Why Most People Fail When Setting Goals

Why Most People Fail When Setting Goals

Goal setting seems straightforward – decide on an outcome you want to accomplish and go after it. However, while goal setting is theoretically simple, it is rarely easy in practice. A staggering number of goals fail – by some estimates, up to 92% of people who set New Year’s resolutions fall short. Why do so many plans fail when we put our minds towards success?

In this article, we’ll explore the psychology behind goals and the most common reasons people fail to achieve them. We’ll also provide strategies for practical goal setting, a case study of success, key takeaways, and best practices to set and accomplish your objectives.

The Motivations and Benefits of Goals

We set goals to challenge ourselves, drive motivation, and improve our lives. Correctly set plans act as a guiding light toward what we want to accomplish, both personally and professionally. Goal setting has been linked to higher performance, self-confidence, and overall well-being when achieved.

However, as we’ll explore in this article, not all goals are equal. Vague, unrealistic, or unsupported goals can sabotage success before you begin your journey.

Why Goals Fail: The Top 5 Reasons

While goals fail for many reasons, most struggles can be traced back to:

1. Lack of Clarity and Specificity

The foundational step with any goal is ensuring it is clearly defined and specific. Setting SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound) is crucial. An example of a vague plan is “save money” versus a specific SMART plan to “save $5000 in my savings account by cutting non-essential spending and saving 15% of my income over the next 18 months”.

2. Unrealistic Goals

When goals are too big or small, they set us up for disappointment before we start. Goals must be ambitious but grounded within our circumstances and abilities to have the highest chance of achievement.

3. Lack of Commitment

Reaching big goals requires dedication through obstacles, setbacks, and progress plateaus. Without commitment, discipline, and belief in the plan, people are likelier to give up when they encounter inevitable hardships.

4. Not Tracking Progress

It can be challenging to stay motivated and focused without a way to measure progress towards your goal. Tracking progress with metrics and milestones breaks goals into manageable steps and celebrates small wins.

5. Fear of Failure

Many abandon their goals preemptively out of fear they’ll fail. Rather than rationally calculating risks and challenges, anxiety overwhelms the potential positive outcomes.

Strategies for Success

Now, we’ll explore science-backed techniques to create practical, achievable goals:

Set Clear and Specific Goals

Follow the SMART framework for setting unambiguous, detailed goals. Clearly defined plans make it easier to track progress and stay focused.

Make Goals Realistic and Achievable

Set ambitious yet attainable goals by holistically examining your resources, schedule, and current ability level before determining targets and timelines. Be honest with yourself.

Cultivate Commitment and Resilience

Working towards big goals can be arduous and demands dedication. Build habits, foresight, and grit to push forward during the inevitable trials that accompany any lofty objective.

Implement Progress Tracking

Periodically record quantitative and qualitative measures of progress. Analytics tools and milestone tracking can illuminate small wins while keeping the bigger picture visible.

Manage Fears of Failure

Anxieties are natural but can be self-sabotaging. Develop constructive thinking patterns around failure as an essential ingredient of growth. Setbacks aren’t defeat but provide invaluable lessons.

Anna’s Story: From Stuck to Success

Anna was feeling stuck. For years, she had dreamed about starting her own baking business. But at 35, she had been working the same office manager job since college, paying the bills and getting by. Deep down, Anna knew she would never feel truly fulfilled until she pursued her passion.

However, Anna lacked confidence and struggled to commit to the risk of entrepreneurship. Every New Year, she would resolve to start her bakery finally but abandon the idea by February, intimidated by the challenges ahead. She realized she needed more effective goal-setting strategies.

First, Anna got ultra-clear on her long-term dream: to quit her office job and open a storefront bakery within the next three years. She then set incremental sub-goals for acquiring culinary education, testing recipes, finding commercial kitchen rentals, etc.

With defined metrics and milestones mapped out, Anna diligently stuck to her plan. Weeknights after work found her zealously practicing new techniques. On weekends, I had her canvassing potential kitchen rentals and schmoozing with small business owners.

Anna launched a home-based cupcake catering operation after six months of research and recipe testing. At first, she only had a couple of orders per week. But powered by positive reviews and referrals, within a year, she had grown a complete client list with requests she couldn’t fulfill alone. Anna knew it was time for the next milestone – opening a commercial kitchen.

She had saved 50% of the costs, but moving into the kitchen meant leaving her stable office job. Anna was terrified but realized inaction posed more long-term regret than this short-term risk. She gave notice and boldly dove all in on her entrepreneurial dream.

Two years after opening the dedicated kitchen, Anna’s delicious cupcakes and cakes fly off the shelves today. She outgrew her first kitchen and will expand into a storefront location next month. When reflecting on what made the difference this time compared to past failed resolutions, Anna traces everything back to clearly defined goals and persistence through fear. Rather than trying to eat the whole goal elephant in one bite, consistent progress toward milestone mini-goals kept her on track.

Key Takeaways

• Create unambiguous, specific long-term and short-term goals
• Ensure targets stretch yet realistically align with your circumstances
• Cultivate resilience and self-discipline even as obstacles arise
• Systematically track progress through metrics and milestones
• Reframe thinking around failure as necessary for growth

When executed deliberately, goals become catalysts to direct our present toward the possibilities of our future. With the right approach, you can overcome the common pitfalls that scare others and achieve your dreams. Define what you want, make a progress plan, and passionately pursue it.


As we have explored, setting goals is easy, but realizing them is difficult. However, with intention and forethought, our objectives become crystallized guideposts directing our present toward our preferred future.

The reasons many goals fail are now more apparent. We understand the necessity of specificity, achievability, commitment, measurement, and courage. We examined case studies showing our tendencies for self-sabotage and stories exemplifying human potential through practical goal setting.

With this insight, feel empowered, not discouraged, by the challenges ahead. View hurdles as opportunities to demonstrate grit. Let the desire propelling your dreams drown out limiting inner voices. Chart the course, and take the first step. Tune out distractions and balance ambition with self-compassion.