The keys to getting better at
reaching the goals you set for yourself
While good at keeping commitments to clients, colleagues
and business partners, it seems that we lack that same
rigor when it comes to keeping commitments to ourselves.
By Kimberly Paterson, CEC
Whether it’s an intention to stop overcommitting, be less judgmental, lead by example, or clean up our diet and finally lose those 15 pounds, we’re great at setting goals, but not very good at achieving them. According to a University of Scranton study, only 8% of people who set goals achieve them. According to a Gallup poll, 55% of Americans who set goals confess that they’ll likely have the same goal again next year, perhaps indicating the difficulty of following through on our plans.
Why the disconnect between what we intend to do and what we actually do?
Prevailing wisdom suggests that procrastination, fear of failure, or a lack of self-discipline are to blame. These reasons may be overly simplistic. In my coaching work with professionals, two underlying forces are often the barriers to following through: a hidden commitment and the power of our comfort zone.
Surfacing the hidden commitment
Consider Tara. Her goal was to improve her work-life balance and start leaving work on time most days. She is passionate about achieving it. But despite her hard work and best intentions, she’s consistently the last person to leave the office. She has trouble finishing projects, meeting deadlines and handling her day-to-day workload. Her manager thinks she’s a procrastinator and needs to be more disciplined about meeting deadlines. Procrastination and lack of discipline aren’t what’s getting in Tara’s way. It’s her hidden commitment.
A hidden commitment is a powerful, often self-protective force that competes with the stated goal we’re trying to achieve. It’s below the surface, so we don’t realize how it impacts our mindset and behavior. The result is we’re stuck—we’ve got one foot on the gas trying to move forward and one foot on the brake because of the hidden commitment.
Tara’s hidden commitment is a deeply held belief that she needs to give 110% to everything she does. When she doesn’t, she feels like she’s failed. Her need for perfectionism leads her to second-guess and rework everything she does so it takes her twice as long to complete tasks as her peers. Until she recognizes and learns to manage how her drive for perfectionism is impacting her, she’ll have trouble making progress on her goal.
The controlling power of the comfort zone
Whether it’s acquiring a habit, building a new skill, or tackling an objective we’ve yet to attain, the odds of achieving our goal hinge on changing a behavior. The challenge is that change disrupts the status quo and human beings are wired to avoid anything that pushes our comfort zone. That’s why we do the same things we’ve always done, with the results being pretty much the same.
Cameron is an example of someone whose inability to push beyond his comfort zone is standing between him and achieving his goal. Fourteen months ago, he was promoted to director of program development—a job he’d been lobbying for for several years. Cameron was eager to move from his account management role into a more creative position but, to date, had no real results to show for himself. In a one-on-one conversation with his manager, Cameron complained that he was still servicing clients, and with all the crises of the day, he didn’t have time to get to his development work. His manager’s feedback was that he had to get better at prioritizing and time management.
A subsequent coaching conversation with Cameron revealed that time management and prioritizing aren’t the problem. He knows development is a priority and has been scheduling time to do the work. But when the appointed time comes, Cameron typically spends a few minutes on the task and then abandons it for whatever other priority is on his desk.
When asked about his pattern, he admits that the creative process is uncomfortable. He struggles with the discomfort of a blank slate, lack of clarity on how to move forward, and the disappointment he feels in himself for spending an hour on a project and having nothing to show for it when there are so many pressing priorities.
For Cameron, solving client problems is familiar territory and provides instant gratification. The creative work feels awkward and unproductive. Cameron is worried this is a sign that he doesn’t have what it takes to do the job. Choosing the familiar path rather than understanding and working through the discomfort is killing his ability to grow and thrive in his new role.
Most clients who come to coaching are smart, self-aware, and motivated. Typically, they know what they need to do to reach their goals. The problem is that their knowledge doesn’t always translate to action. They’ll adopt the new behaviors for a few weeks, get distracted or discouraged, and then quietly slip back into their default patterns.
