Zig Ziglar and Seth Godin, The Domino Project, 2011.)

Attention, energy, persistence, effort, knowledge, strategies. Goals enhance these qualities and activities — the catch is that YOU have to do them.

And for the first month, three months, or even a whole year, there may be no clear evidence that what you’re doing is worth a damn.

The Hand-Pumped Water Well (and What Really Matters)

The most important point in this entire post is this: Nothing changes until you change.

Not just by setting goals once, but by setting those goals and understanding that creating anything legitimate takes time. Having the patience and discipline to keep up new good habits (which goal-setting helps you to begin) to get through the lag time before the results start to appear.

That lag time might be three months. Or it might be three years. You have to be okay with that, and you have to keep up the effort until the results appear. (And when they do, everyone else will call it “overnight success.”)

There’s a great analogy between the daily work required to achieve goals and those old-fashioned water wells, where you have to pump a handle to suck the water up to the earth’s surface.

You do one pump, and nothing appears to happen. You pump again; still nothing. After a few dozen pumps there’s still no visible result. You’re tempted to throw your hands up in disgust and say, “This doesn’t work!”, vowing never again to be foolish enough to believe that one of these old wells actually works.

But if you stick with it — for a few hundred pumps or maybe even more — a trickle of water finally appears. Because during all of that time while you were pumping with no visible result, the water was moving closer and closer to the surface — you just couldn’t see it.

Eventually, after several more pumps (for which you now excitedly put forth the effort), the water is gushing! And the best part of all: Once the water is flowing and working for you, it just takes a pump now and then to keep it coming.

When it comes to setting goals and creating change, most people give up after the first few burst of effort, when the dramatic, visible breakthrough they were sold on doesn’t happen.

Introducing ‘Wake Up’

3DOn New Year’s Day, I published a new ebook, called Wake Up: 31 Days and Actions to Take Charge of Your Life.

And yes, it includes a goal-setting program, because I truly believe that goals matter.

The response has been amazing, and I’m so grateful for that. But I’m also concerned.

I’m concerned that people will see “31 Days” and assume that’s all it takes: Thirty-one days of hard work (and trust me, it is work), and then they can rest and enjoy the gushing rewards.

Not quite. The 31 days are about changing your mindset, getting clear on your goals, and then building the habits, making the plans, and beginning the real, tangible work. Beginning.

You can’t call it quits after 31 days. Anybody who promises that you can is lying to you.

For anything to change, your philosophy and attitude must change. You have to shift from the instant-gratification mindset that pervades our culture to an attitude of discipline and patience — an attitude that says that when you try a new approach to accomplishing the goals you’ve set, you’ll stick it out long enough to truly judge how it’s working (much longer than most people are willing to).

And then if it’s not working — and often it won’t — you try something else. And then something else. And then something else. Long enough at each step to make an informed decision about whether it’s working, and no longer.

And here’s the great news: If you’re truly committed to repeating that process until it works, then sure enough you’ll eventually get what you want.

If there are some changes you’d like to make in your life, I invite you to check out my new book and decide if it’s right for you. I can tell you right now, though, that if you’re not ready to adopt the mindset I’ve talked about in this post then it won’t be.

But if you are — if you’re ready to make this the year that you turn pro, step up, or whatever you want to call that subtle but life-altering shift where you forever turn your back on the search for instant gratification and overnight success in favor of discipline, persistence, and the long view — then Wake Up is a fantastic place to start.



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  1. I just purchased Wake Up and have already started on Day 1. I think this is just the right way to start 2014.

  2. Look forward to reading Wake Up, Matt, but first need to finish No Meat Athlete.

    Completely agree about the need to change one’s mind before any doing gets done. I refer to this as Mindset. One’s mind needs to bet set, really, “reset”, in order to purge whatever thoughts and emotions have constructed the bad habits and behaviors that need to be overlapped by the new.

    I’ve written about this on my own blog, and this Mindset thing will be central to the content focus of my material once I relaunch my site.

    Good stuff.

  3. MaryEllen says:

    Can this book be downloaded to an iPhone?

    • MaryEllen,

      Yes it can. It’s a PDF file, so any device that can read those (which an iPhone can) should be able to read it. If you have any problems, just let me know!

