The 10 Most Common Mistakes People Make When Setting and Achieving Goals

As humans we are driven by desire; the more we have, the more we want. And why not? In today’s society, in which education is available to anyone, where economic opportunity is everywhere, and the tools and resources are available to succeed more than ever in history… why not achieve what we want, enjoy health, wealth, and succeed?

Everyone has goals, but most people struggle to achieve theirs. With an abundance of technology, resources, knowledge and tool, with so many courses and coaches and books, how come most people fail to achieve their goals?

There are a number of fundamental errors people make in setting goals that keep them struggling and repeating the same mistakes. Below is each mistake and what to do about it.

1. Lack of Clarity

Most people who try to set goals never really get clear about what they want. Usually they know what they don’t want, and what they don’t want is vividly clear in their mind. Why? Because that’s what they’re getting! When you’re having a certain experience, it’s not easy to imagine having the opposite experience. When you’re broke it tough to imagine money rolling in. When you’re overweight and frustrated it’s hard to imagine being thin. When you’re alone it’s tough to imagine the relationship of your dreams. But when we’re taught to set goals, this is just what they tell us what to do. No one seems to notice that it’s not easy to vividly imagine and focus something that’s the direct opposite of your current, immediate and direct experience. People know what they don’t want because it’s staring them in the face and doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere too soon.

But to get somewhere else, we must be able to clarify what it is we do want. We need to answer questions such as the following:

What do we want to be different?
How do we want to be different?
What do we want to be doing differently?
How do we want to feel different?
How do we want to be thinking differently?

If I tell you I want to stop smoking, quit overeating or end my drinking days, I haven’t told you anything about what I do want, and good luck trying to get me to stop any of the above. What do you want instead? You might say you want to eat healthy, exercise more or go straight home after work (instead of to the bar), but none of those are specific. If I tell you to eat healthy, you are lost in ambiguity and will have to try to figure out just what that means. But if I tell you to buy 1% milk when you’re in the dairy aisle at the grocery store, you’ll know just what to do. This is the kind of clarity you need.

2. Formulating Goals as External Results

If people do get clear on what they want, usually they set goals for what they’d like to achieve or have. Goals like this may be motivating, but they are outlined in terms of an external result. This means your goal is to achieve something you cannot control.

If your goal is something you cannot control, failures and setbacks are inevitable and extremely discouraging. When things don’t go well, you try harder to control things out there, yet it rarely works like this.

An effective goal is one that is self-maintained, meaning that it is something entirely in your control. The most effective way I have found to set any goal is to state it and think of it in terms of behaviour. If I want to make a change in a certain situation, I outline what I want to be doing differently, how I want to be in that situation, and perhaps also how I’d like to be feeling and thinking. When you do it this way, it means that if you’re not achieving it, you have to change something directly with you and in your behaviour. It’s not some mystery out there – instead it’s right here.

For example, if you want a better relationship with your spouse, clarify these questions:

How do you want to be different?
What do you want to be doing differently to get the responses you want?
How do you want to act so the interaction is the way you want it?

If you want to double your income in the next six months, clarify:

How do you want to be different?
What do you need to do differently?
What actions do you need to take?

This clear behavioural goal then becomes your outcome and aim. It gives you something you can aim for that is completely within your control, and this makes the feedback valuable to you as you change your behaviour.

An effective goal is a goal that is outlined as being in your control. Instead of clarifying what you want to get or have, outline what you want to be doing differently (your behaviour).

3. Chunking Too Big

Most goal setting tells you to think of where you want to be and think big, but sometimes that ‘where’ is simply too far and too different from the status quo to be a useful goal. If your goal is too big and too far, first it might seem impossible, and second it might be hard to achieve from where you are. For example, if you’re struggling with your self-worth and your goal is to be “totally confident,” you’re probably going to find it tough to make progress. If you have a big goal you’re committed to, you’ll need to “chunk it” with manageable “subgoals.”

I remember working with a legal consultant who wanted to overcome “unfinished business” (as I call it) from her past. In one session I remember asking her what outcome we could agree on to help her move forward. She thought for a moment and said “unleashing my potential.” I replied by asking, “And when you think of that, what would it be like to have that outcome? How does it settle?” Settle was the right word because she said that although it was what she wanted, it felt unsettling. I suggested that based on what we had uncovered and the work we had done that perhaps it wasn’t time to unleash potential. I suggested that she set a more useful and proposed that a useful outcome at this point would be to heal the division inside and resolve the “unfinished business.” By doing that, we could set a firm foundation that would prepare you to unleash your potential, I said. She thought about it and said it was true. She later said she left that session with a greater sense of peace inside.

