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Why goal setting is difficult

Why Goal Setting Is So Hard

Jack Cao
Jack Cao
Through countless failures at goal setting, now I have grown wiser in the art of setting goals and understood what are the common traps that we often fall into. Realizing how these traps are getting in the way of achieving your goals can save you months and years of fruitless and frustrating actions.
Table of Contents

Through countless failures at goal setting, now I have grown wiser in the art of setting goals and understood what are the common traps that we often fall into.

Goal setting is hard because we have vague, small and irrelevant goals, an underdeveloped action plan and an unclear routine to keep us accountable.

Realizing how these traps are getting in the way of achieving your goals can save you months and years of fruitless and frustrating actions.

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3 Components that are Making your Goal Setting Process Ineffective

If we manage to successfully set goals, it can be the difference between living a life of direction, inspiration, perseverance and a life lack of purpose, fulfillment and stuck in complacent.

Vague, Small and Irrelevant Goals

We often make our goal setting extremely difficult right from the start as we commit to these mistakes:

Setting vague goals - Without specific, concrete goals, there is no plan, no action, and no progress can be tracked whether we have achieved the goal or not.

Example of vague goals: I want to be rich, I want to have a girlfriend, I want to double my income, I want better grades at school, I want to be successful…

All of these goals are desires for something and most people think that writing out their desires will be enough to motivate us and put us to work. But these desires don’t give us any direction for the future.

Writing a to-do list instead of setting goals 

Keeping a to-do list helps us keep our lives in order by knowing what needs to be done and when it needs to be done, but they usually contain small, disconnected, every-day tasks that spark little aspiration.

Setting goals is a project that requires you to proactively make plans, build better habits, keep yourself accountable over weeks or months, even years in order to bring your life to the next level. Goal setting is challenging and rewarding at the same time, thus it sparks a sense of deep inspiration and fulfillment.

Setting irrelevant goals - goals that are not aligned with your values or deeper purpose are not sustainable.

With the money in the world pouring into advertising and marketing, we can easily fall into prey to the social norms of success and pursue goals that we don’t even deeply care about out of peer pressure, insecurities.

As Tyler Durden famously stated in the glorious Fight Club:

“Advertising got us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate to so we can buy sh*t we don’t need to impress people we don’t like.”


Get Crystal Clear on what you truly want - understanding what you truly want is vital and the step 0 of any goal-setting. You can develop more self-awareness by trying out meditation and ease your mind off the distraction, or picking up a journal and document your thoughts to see the pattern of your values, passions and deep purpose.

Follow the SMART goal-setting model - they stand for (S)pecific, (M)easurable, (A)ctionable, (R)elevant, (T)ime-bound to ensure that you create goals that are concrete and detail enough to tell you what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, how it must be done.

Set Big and Compelling goals - avoid the trap of setting an over-glorified to-do list by setting big and compelling goals. Rule of thumb to know whether you are setting big goals or not: that you should have a bit of uncertainty: whether you will achieve them, how you can tackle this goal… That means you at the present moment will have to grow and upgrade yourself to a new version to be able to achieve that goal.

An Underdeveloped Action Plan

Another major factor affecting our ability to set goals and achieve them is our plan of action. Or in most cases, the lack of a plan of action.

Unmethodical approach

At the start of the journey, out of pure excitement and motivation, one common mistake that we make is jump right to the goal and start taking lots and lots of action with no method on how to break down a goal, how to keep ourselves motivated, what needs to be done and prioritized. 

As soon as the initial boost runs out, most people abandon their goals. The difference between January 1st and February 1st for New Year’s Resolutions are the prime examples of this mistake.

With a long term and challenging goal, research and preparation are required. Otherwise, you risk abandoning your goal when you fall under pressure, get caught up with distractions or too many responsibilities and too many priorities. 

Paralysis over Analysis

On the other hand of the spectrum, we can also easily get caught up in the theorizing, preparation game and never take any action.

As the common knowledge goes, a mediocre plan with persistent execution is far more superior than a perfect plan with no execution at all.


These solutions can be implemented both in your professional and personal life.

Find the right balance - Depending on your type, you make want to take an opposite swing to ground yourself. If you are an action-taker, you may look into more methodical approaches on how to set goals, how to make plans, who have already achieved the goal that you wish to pursue and how they did it. If you lean into the analysis type, you may want a more “Just do it” boost from Nike and Shia Labeouf and get pass your laziness and procrastination.

Adopt a goal-setting process - there are several goal-setting processes that make you a methodical, effective goal-setter: the OKR method (Objective – Key Result) that has been endorsed and widely implemented by Google’s founders, the KPI method that has been traditionally used in the workplace or the 4DX (4 Disciplines of Executions).

Unclear Routine to Keep us Accountable

All Olympian athletes have a big, compelling, SMART goals: they want to win a medal at an Olympics.

And all of them have an action plan for the goals: how they will eat, how they will train, how they study their competition…

Then, what differentiates their effectiveness is their routine: how they show up to work on their goals every single day.

Goal-setting is a long journey that requires an accumulation of progress over time, each small little things they do along the way contribute to the success at the race track. Small things add up and it gradually makes the most significant difference.

Yet, we rarely adopt the same mindset in our personal and professional life. We also set goals, also have action plans for those goals but often lack the same consistency and determination towards those goals.

We can charge in with an overwhelming routine that leaves us burned out after 2 weeks of going to the gym for 1 hour every day. Or we meditate only when we have free time or too stressed-out and soon drop the practice for the next New Year’s Resolution.

Without a consistent routine that keeps us accountable for a long period of time, our goals and action plan will only be wishful thinking. 


Daily Reminder - writing down your goals on a piece of paper is widely accepted to boost our commitment to the goals. You would need to constantly remind yourself about working towards the goals, despite distraction and turbulent along the way, despite the initial failures and setbacks. Keep your goal where you can see them every day, invest in an app to remind the daily routine and habits.

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Mini Habits - adapting to new changes can be difficult, but if you hope for any success at all, you must commit to developing a consistent streak of a good habit. A mini habit is a strategy that you break down a big habit (run 2 miles every day) which is overwhelming at first into a mini habit (put on my running shoes) which is insanely easy but will slowly be the gateway to your big habit.

An Hour a Day - the most challenging thing about achieving your goal is to prioritize it over all else. Once we commit to spending one hour a day for our goals no matter what, we are able to make consistent progress. It’s even better if it’s the same time and the same place every day, to form a concrete routine.

In conclusion

These are the 3 components that make our goal setting so hard and ineffective. If you have noticed other elements that are dragging our goal-setting effectiveness in the mud, please share with the Habitify community below in the comment.

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