5 Mistakes I’ve Made When Setting Goals

Two weeks into 2020 and how are you getting on with your resolutions? Are you happy with progress or is willpower weakening?

Now is a good time to step back and re-evaluate exactly why (and how) you set your goals. If you think about it, that’s what a resolution is, a goal-setting exercise. You probably set goals every day of your professional life and apply some formula (SMART goals perhaps?) to create them. How would you feel if only 10% of your work goals were achieved in a year? Yet, that is roughly the percentage of New Year’s resolutions that are achieved.

I’ve had plenty of resolution failures but in the last six years I’ve done better by eliminating some basic mistakes. Mistakes to which others, I think, can relate. Below are my top 5 mistakes along with simple fixes you can apply to get your resolutions back on track. But first, what does ‘resolution’ mean? Think about it for a second. The answer may surprise you.

‘Resolution’ comes from the Latin word (‘resolvere‘) meaning, ‘to loosen, release’. I always guessed it had something to do with ‘(re)solving a problem’ but I had never thought of it in terms of ‘un-tightening’ or ‘making free’, words I associate with tension, and specifically the releasing or loosening of tension. ‘Interesting’, I thought.

For the first time I thought of resolutions as not ‘fixing’ or ‘correcting’ a problem but as ‘freeing’ and ‘relieving’ me from a tension. In other words, not removing an obstacle but instead adding better options that would lead to the removal of the obstacle. Like I said, interesting.

Does this definition change how you think about resolutions or goal setting? With this in mind, think about your resolutions/goals and see if you relate to my top five mistakes.

Mistake #1: “I’m making a sacrifice.”

Start with the right attitude. Judy Bartokowiak an NLP Master puts it this way, ‘Thinking about what you don’t want is problem thinking whereas thinking about what you do want is outcome thinking.’

Think of your goal as a project. The aim of any project is to deliver a product or service, in project-speak we call this the ‘Desired Outcome’. Notice the emphasis is on outcomes not problems. Your goal is your Desired Outcome.

I always think of Desired Outcomes by its initials… DO. If this were a Tom Peters presentation slide, it would read:

Desired Outcome is better than a Desired Outcome Not Taken

Visualising your desired outcome is a good way to keep motivated in achieving your goal.

Mistake #2: “I want to stop/lose/avoid…”

State your goal in the positive, not the negative. This is a follow-up to mistake #1. To have a positive mindset you need to state your goal in the positive.

A goal statement that reads, ‘I want to lose 10 pounds weight in three months’ is a negative statement even though the intention is positive because the focus is on the problem and not the outcome. Frame the goal towards the Desired Outcome. When you ask why you want the outcome, you focus on gaining something, not losing or sacrificing something.

Mistake #3: ‘I will follow the plan or I will fail.’

The boxer Mike Tyson put it strikingly, ‘Everyone’s got a plan until you punch them in the mouth.’ Yes, it is vitally important that you put a plan together to achieve your DO but if things don’t go according to the plan, adapt.

Projects rarely, if ever, go according to plan so don’t use it as an excuse to give up. If you are motivated by a positive desire (steps 1 and 2 above) you are less likely to quit after the first knock down.

The best way to adapt is to consider upfront what could derail your DO. Check your strategy and approach for potential pitfalls and work on ways to avoid or deal with them.

Mistake #4: ‘I’m not seeing the changes I expect, so why bother?’

Pace yourself. Humans are terrible at estimating. Really terrible. We overestimate our capabilities and then get frustrated when we don’t reach them.

Whatever your goal, research the facts and get some expert advice on timescales, and then position yourself in the middle (or lower quartile) of the results. If your results match or exceed the lower quartile you’re doing well. If your results don’t match, then check your strategy and approach and adapt (step #3), you may be facing in the wrong direction, and as the Physicist, Nigel Goldenfield says, ‘When you are facing in the wrong direction, progress means walking backwards.’

Be consistent but at the same time forgive yourself if you miss a step, progress is a continuum.

Mistake #5: ‘By this time next year I’ll be a Lotto Millionaire. Guaranteed!’

Okay, I never thought I’d be a Lotto Millionaire – how many numbers do you have to pick? The mistake I’ve made in the past is making goals that are out of my control or unrealistic.

Remember, a resolution/goal is about a Desired Outcome but one that is achievable, planned, realistic, positive, and above all possible. Plan a goal that can guarantee an outcome, not one that relies on an external force to create an outcome.

Focus on the Journey

There is something about the new year that focuses our minds to want to make a fresh start. It’s not the date that does it, 01 JAN bestows no magical powers on goals set on that date because Babylonians 4,000 years ago were the first to make New Year’s resolutions and their new year began in mid-March, when crops were planted.

So, create resolutions/goals whenever you want to make a fresh start.

I tend to use the first weeks in January as a time to create ‘Year of…’ lists. Three of them: one for Work, one for Life, one for Hobbies.

I’ve always written a work diary but never managed a personal diary. In 2014 I had a ‘Year of Haikus’. My thought was, ‘I may not be able to write a diary entry every day but I should be able to manage 17 syllables per day.’ I did, more or less, more days with a Haiku than not. I kept it up and now I write a Haiku per day and more often than not a longer entry as well. Some days I splash out and write two or three – in 2019 I wrote 433 Haikus. It’s amazing how 17 syllables (5-7-5 syllables in a Haiku poem) can bring back a specific event or capture a moment of the day.


Another bit of new year housekeeping I do is to update my presuppositions lists. A presupposition is simply a mental tactic of assuming something about the world or a belief is true before I begin a course of action. For example, I assume ‘I’m going to really enjoy working with this new client’ before I’ve even met them.

In case you’d like to do the same, here are six steps to create your own list:

#1: Create your own categories.

I split my presuppositions into five categories: Life; Work; Daily Routines; Relationships; Learning.

#2: Find phrases or quotes that inspires/motivates you.

I have anywhere between 5-9 presuppositions in each list. Typically, they are one-liners, maybe a quote or a summary of an idea. For example, in Work I have, ‘Focus on ONE thing at a time – multi-tasking is a myth.’ In Daily Routines I have, ‘I am where I need to be right now.’

#3: Keep them on you at all times.

I used to have my lists in a Notes app on my phone. Last year I moved them into a private Trello board I can access on my phone so I can refer to them anytime, even when offline. I’ll often refer to the lists when I’m waiting in a queue or before starting a new task and need to clear my mind of the previous task.

#4: Focus on one presupposition per week.

On a Monday, I select a presupposition (sometimes randomly, other times I feel I need to focus on a specific one) and see if I can apply it to each task I’m doing that week. A presupposition is like positively adding a constraint to how you tackle a task, it gives you a boundary or framework to work within. Once you become familiar with your presuppositions you will unconsciously begin to apply them for different situations.

#5: Regularly re-evaluate your lists.

Presuppositions may exist in your list for a reason, season or a lifetime. They are there to help you be mindful of your actions and behaviours. If a presupposition is no longer useful, dump it. If it’s done its job, dump it. If it still has the power to motivate you, keep it. I always update my lists in January but as I look at them regularly, I probably change at least one presupposition every 6-8 weeks.

#6: The lists are never complete.

There is always something else you can improve, therefore unless you’re amazingly talented (or deluded), you will have a constant source and resource of presuppositions to work on.

It’s two weeks since the start of the new year, there is still time to make a resolution or two. If resolutions aren’t your thing, that’s okay, they weren’t mine for many years. I use this time of year to remind myself that a resolution/goal is about creating desired outcomes to loose and release me from a problem. May this year release you from yours. – HFBKBU.

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