To set and achieve goals effectively, we must size them correctly.

4. “Scepticizing”

It’s exciting to set an outcome. You get enthused, hopeful and optimistic, and then you get cracking! But it’s also easy to sink into disappointment at the first signs of trouble. Many people set goals and when anything less than what they wanted occurs, they give up. In the face of setbacks, obstacles and failures they fall into a pit of disillusionment. After a while they get their gusto back and repeat the process… a life-long goal-setting crazy 8.

This is a sure fire way to fail. In NLP terminology this is a goal-setting style known as perfectionist-skeptic, describing the person who bounces between these extremes. But people who tend to succeeded at their goals don’t do it this way.

People who tend to succeed set outcomes, expect failures and setbacks and use the information gained to refine and innovate their approach. The NLP word for this is optimization since they keep optimizing their modus operandi based on the results they get or don’t get. When Edison was asked how he felt about failing so many times to invent the lightbulb, he said he hadn’t failed, he’d only found 1000 ways to not invent the lightbulb. He was optimizing, and in the end, he did invent the lightbulb.

What does this mean? It means that failure is actually the way to success. Working towards goals is a learning process and the learning doesn’t stop until you’ve got your goal (and maybe not even then).

If you want to get your goals, you’ve got to welcome obstacles, setbacks and “failures” as part of a learning process. The feedback you get on the way tells you what doesn’t work so you can constantly optimize until you’ve got your outcome.

5. Making it a Necessity

How do you feel once you’ve set an outcome? Often, without knowing it, people feel that if they set a goal, it means they have to achieve it, and nothing but it… and if they don’t, it means they’re a failure.

When we set a goal we are essentially choosing one possibility we want, and rejecting ALL the other possibilities that aren’t what we want. We are choosing one thing and saying no to an infinity of others. If we make that one thing a necessity and anything else unacceptable, we’re going to run into problems.

There’s a name for this; it’s called attachment. When we get attached to an outcome, when one thing has to happen and nothing else can happen, we become rigid and inflexible. We are unable to adjust our approach and adapt to situations. What’s more is we become afraid; afraid of not achieving our goal and getting what we must get. From that state of fear and need, it becomes hard to achieve.

An outcome doesn’t have to be a necessity. Instead, it should be a possibility. You might achieve it, and that would be great, and you might not, and that will be OK too, at least in the short term. On the path to a goal, your goal may change, you may change, you may decide you don’t want it at all or that you want something else entirely. A goal should be like a direction; its a possibility and not a necessity.

If your goal has become a necessity, you’ll probably find there’s fear hiding behind the feeling of need. Working through this fear will be the next step you’ll need to take to achieve your goal.

6. Making it Urgent

Many times, after helping someone set an outcome, I ask them, “When do you want this?” The answer that often comes without a thought? “Now.”

When setting goals, people often mentally place that goal in the present. They literaly have it right in front of them, close up so they can’t really see anything else. In their minds, it’s not actually part of a possible future, but rather, it’s something that should have already happened. This leaves a feeling of urgency and doesn’t make anyone feel very able to do what it takes to work toward a goal. When we feel we should have this now, we feel guilty, not motivated. At the extreme this becomes a state of “I have to have this now,” and that is a superb way to remain completely stuck. Urgency doesn’t help you get very far, and pressuring yourself to achieve doesn’t lead to great results.

To achieve a goal, we need time and space. Our mind needs the space to reorganize our behaviour and we need time to adjust, take necessary actions and go through each of the steps. When? is one of the most important questions we can ask when setting an outcome. When we mentally place a goal in the future, at a realistic time and place, we give ourselves space to think and the distance to see clearly what we need to do to achieve it. It might be 30 days, 90 days, 1 year or longer – it depends on the person and the goal.

Sometimes, instead of really determining when you want it, I’ll suggest to a client that they consider where they’d have to place it in space to really feel resourceful to achieve it. I like to place things at 90 days because it leaves me feeling relaxed about it all – if it’s an aim for 90 days from now, I have plenty of time. When I have all that time, what usually happens is that I get there much much quicker.

7. Expecting Smooth Sailing

When you set an outcome you’ve just committed to something, something you want and are willing to work toward, and something that’s better than what you’ve got now. Obviously you want to succeed and you don’t want to fail. But the reality is that no one’ succeeds by avoiding failure. When you clarify what you want, it leaves countless other possibilities that are not what you want, as mentioned above! Think there won’t be obstacles and setbacks and you’ll be in for a surprise (and a disappointment).