There are proven strategies to ensure that this doesn’t happen to you:
Take the time to understand what’s getting in your way. When you talk to people about what’s getting them off track, they’ll tell you how busy they are, how much pressure they’re under, the timing’s not right or there’s a crisis going on at work or home. While these may be valid excuses, they’re seldom the real reasons.
Consider if there is a hidden commitment that’s working against you achieving your goal. Let’s say your goal is to improve your department’s results by 20%. But the reality is, you have a commitment that’s far more powerful—make sure my direct reports think I am a nice guy. Your need to be liked is stopping you from making the tough decisions needed to turn your department around.
Ensure that you’re setting the right goal. In the previous example, improving department results by 20% is the outcome you’re seeking, not the goal. Your real goal is changing your mindset so you can make decisions that may be unpopular but are necessary.
Is the goal worth the effort? If the outcome you’re seeking doesn’t strongly benefit you, the odds are you’re not going to be motivated to do the work. Choose your goal carefully and make sure it matters.
Pay close attention to the stories you tell yourself. People dramatically underestimate the power of their self-talk; they tell themselves: “I’m bad at following through,” “I don’t have the discipline,” “I hate to exercise,” “I don’t have time,” or “Things will be better tomorrow.” When you keep sending yourself the message that you’ll likely fail, you won’t be motivated to try very hard.
Start changing your self-talk. Instead of “I’m bad at following through,” say something like, “I am committed to getting better at following through, or “I am great at following through for my clients; I’m going to do the same thing for myself.”
Think big but start small. One of the most common mistakes people make is trying to change too much too fast. Instead, take one small step at a time. The objective is to re-program your default pattern relative to the behavior you want to change or create.
Say you want to spend more time on business development and less time dealing with administrative issues. Rather than setting a goal to devote 10 hours a week to business development, start by designating one hour on a specific day. Schedule it on your calendar and take precautions to ensure you won’t be interrupted. Once that becomes a consistent part of your routine, gradually increase the hours you devote to building business.
Be patient. A common misconception is that people should just be able to change their behavior. Then when it doesn’t happen right away, they think they’ve failed and give up before allowing themselves a chance to succeed; change efforts are rarely a continuous path forward. Slipping back is normal, not a sign of failure.
Make it a habit. People often complain that sustaining a behavior change takes too much discipline and is exhausting. That’s because they don’t practice the new behavior long enough for it to become a norm. When you repeat a behavior often enough, it becomes a habit, and you start doing it automatically.
Don’t go it alone. When it comes to making a personal change, successful professionals are often reluctant to get support. They feel they should be competent enough to do it on their own. Statistics on successful change efforts don’t bear that out. While good at keeping commitments to clients, colleagues and business partners, it seems that we lack that same rigor when it comes to keeping commitments to ourselves.
When trying to change, you need someone who understands and supports your goal, believes in you, encourages you and, most important, holds your feet to the fire when necessary. Find a coach, a mentor, or a colleague. Research consistently shows that this kind of support is the single most critical factor in achieving change.
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Acquiring a new habit or a skill and tackling something we’re not good at yet is uncomfortable for most adults. Feeling awkward threatens our fragile egos. But the truth is that personal and professional growth happens when we accept discomfort as normal and push beyond our comfort zone.
What the eight percent knows
So, what’s the difference between the 8% of people who succeed in achieving their goals and the 92% who don’t? It’s an understanding that the path between intention and achievement is messy. It’s full of pitfalls, setbacks, wonderful experiences and learning curves.
Those who succeed mentally prepare for the journey and create environments around them that support what they want to achieve. Most important, they have an unshakeable belief in their ability to reach their goal and the resilience to keep moving forward in the face of obstacles.
Kimberly Paterson, Certified Executive Coach and Master Energy Leadership Coach, is president of CIM (www.cim-co.com). CIM works with organizations and individuals to maximize performance through positive lasting behavioral change. Her clients are property and casualty insurance companies, agencies, and brokers. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Kimberly on www.linkedin.com/in/kimberly-paterson and twitter.com/CIMChangeMinds.