  4. Excellent advice Matt, well written….I never set any goals on New Year’s Eve because it is just a meaningless date….Instead, I am continually revisiting and adjusting my goals/targets/ambitions all year long. Some of my friends express “wishes” but don’t move beyond that point, neglecting to sit down with pen and paper and map out a program of immediate, short term, medium and long term goals and how they intend to achieve them…consequently nothing tangible happens, except wishful thinking…

  5. Daniella Renee says:

    Ramit Sethi is big proponent of building systems to create change in one’s life. I love his posts and have started keeping an eye out for similar mindsets. You’ve done a great job of encapsulating what needs to happen to make a dream or goal become a reality. I’m digging the evolution of your posts alongside all the hard work you’ve been putting into the blog and your own growth. Looking forward to more in 2014!

  6. Love this post, this idea, this philosophy. And I especially love the expression “airy-fairy.” Too funny, but true. I shall repeat to myself (my own personal mantra!) when I begin slipping from my goals. “Don’t be airy-fairy,” I’ll say.
    But seriously, this is good stuff. Thanks, once again, for the motivation.
    Cheers and happy New Year.

  7. Excellent advice. I’m beginning to look at goals in a slightly different way. While goals are important and help me define my progress, I’m concentrating more on developing good systems to reach my goals. A system for good health, a system for fitness, a system for career, etc. A good system is what keeps you “cranking the water pump” until your goals finally surface.

  8. Gayle Smith says:

    Goal setting is an intensely personal practice. One older study revealed those who share their goal-setting plans with others often do not accomplish that goal. Because the act of often repeating the goal objective; psychologically begins to equal having accomplished that very advertised goal.
    Focus in mind. Be deliberate in body. Practice new actions. When the new behavior is noticed, acknowledge where you are in the moment. “I am eating vegan today.” I’m strong enough to run 10 miles.” Do not share lightly. “I am planning to eat vegan all this week.” “I am running a 1/2 marathon in 3 weeks.”
    On the eve of accomplishing your goal invite support. The hour you attain your hard-won goal, share with all who are important to you.

  9. I have been a life long fan of goal setting (a 26 year fan of Zig Ziglar)
    I also like and use the Pick Four program and am doing a “RESHUFFLE” later this spring. I am not and never been a fan of the NEW YEARS stuff. Though I often have annual goals that trigger on in January.
    The big key is realistic goals AND plan AND strategy.

    Write about steps and goals and plans in bogs , book and post

  10. My husband and I are loving your blog and “No Meat Athlete!” We tried a few recipes this past week, and they were great! I recommended your book and shared some pics on my own blog this morning. Thanks for all of the great tips and motivation!

  11. I’ve never understood the hype of New Year’s resolutions, since most people take an ineffective approach (or no approach) like the one you describe, end up failing, and then start the cycle over the next Jan. 1. Where’s the appeal in that? Somehow, I got motivated to make some this year, but I feel that they’re more aligned with your posts of late, which seem to advocate life change and habits, versus just meeting a somewhat arbitrary goal. I like the more theoretical/abstract posts recently–they’re a great reminder that it’s about a process and lifestyle. You definitely can’t expect big things to happen in life without a willingness to get uncomfortable and let go of old routines, thinking, and habits.

  12. I don’t totally agree with this. A while back I had taken a Tony Robbins course that required me to write down a bunch of fairly significant goals I had wanted to accomplish in my life. I finished the course and threw the sheet of fine-spaced graph paper I had written them on in my desk drawer. I did not formally sit-down and figure out some elaborate action plan on how I was going to accomplish them. A couple years later, while cleaning out my desk, I came across this sheet of paper. Much to my surprise I had accomplished all of the goals that I had written down on the paper. I was pretty amazed when I read through them. I had totally forgotten about the paper too. So, I think just writing down your goals/dreams is an exercise that inscribes these into your subconscious mind and puts you on a path to accomplishing them…whether you realize it or not.

  13. Absolutely agree with you. Goals should be something we are planning on actually working through, over time, regardless of the time/effort we’ll have to put into. Of course goal revision is also valid, but for real causes and not because/when the going gets tough.
    Goals are certainly not magic wishes we can just want and get, for the only reason that we ‘made the effort’ to set that goal. I know I’m exaggerating but it does seem sometimes people expect immediate/almost magical results/achievements when setting a goal.

  14. I rose my brows after I read the title of our blog as I am curious why confidently say that “Goal-Setting Doesn’t Work”. I started to think if it’s true or not and I can say that it is never really about setting a goal but achieving it. Setting is just planning while achieving is putting some work and actions to make it happen.

  15. My husband and I are loving your blog and “No Meat Athlete!” We tried a few recipes this past week, and they were great! I recommended your book and shared some pics on my own blog this morning. Thanks for all of the great tips and motivation!

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