Humans live by goals. We have evolved with the extraordinary ability to imagine alternatives. We live in a dual reality. One reality includes all that is as we experience it, and the other reality includes what could be but is not. And in the gap between what is and what is not live goals, plans, desires, motivations, imaginings, creativity, and action. This gap between what is and is not, includes a time gap: what we imagine will certainly take time to bring about even in the best of circumstances. So, as we attempt to leap across the current reality to the imagined reality, we also leap across time, from the now into the imagined future.

Today’s post is on achieving goals, that is, in bringing about an imagined reality that differs from the one we experience now. Achieving most goals is hard: goals often take extended effort maintained across time. Many things can go wrong. Much is out of any human agent’s control. The goal-setter may lose motivation, become overwhelmed, or realize they lack the skills or other resources to carry out their plan. Today I wish to name and discuss some of the factors involved in successful goal achievement.

Features of Goals Successfully Achieved:

  • Goals Should Be Specific: Goals should be operationalized, that is, defined in terms of specific operations and outcomes. Setting a goal of ‘healthy living’ or becoming ‘more productive’ is too vague. What, in these cases, would constitutes success? Or failure? Setting a goal of losing 10 lbs., on the other hand, is specific. Losing 10 lbs. of adipose tissue while maintaining muscle mass and total body water is an even more specific goal. Operationalized outcomes are strictly defined. No one, especially the person setting self-goals, will find it easy to fool themselves into defining failure as success by fudging the boundaries of success and failure.
  • Goals Should Have Deadlines: Losing 10 lbs. without a date attached is a goal without specificity. A common problem encountered in more complex goals is that, even if all the required or anticipated steps of goal achievement can be laid out, their timing often cannot be. That is because often complex goals require interactions with, or deliverables from, other people. Thus, progress towards goals requires inputs that the planner cannot control. In these cases, another definition of progress towards the goal needs to be established. In some cases, setting deadlines for each step, only as it is encountered, can bring at least partial accountability to the process.
  • Goals Need to Be Achievable: Between unachievable goals and undeniably achievable ones, lies a gray area of possibly or likely achievable ones. For example, I will never become a professional basketball player because it is so far from any possible reality. But could I climb Mount Everest? It seems at least a possibility. After all, an entire industry has emerged to guide well-off people, even those of questionable fitness, to trek Mount Everest, with some dying in the process. I know I will never climb Mount Everest because that is not a goal I wish to pursue, but could I climb it if I really, really wanted to? To answer this question requires raises another aspect of goal-setting: conducting research. If my goal was to climb Mount Everest, I would first read all about fitness requirements and risks for climbers. Then I would need to get medically evaluated. Most sensibly, I could set an interim goal of climbing mountains of much lesser height and assessing my fitness and capabilities. Only then might I commit (or not) to climbing the world’s tallest mountain.
  • Goals Should Be Strongly Desired: It seems obvious: goals that are chosen should be desired goals. It may seem strange that goals that are not desired are ever pursued, but they are. There are different ways in which this can occur. First, someone else in the person’s life may influence them to set a particular goal which, outside of the relationship with that person of influence, would not be desired. Sometimes, of course, people may desire goals that have become internalized, such as when pursing a goal set out by a parent. In these cases, there may be a conflict between what the person desires in their heart and what they have internalized from their parents. This discrepancy in what is desired can lead to ambivalence and half-hearted goal-pursuit. Second, people may choose goals that are not at the core of what they truly want. For example, I may desire to make a million dollars a year when, upon reflection, my true motivation is to have more free time or to be less stressed or to work in a different field. When I am pursuing a goal which is not directed at my true desire, it will be hard for me to maintain my motivation for what is, in effect, a stand-in goal. And third, we humans have an incredible capacity to deceive ourselves. I may imagine that if only I lost 30 lbs. or I made X amount more dollars, then my life would be perfect. On some level I would know this was BS and, thus, not be truly invested in pursuing the stated goals.
  • Goals Should Be Meaningful: Just as goals must be emotionally compelling, leading to sustained desire, they must be cognitively meaningful. The goal should be part of that person’s wider and deeper values and core life goals.
  • Goals Should Be Set High: How highly set or hard should your goals be? For the beginning and intermediate goal-setter and in the interests of making goal-setting and goal-achievement become a positive life habit, goals should be set to fall into the ‘zone of proximal development.’ This is a Vygotsky term that refers to how teachers should approach students to increase their learning. In this pedagogical approach, teachers set goals for students that are just hard enough to challenge them without overwhelming them. The student, when confronting new material, should possess enough knowledge and strategies to feel the material can be learned or the problem solved. This ‘reaching’ beyond one’s comfort zone, is done in the context of the ‘scaffolding,’ the support and guidance, offered by the educator. This concept of zone of proximal development is equally relevant to setting and achieving adult goals. If a goal is too easy to achieve, one that does not challenge a person’s current knowledge, skill, and strategies, then it does not lead to growth. If it is too far from their base of knowledge and skill, then it likely will also not lead to growth and mastery.
  • Goals Should Be Singular: Because almost all meaningful goals are hard and take extended effort, they should be given enough time and space. This means not crowding them with other goals. There are exceptions, like a person who makes a wholesale change in lifestyle and finds that one goal supports other goals. But this is not the usual case. The usual case is a person who is already busy, possibly stressed and overwhelmed, attempting to make a change. In college and later, I supported myself as a house painter with my own little business. Through it I met a group of young entrepreneurs who shared the goal of ‘making a million dollars.’ They were single minded in this endeavor and many succeeded. The average amount of time it took them was seven years; this was in the 1980’s and for many their wealth was related in one way or another with real estate.
  • Goals Should Be Shared: When a person communicates an important life goal to people whose opinion matters to them, it makes failure all the more unpleasant and more effort is expended to avoid it.
  • Goals Should Be Approached With a Learning Mindset: Because meaningful goals are often set high, success is never assured. If success is assured, the goal may be too meager. So, with great effort and perseverance, a person pursues their goal. Even in the case of ‘failure,’ a learning mindset leaves them grateful for learning what they learned and ready to try again, approaching the goal now for the second time with more skill and knowledge. On the other hand, for persons with a ‘performance mindset,’ setbacks can be experienced as shameful, painful, and to be avoided at all costs. Thus, even a single failure on a particular project can lead that person to never pursue that project again.


Dr. Jack

Language Brief

“The moment you put a deadline on your dream, it becomes a goal.”  ― Harsha Bhogle

“Professionals stick to the schedule; amateurs let life get in the way.”James Clear

“Living a life somewhere else in your mind is nothing more than being a prisoner where you are.”Shannon L. Alder

“Feeling lost, crazy and desperate belongs to a good life as much as optimism, certainty and reason.”
Alain de Botton

“Good life is not a sprint. It’s an exerting marathon of purpose, passion, patience and perseverance. It’s the road where faith and hard work meet. It is an unusual love adventure between success and failure.”Abiodun Fijabi