Why goal setting doesn’t work (and how to fix it)

Dec 31, 2020 | Mental Wellbeing | 0 comments

In this article Kevin Day, Life coach, tells us why goal setting doesn’t work (and how to fix It)


When was the last time you set a new year’s resolution and stuck to it?

I’ve tried all manner of goal setting exercises over the years, and fallen off the wagon many times over. What I failed to realise is that goal setting in the majority of cases doesn’t work. And there is compelling evidence that people and organisations often fall short of reaching their goals, despite their best efforts.

Research published over the last 25 years shows that goal-setting actually hurts performance in the majority of situations. We now know that goal setting within organisations only helps a small segment of people – those who have a high need for achievement. The other 80% find goals to be a source of stress that leads to cognitive impairment.

Furthermore, goals only help when activities are routine and simple (Richard Boyatzis).The inherent problem with goal setting is related to how the brain works. Neuroscience research shows that there is a part of the brain, the amygdala, that works in a protective way, resistant to change.

Therefore, any goals that require substantial behavioural change or thinking-pattern change will automatically be resisted. This part of the brain is wired to seek rewards and avoid pain or discomfort, including fear. When fear of failure creeps into the mind of the goal setter it commences a de-motivator with a desire to return to known, comfortable behaviour and thought patterns. So how do we go about changing our behaviour?

Be Intentional

People are often confused and unclear about the intentions of how they want to live and achieve. A focus on goals doesn’t clarify what lies underneath. In describing goals, for example, “I want to be wealthy” or “I want to lose weight”, people are often describing the symptoms or outcomes of their problems (Ray Williams).

It is important to understand the unconscious intentions, to surface the invisibles. In order to achieve a level of performance that is greater than your current performance, your vision for the future needs to be bigger than the present reality. Make your why stronger than your fears!

The Emotional Connection

Neuroscience research shows that our behavioural learning is much more sensory and comes from different parts of the brain, the Default Mode Network (DMN) and the prefrontal cortex. The critical first step to executing well is creating and maintaining a compelling vision of the future, that is aligned with your purpose and values. When you are able to dream, your mind becomes open to new ideas and possibilities.

If you have a strong enough why, a deep motivation, and a passion for what it is you want, you are much more likely to follow through with your actions. If you don’t feel the emotional connection it’s unlikely to stick.


Chunking works both ways. When setting a goal or commitment, it’s important to chunk up. Ask yourself, “what’s important about this?” Once that vision has been established, it’s time to chunk down. Ask yourself, “what specifically…” or “where are some examples of this?”. If the goal is too big or audacious, we are likely to become overwhelmed, and give up at the first hurdle.

Split the goal into manageable pieces, be specific about the actions, and take small action steps every day. Practice builds capacity.


The very nature of accountability rests in the understanding that each and every one of us has freedom of choice. It is this freedom of choice that is the foundation of accountability. When you understand that true accountability is about choice and taking ownership of your choices, everything changes. You move from resistance to empowerment, from limits to possibilities, and from mediocrity to greatness (Brian P. Moran & Michael Lennington, The 12 Week Year).

Be in the Moment

Choose action that takes us into a state of flow. What is flow? Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. That moment where the ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one. Like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost (Mihalyi Csikszentmhalyi).

Intercept the Saboteurs

All of us have self-sabotaging inner voices that hold us back when changes become real possibilities. Preserving the status quo is part of these saboteurs’ job. The bigger the dream, the louder the saboteur voice becomes (Co-Active Training Institute). Notice when the saboteurs show up. “I’m not ___ enough”. “When X happens then Y”. Anticipate how your saboteurs might try to sabotage your actions, and intercept them.

Dream Big

Planning your year is a good habit. It can help you become more aware of your successes and sorrows and make you realise how much can happen just in a year. By learning from the past you can plan your future in a way that you don’t repeat the same patterns, and you feel more in control of your own life.What does the year ahead of you look like? What will happen in an ideal case? Why will it be great?

Write, draw, let go of your expectations and dare to dream. One of my favourite habits is to pick a one word intention for the year. Pick a word to symbolise and define the year ahead. You can look at this word if you need some extra energy, so you remember not to give up on your dreams.



More about Kevin French

Kevin French, founder of Kevin French Life Caoching  is a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach and workshop facilitator.

What do you want to let go of from the past year? What are your intentions for the year ahead? Want to dive deeper? Contact Kevin for more information.



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