Striving to attain an important life goal is hard, usually requires multiple steps carried out over an extended period, and is prone to distractions, loss of motivation, and myriad setbacks.

Many people want change but fail. Factors to achieve success in attaining a goal are to firmly resolve to reach a goal and to define it clearly in objective terms. It’s one thing to have a goal of “more time off” and another to “resolve to take one week off every two-month period.”

Having this resolve and clarity of goal intention helps in reaching a goal, but a third factor is usually needed, and that is to have a plan. A plan is not a goal, irrespective of how passionately that goal is desired or how clearly it is defined. A plan specifies the actual behaviors that will be undertaken and when, where, for how long, and with what level of monitoring and self-correction they will be carried out. One can even specify the positive and negative consequences of meeting or not meeting interim milestones. Having such a detailed plan combined with a commitment to carry it out is called an implementation intention and, when present, is associated with higher rates of goal attainment.

These three factors can be enough when the nature of the actions needed to attain the goal are known and the person has the knowledge and skill to carry them out. But this is not always the case. A person with a goal may not know what needs to be done to attain it and, if they do know, they may not have the knowledge and skill to carry out one or more steps in the plan. For many people, this is where goal attainment ends. A goal has turned into an unattainable dream.

One way to address this high hurdle is to assume a new mindset and additional goal. The mindset can be a ‘learning’ mindset rather than a ‘performance’ or ‘achievement’ mindset. And the new goal or goals are to acquire the knowledge and skills to develop a plan and to carry it out to meet the end goal.

I, for one, already have a sense of tension when writing this. So many steps! My important life goal seems to recede. Rather than strive to reach it, I first must strive to figure out how to reach it and then to develop the necessary knowledge and skill to reach it. I already feel like giving up.

What to do?

Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Reconsider the goal: not infrequently the goal people set for themselves is not the most foundational goal, although, unreflectively, it is considered to be so. I once wrote about the man whose goal was to save a million dollars. His coach asked him what he needed it for. The man said so he could have the time and money to go fly fishing in Montana with his sons. The coach pointed out that no one needs a million dollars in savings to go fishing.
  • Simplify the plan: after an initial plan is in place, the next step is to deconstruct it and try to eliminate all unnecessary steps, simplify the rest, and find ways of doing things in less time and with less money and other resources.
  • Work with a coach or mentor or advisor: there are many things we don’t know and, likely, many of those things are needed to reach important life goals. Working with trusted advisors is a way of leveraging other people’s hard won knowledge and skills to apply to one’s own goal achievement. Of course, advisors must be vetted to be found competent and trustworthy, but that is an investment that is often worth making because a person can make use of single trusted advisor over many years as needs arise and change.
  • Reconceptualize the goal as a lifelong praxis: Often goals are thought of as desired one-time outcomes. The learning mindset turns the focus onto the learning that takes place in the goal-pursuit. Thus, it enables a focus on the journey taken in reaching that goal. But even with a learning mindset, the end goal remains the over-riding focus. A different way of approaching goals is to jettison the end goal completely, that is, that one time achievement, and instead focus on the daily praxis, on the day in and day out activities that will allow a person to live in a certain way. These daily practices may themselves require the setting and planning of goals, but they are turned into smaller daily goals. Each day brings a new opportunity to live according to one’s goals and values. Every day is a fresh start, a new opportunity to incorporate what one has learned in all one’s previous days. For example, rather than setting the goal of losing 30 lbs, a person can implement a daily praxis of healthy eating and adequate level of activity. Again, this approach does not eliminate goals, but it demotes them, turns them into a life-long discipline.

Thanks and take care.

Dr. Jack


Gollwitzer, Peter M., and Gabriele Oettingen. “Goal attainment.” The Oxford handbook of human motivation (2019): 245-268.

Prestwich, Andrew, et al. “Implementation intentions.” Predicting health behavior 3 (2015): 321-357.

Gollwitzer, Peter M., and Paschal Sheeran. “Implementation intentions and goal achievement: A meta‐analysis of effects and processes.” Advances in experimental social psychology 38 (2006): 69-119.

Language Brief

“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” – Plutarch

“Failure is constructive feedback that tells you to try a different approach to accomplish what you want.” –  Idowu Koyenikan

“I don’t care what you do for a living—if you do it well I’m sure there was someone cheering you on or showing the way. A mentor.” – Denzel Washington

“Mentors are all around us. Who makes you feel confident, inspired, focused, and is willing to share their experience?” – Anna Letitia Cook

“The elegance under pressure is the result of fearlessness.” – Ashish Patel