3 Questions to Ask Yourself When You Fail to Achieve a Goal
by Vanessa Naylon
4 minute read
Well, here you are. You failed at a goal you set yourself.
Maybe it was a New Year’s resolution, or maybe it was a longtime dream.
Regardless of what kind of goal it was, it can feel terrible to have failed at achieving something you want. And yet it’s a very common experience. People often fail to get things they want and have worked for. Just as common is the urge to dwell on the negative aspects — to say that you didn’t want it enough, you weren’t good enough, or you just didn’t try hard enough.
But looking back on a failed attempt is useful. Making certain mistakes when deciding your goals can set you up to fail from the start. Let’s look back on your goal and efforts toward it and see what we can learn to help you start again.
Your reasons for choosing a goal can influence your success in achieving it. Did you decide to take on this challenge because it’s something the best version of yourself would do? Or was the reason for doing it really to avoid guilt and shame?
There’s a key aspect of motivation that wasn’t present here: autonomy. Usually we talk about the word “autonomy” to mean “choice”, but when it comes to motivation, it means “acting in accordance with your values.” Striving to be the best version of yourself is motivating. Doing something to look good for other people is NOT going to help you much.
Psychology stuff: One of the sub-theories of Self-Determination theory (the most robust framework in psychology for understanding motivation) is called Goal Contents Theory. What we know from CGT is that the way goals are stated affects us psychologically. Goals that seem to originate from outside of ourselves (extrinsic goals) have been shown to have a negative effect on long-term motivation and psychological well-being, whereas goals that have more to do with our values (intrinsic goals) instead boost long-term motivation and increase our well-being. So “I should work out every day so I look good naked” is actually a less effective goal than “I will work out every day in order to live with more integrity.” It’s OK if you also want to look good naked, because motivation is multivariate, but if you take the time to reflect (and write down) on the more intrinsic reasons you want to achieve a goal, you’re actually more likely to achieve it.
Take a look at why you wanted to achieve this. How much did your choosing this goal have to do with you, and how much did it have to do with other people? Next time, make it more about you.
Again, successful goals need to be more about you than anyone else. If you have to depend on the choices of other people for it to succeed, it’s not a useful goal. This needs to be something you can do yourself, not wait around for someone else to do or external conditions to be perfect. Examples of goals that aren’t within your control: “get a new job”, “get elected to public office”, and even “run a marathon” depend on a lot of external factors.
Also, if you failed to achieve your goal, you probably had difficulty working on it every day. Goals you can work on daily succeed better for two reasons. The first is obvious: you can do the work in smaller pieces instead of all at once. The second is that working on something every day means you get better at it every day. Feeling increasingly better at something increases your motivation, effectively adds momentum and speed to your work on the goal. That’s why we always cite feeling more competent as a key aspect of a positive motivational climate.
How many people did you rely on as people you could talk to about your goal? People to act as sounding boards for your ideas and support for your challenges. If you enlisted fewer than three people, you didn’t set yourself up for success. And anyone who found 10 or more people to share their journey with probably doesn’t find themselves reading articles about why they failed.
And on the list of things you should be talking to people about, nowhere does the topic “Why I’m a screwup” appear. Even a heartfelt conversation with a friend isn’t going to move you forward when the focus is on characterizing yourself as a failure.
You can start again right now. Try one of our 3 conversation starters that you can use to get support for a tough goal.