If you’re trying to achieve something you’ve never achieved before, you can be sure that on the way to your outcome there are going to be difficulties, setbacks, obstacles,
mistakes and failures. If you haven’t achieved it before, it means you are probably learning something brand new. You’ll have to learn how to do it successfully.

What’s more is that the bigger your goal, the bigger the potential for failure. The bigger something is and the further it is from where you are now, the greater the potential to experience the unknown, surprises, setbacks and all kind of other things that are not your goal.

When you decide what you want, you can expect lots of what you don’t want too. The key is to be able to welcome anything that happens and respond in a way that keeps you moving toward what you want.

8. Over-focusing on the Goal

Once your goal is set, you’ll need to determine the steps required to get there. And once you’ve done that, it’s on the steps you’ll need to focus, not necessarily on the goal itself.

Focusing on the goal can leave you pressured and overwhelmed, and unaware of the gap between where you are and where you want to be. It’s easy to start to get lost in a goal, overfocusing on what you want and unable to see what is actually happening right in front of you. People start to live in the someday thinking and thinking about the future and oblivious to what’s going on right now. But if you do that, you can adequately respond to what is going on right now to move you toward your goal.

Sometimes, a goal can become so big in your mind that it seems bigger than you, overwhelming and impossible. If you think about a goal this way, you’ll be lost and stuck.

To achieve goals, we need to focus on the steps, and each smallest step in succession. When things aren’t going how you want, you need to be able to focus on that and respond to it. By doing this, you engage in the process, enjoy the process and can more easily respond to the feedback you get as part of that process.

What about the goal? You’ll want to maintain the goal as a destination in the back of your mind, but stay grounded in the now and attending to the immediate steps.

9. Failing to Look Back

If you’re committed to your goals, it’s natural to keep your eye on the target. You progress and then you look at where you want to be next. As you climb the mountain you keep looking to the top.

But this gets both tiring and discouraging. Few people take the time to stop and look back at where they came from and the progress they’ve made. If you keep looking to the top of the mountain, you’ll always feel like you’re falling short. You’ll get discouraged and maybe even want to give up. But stopping every once in a while and looking at how far you’ve come is like refueling. It shows you that your efforts have been worth it and that if you keep it up, you’ll keep on progressing. It gives you that gusto to keep going, and with a sense of appreciation for that progress and achievement.

10. Doing without Thinking

The business world espouses the virtues of being proactive. “Take action!” and “Go for it!” are mottos for achievement. We love the doers, movers and shakers, and value people who get things done. But far too often, people jump into action without sufficient planning and strategizing.

It’s very easy to take action and not succeed. Just because you have a goal, doesn’t mean your action will pay off. A goal without an effective strategy for achievement will probably lead to more discouragement than success. It’s possible to be too proactive and if you are too proactive, you’ll act without thinking, try to bulldoze towards your goals and wonder why it didn’t work out. It’s the Tasmanian devil approach. At the other end of the spectrum is the reflective type, who tends to think, wait, analyze and consider. This person can become the ultimate procrastinator or suffer from analysis paralysis. This is no better for achievement, but might be effective for a writer, academic or other profession where lots of thinking is required.

For most areas, a balance of the two types of thinking is needed to get things done. We need to clarify what we want, design intelligent steps to get there and then take action. Once we’re clear on out outcome, we need to think, plan and strategize. It’s time to act once we have an effective plan that covers all the bases and considers possible obstacles on the way. This way, we ensure our actions will be as effective as possible.

There are 4 things we must know to achieve our goals:

1. Where we are now? (the present state)
2. Where we want to be? (the desired state)
3. What’s in the way?
4. What are the steps we must take?

The NLP Well-Formed Outcome was designed to help people clarify in depth where they are, where they want to be, what’s in the way and then to outline the steps to get there. It aims to help us get so clear that we can be sure our action will pay off.

David Kynan

David Kynan will get you there with practical cutting-edge methods for change and performance. President of Personis Coaching and Training ( and Former Vice President of the Canadian Association of NLP, David coaches, teaches and consults on how to make change happen when change is hard. He also lends his skills to individuals, professionals and businesses on topics related to strategic intervention, problem solving, marketing and sales. His expertise has landed him training and consulting contracts with companies such as Sun Life Financial, Medisca Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Pure Water Technologies. He has been featured in the Montreal Mirror, interviewed on CTV and presented on his work at the Canadian Human Rights Commission in Ottawa.

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