Unrealistic Goals on sticky notes

It’s a traditional part of the new year—setting goals to stop smoking, get a better job, find a spouse, lose weight, and hundreds of other wanted changes in our lives. And every January, the journals and notebooks come out of the drawer and we diligently list the most important things we want to accomplish.

For me, the process of goal-setting has been such an important part of setting priorities that for the past several years, I’ve started the new year by writing an article about the subject, offering suggestions on how to keep our resolutions from becoming lost in the hustle and bustle of everyday living.

This year, I’ve decided to take a different approach.


National statistics tell us after three months, ninety-five percent of us have completely forgotten about our goals.

Ninety-five percent!

That’s terrible.

And here’s what makes those numbers even worse: That same ninety-five percent repeats the process every year, continuing to set new goals to bring about wanted life-change even though there’s a ninety-five percent chance it’s not going to work.

Look at it this way. If you wanted to quit smoking, and a popular stop-smoking program revealed its success rate to be five percent, is that a program you’d want to try?

Or how about shedding that extra ten pounds by trying a new weight loss diet? For a lot of folks, it’s a number one priority on their list of new goals. But if you discovered that 95 percent of all those trying the ice cream and tree-bark diet never lost a single pound, how motivated would you be to blend a half cup of pine tree shavings into that half-gallon of vanilla?

See what I mean? Putting that five percent success rate into context makes it clear we need an alternative that will work for a greater number of people.

To make sure we don’t journey down the same path by a different name, it may be helpful to look at the three most important reasons the goal-setting process is such an ineffective agent for change:

1. We don’t count the cost of what we’ll have to give up. Our time is not unlimited, and since most of us claim we’re already busy, we usually have to give up an existing activity in preference to working on a new goal. The real question is, how high a price are you willing to pay? If you’re already beginning to feel a sense of regret just from reading this, you need to ask yourself the following: Do you really want that new career, or relationship, or healthier body badly enough to give up the time you sit in front of the television? Are you willing to trade the time you spend surfing the internet to go to the gym, or learn a new language, or take that night class at the community college? That daily hour spent on Facebook and watching Sunday afternoon football may have easily fit within your old life, but it’s doubtful they’ll survive the transition to a more disciplined use of your time to make the life-changes you want to accomplish.

By the way, the failure to pay the price—in terms of maintaining a disciplined use of time—is the number one reason most people completely abandon their goals by April, comfortably settling back into their normal, regular routine.

2. Very often, our wants and desires are not within our control. There are plenty of old adages that claim anything is possible if we want it bad enough. Motivational gurus tell us if we work hard enough, if we stay focused on the dream and never give up, our most ambitious desires are always within reach. The truth? Some goals are realistic—and some are not. The probability of reaching any goal is based upon the realities of personal genetics, talent, economic reality, competition, critical relationships, and the sheer effect of timing. Add to that the impact on existing protocols and the amount of cooperation required from others, and you begin to form an accurate picture of what is realistically possible.

But wait, you say. How can that be true? What about all those articles, blog posts, and podcasts featuring writers, entrepreneurs, and social icons who boot-strapped their way to success with nothing more than the will to succeed?

Unfortunately, the experiences of the few who manage to find their way to fame and fortune are often touted as everyday success stories. In reality, over-the-top success is rare. For example, after the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, the previously unknown author was touted as a less-than-average writer who found overwhelming success by relentlessly pursuing her passion. Supposedly establishing herself as one of the most financially successful authors of all time simply because she refused to give up, she became a poster-child for tenacity, determination, and tireless persistence. More than a few life coaches and motivational speakers presented her rise to success as a repeatable event, suggesting the rewards of perseverance were available to anyone who was willing to do the work.

But when long-time industry pros were asked to estimate the chances of another unknown author being able to garner the same level of achievement, the answer was a bubble-popping zero. In other words, the success of Fifty Shades was an anomaly—a unique happenstance of luck, timing, market receptivity, and social media marketing, plus a huge dose of FOMO (fear of missing out) on the part of those who hadn’t read it.

3. Our goals are based in fictional illusions and representations of media-generated fantasy. Wanting to become the next James Bond, Laura Croft, or Indiana Jones is an exercise in day-dreaming. And while not harmful when used as a brief escape, it should never become a substitute for the positive and rewarding activities available from being fully present in the current reality. Sadly, spending too much time fantasizing about a life we wish we could live can have very real consequences, the worst of which is wasting productive years while foolishly waiting for our real lives to begin.

Young Businessman in superman costume

If any of these circumstances or situations sound familiar, you’re not only in good company, you’re in the overwhelming majority—and yes, I count myself as a long-term and frustrated member of the group.

After reading to this point, you might assume I’m suggesting giving up completely on goal-setting—leaving you to wander aimlessly through the days, weeks, and years of your life without direction or purpose, becoming a living example of that well-worn metaphor of a ship without a rudder.

That’s not my intent. And if you’re one of those self-motivated individuals who find goals to be a useful and productive tool, you should continue the process. Establishing priorities with organization and discipline is extremely powerful, and provides valuable feedback as you work toward creating desirable changes in your life.

But if you’re one of those who fill their notebooks every January with well-intentioned objectives, only to find yourself in exactly the same situation and circumstances a year later, it may be time to consider the following alternative.

Instead of setting goals, how about being open to new possibilities? Recognizing and acting on new opportunities is one of the most important characteristics of those who live successful and satisfying lives. Whether a person is following a well-defined path toward their desire outcome or they find their destiny evolving from a series of fortuitous events, the act of recognizing and acting on new opportunities usually plays a major role.

For example, your co-worker mentions he’s going to start flying lessons next month–and you wonder . . . “I’ve always thought it might be fun to learn how to fly. Taking the course with a buddy would make the experience more fun. And if I had a pilot’s license, what might that lead to? Who might I meet that could have a positive impact on my life?”

Or let’s say your boss tells you about a new position opening up in San Diego. You know housing will be three times as expensive as your home in Phoenix. And the traffic? You’ve been there enough times to know how the rush hour turns the freeways into parking lots. Your boss assures you that you don’t have to take the promotion. It’s strictly up to you. You’re ready to reject the new position immediately. But what if you reconsidered the move from the standpoint of how it could change your life for the better? What might happen in San Diego? What new opportunities might be waiting there?

Keep in mind that many life-changing opportunities arrive in disguise. Seemingly unrelated to our goals, we dismiss them as distractions, diversions that appear to be a detour from what we believe to be the most direct route to success. The result? We ignore them in favor of continuing on a single path destined to failure.

The key is to always be open to a Plan B. We often chart a single course to our dreams—one way of getting there. And when that doesn’t work . . . we quit. In reality, the more ways you have of getting to your destination, the greater chances of your arrival. So this year, try something different. Forget the goal setting session and instead, commit to being more aware of new possibilities. And when they arrive, ask yourself if this new choice might be just the opportunity you’ve been waiting for.