When goals don’t work (and what to do instead)

Did you set any goals for yourself this year? According to a survey by YouGov, more people decided to set resolutions this year than last. And many decided to take them even more seriously than in the past. Certainly, a crisis, like a pandemic, can cause people to reevaluate and want to make a change. When they want to make a change they turn toward the only tool that they’ve been given – goals.

SMART goals as the gold standard

A goal is a result or achievement toward which effort is aimed, and the word arrived on the scene during the first half of the 16th century. 1 SMART goals, those that are specific, measurable, attainable realistic, and time-bound, showed up just 40 years ago, in 1981. Mr. George T. Doran, a consultant for the Washington Water Power Company in Spokane, Washington wrote a paper titled “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. Way to Write Management’s Goals and Objectives”. 2 He suggested that managers and companies needed to have detailed, measurable achievements to move their organization forward. 

Subsequently, SMART goals worked their way through the corporate landscape to academia and beyond and became the way of achieving success. Since then, SMART goals have become the gold standard in creating positive change.

I’m sure you’ve heard countless examples of successful people using SMART goals. One example is actor and comedian, Jim Carrey. As the story goes, Jim, poor and penniless wrote a check to himself for $10 million, dating it ten years in the future. In the memo field he wrote, “For acting services rendered.” He kept the check in his wallet as a constant reminder of his goal. Within the decade his career took off and he was making $20 million per film. Hence, setting goals is the method of creating change and getting what you want. Right?

Goals don’t always work

Yet, studies suggest that 70-90% of people fail to reach the goals they set for themselves. Failure is almost always credited to problems with the goal-setter. Listicles like 11 reasons we fail to reach our goals identify issues such as people having too many goals, poor planning, failing to anticipate obstacles, and fear of failure (ironically) as causes of failure.

Like any single tool, goals are useful for some things and make a mess with others. As Mark Twain tells us, “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” How great is a hammer if you want to grow a garden?

When someone has a hammer and they grow a terrible garden do you recommend they hold the hammer more efficiently? Or would you suggest that they do a better job of planning how to use the hammer? Or maybe you would tell them to stop being so afraid of having an ugly garden and grab up that hammer and get to work. 

No, you wouldn’t. Because you’re not a jackass.

Stop blaming yourself

However, that is exactly what we do to ourselves when we don’t reach our goals. I can practically guarantee that if you’ve set a goal and failed to achieve it, you:

  • wondered what was wrong with you
  • asked yourself what you did wrong
  • ended up doubting yourself and what you were capable of
  • all of the above

Unfortunately, blaming yourself leaves goals (the tool) unquestioned. Goals were created in the boardroom and yet we’ve let them migrate into our private spaces with the assumption that they’d work just as efficiently.  Are goals the right tool for what you really want?

When we want to do something different we turn to goals because it’s the only tool we’ve been given. Goals aren’t the only tool. And they’re not necessarily the best tool for every job.

Layers of life

Let’s imagine life is made up of four layers – Having, Doing, Feeling, and Being. Goals work great on the outer two layers and are ineffective for the inner two layers.

The outer layers – having and doing

The outer-most layer of life is the “Having” layer and it’s made up of all the things you have; your possessions and what you own. As it relates to goals, an example is, “I am going to earn $100,000 by the end of the year.”

Inside the “Having” layer is the “Doing” layer. This layer is made up of your actions and behaviors. Goals in this layer are about what you want to do (or not do). An example is “I am going to write (action) every morning for six months so that I can have my book published this year.” You can also set a goal for how you no longer want to act, “I am no longer going to smoke because I want to have a healthy body.”

Goals are the perfect tool to use when the end result is to have something different or to do something different. This is why goals were designed in a corporate environment, because the ends are in these layers.

  • I will have the report completed by Friday. (Having layer)
  • We will serve 10% more clients this month over last. (Doing layer)
  • We will bring in $X of revenue this quarter by launching a new product this month (Having layer)

In these are outer layers progress and success are easily viewed and measured from the outside. Others can determine whether a goal has been achieved or not. In a corporate environment, it’s important to have shared objective measurements.

The inner layers – feeling and being

However, in our personal lives, what we truly want is fulfillment, purpose, and life satisfaction. These core personal desires lie at a deeper layer, within the layers of Feeling and Being.

In these layers SMART goals simply don’t work. Want you want is not likely very specific (I want to feel connected to my family), rarely measurable (I want to be my most authentic self), and many aren’t time-bound, rather they’re likely to be life-long pursuits (I want to be empowered and make choices that best serve me).

The trouble with setting goals

Trouble arises when we assume that achieving goals in the outer layers will create change in the inner layers.

If the intention is to achieve a goal SO THAT you will feel different then the goal is a means to an end and the goal will not be helpful. Goal achievement doesn’t guarantee a personal feeling or identity as a result.

Often you don’t want to achieve the goal, you want the feeling that achieving the goal will give you.


I bet we all know someone who set a goal, achieved it, and then was miserable because they didn’t get what they really wanted. A woman I met set a goal to write a book, and successfully met that goal. Then she was disappointed when having a published book didn’t create the confidence or the feeling of being an expert that she desired. You can’t guarantee that success on the outer two layers will filter into success in the inner two layers.

That’s why we talk about having the life you want is an inside job, you have to start on the inner layers, at your being or identity.

Commitments as an alternative to goals

So, if goals aren’t going to work, what other tools do we have? Commitments help you make progress on the inner layers of Feeling and Being.

Commitments are commonly thought of as a promise you make to someone else, here a commitment is an agreement that you make with yourself. They are the means to the end, are defined entirely by you and only you are responsible for fulfilling them. The most effective commitments have multiple methods of meeting them to allow for flexibility.

While a goal is to “take a trip to New York this year”, a commitment is to “seek out adventure.” It focuses on the feeling and being that the person wants to cultivate. Commitments allows the person to be adventuresome in many different ways and areas – this could mean home-cooking a culinary adventure each month, discovering new walking paths in your city, planning a bungee-jumping excursion with friends, experimenting with two new hobbies this year, or leaving every Sunday afternoon open to follow the creative flow.

Commitments provide the opportunity to claim how you want to feel every day and to take steps toward your best life. You can feel good now, celebrate yourself now, and create momentum that will fuel positive changes.

Another tool in the toolbox

Commitments are tied to your bigger vision, clearly defined, and aligned to how you want to grow. They are a more effective tool when you want to changes how you feel and be. No matter what kind of change you want to make you have a new tool of commitment that you can pull out to grow your seeds of change when your old goal hammer just isn’t doing the job.


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