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Here's Why You Keep Falling Short Of Your Goals

Many of us struggle with what psychologists call "goal congruence."

Here's Why You Keep Falling Short Of Your Goals
[Photo: Flickr user Henrique Simplicio]

Know why you fell short of last year's New Year's resolutions? Most likely it's because you didn't actually want to achieve them. In fact, that's probably true of many of the goals you set.

Before you protest otherwise, let me clarify: When I say you didn't entirely want to reach your goals, I don’t mean you didn't strongly wish you would. Instead, there were probably other parts of your life that would've been disrupted had you succeeded, or else you hadn’t quite figured out how those goals fit in with the other things you wanted in your life at the time you set them. Fortunately, there's a simple way to get past both of those hidden roadblocks.

Keeping Everything In Line

In order to finally do better, you first need to understand "goal congruence." If one goal isn't aligned with the other, you're much more likely to fall short of both.

Usually when we set a goal, we just define the "what" and leave it at that. In other words, we describe some new behavior or new outcome we want to adopt. It's no wonder why: It's pretty easy to pin down what you merely hope will happen.

Spending more time with my aging relatives is something I hope I'll do over the next few months. But my reason for having that wish is diffuse at best. I haven't really pinned down the "why."

Getting Your Goals Lined Up

You may genuinely want to spend more time with your relatives and at the same time genuinely want to live a more carefree life. When 10 a.m. on Saturday rolls around, those two totally respectable goals come into serious conflict, which leads to incompatible behaviors.

That kind of goal conflict sucks. It’s really deflating. Usually, it shows up like this: "This weekend, I’m going to invite my relatives for brunch!" The weekend passes you by, and so does that intended brunch invitation. "Why am I such a bad person?" you reproach yourself on Monday morning. "Ugh, okay, next weekend for sure." And so on.

When you find yourself caught in this loop, it's time to ask why: "Why do I want to spend time with my aging relatives?" There are small reasons like, "Because I’ll feel guilty if I don’t," or, "Because I know I should." And there are bigger-picture reasons, such as, "I want to be there for the people who were there for me."

It's only by establishing that key reason for wanting to attain each of your goals that you can start getting them aligned with one another. For example, if your original goal was to spend more time with older relatives, but you didn’t want to sacrifice your goal of an uncluttered weekend calendar, you can devise an alternative. Maybe stopping by for brief, 30-minute visits—say, for a morning coffee on your way to work—can help you spend time together without interfering with your weekend.

Asking why works because it moves you toward a higher level of abstraction—to what's called a "superordinate goal," whatever it is that makes the goal itself worthwhile. You see this tactic in movies all the time, when people are butting heads under pressure, and someone breaks up the melee by saying, "Hey! We’re all in this together," then launches into a stirring speech about the lofty goal they all share.

It’s the same basic idea behind coming together to fight a common enemy. Except in this case, it’s just you versus you.

Why To Ask "Why"

When your goals all fit together, it’s easier to stay motivated, because you've created multiple reasons for pushing ahead. Ideally, they'll all be linked up to a few particularly strong, underlying desires, even though the reasons themselves differ. Thinking at low levels of abstraction activates parts of the brain involved in planning or acting out behaviors. In other words, it's executional, tactical.

By contrast, thinking at a high level of abstraction activates brain regions associated with your ideas about yourself and others—for instance, the personal and social meaning behind your actions (how you'll be perceived and perceive yourself, etc.). Getting down to the deeper, more abstract "why" helps you tap into some powerful psychological forces you'd otherwise have just left on the table.

As a result, your goals may not actually look terribly aligned at a superficial level, even though the bigger picture is clearly defined. If you keep asking why something is important to you, you typically get to an answer that has to do with who you are as a person: "Why try to spend more time with my aging relatives? Because I want to be there for the people who were there for me—to be someone who gives back." It’s an answer that cuts to the heart of who you are as a person. Engaging in activities that confirm your identity can be extremely motivating.

What's more, researchers believe that zeroing in on the abstract, big-picture reasons for your goals can also help you achieve them more flexibly. You'll be able to see alternative routes to the same destination.

For example, your specific goal might be to spend 20 minutes on the treadmill every day. That’s a concrete behavior. The reason why you want to do that may be because it helps you become the more healthy, energetic person you want to be. Let's say you hurt your ankle, wake up late, or find the treadmill occupied by someone else. When your goal is just about using the treadmill, those obstacles mean you can’t succeed. You might give up. But if you've got that superordinate goal in view, you'll find other ways to fulfill it—biking, meditating, yoga, etc.

As they say, keep your eye on the prize. Just make sure you know what it really is, and why it matters to you.

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