3 Psychological Reasons You Can’t Stick to Your Goals

There are plenty of non-psychological reasons why it might be hard to stick to your goals:

  • Maybe you want to commit to six months of couples therapy to strengthen your marriage but your spouse is flaky about attending…
  • Or maybe you want to restart your old photography hobby but you can’t afford new gear…

But for most of us—most of the time—the reasons we have trouble sticking to goals and commitments is psychological in the sense that it’s some combination of thoughts, beliefs, and emotions that derail us.

For example:

  • You make it for two months working out at the gym consistently.
  • But then you start having thoughts that you’re not losing weight as fast as you should be.
  • Pretty soon you’re comparing yourself to other regulars at the gym—all of whom seem to be making more progress than you.
  • Eventually, you start missing workouts because you increasingly don’t feel motivated and even a bit ashamed.

In every area of life, from finance to romance, your ability to stick with your goals usually comes down to psychology—how you manage difficult moods, emotions, thoughts, and beliefs.

In the rest of this article, we’ll look at three of the most common psychological reasons people don’t stick with their goals.


1. Your goals are too outcome-based

Your goals are almost always going to be outcome-based to some extent…

  • You want to start eating healthier not simply because you enjoy healthy eating for healthy eating’s sake but because it will lead to the outcome of lowering your blood pressure, helping you lose weight, giving your more energy, etc.
  • Or maybe your goal is to spend more quality time with your family. You might genuinely enjoy spending quality time with your family, but this will also hopefully lead to outcomes like happier, less stressful relationships or a greater feeling of intimacy and trust.

In other words, don’t fall for the trap of thinking goals should be purely process-oriented or done exclusively for their own sake. That’s usually not a very realistic or helpful expectation.

That being said, if you struggle to stick with your goals, there’s a good chance you are too outcome-focused, which can end up being quite counterproductive in the long run.

For example:

  • Suppose your goal is to be less stressed and busy this year and cultivate a deeper sense of relaxation and calm.
  • If you’re constantly thinking about the outcome—being super calm and relaxed—you’re inevitably going to see and feel the discrepancy between where you are (stressed out and anxious) and where you think you should be (calm and relaxed). And that’s going to be painful and discouraging.
  • If this discouragement of not reaching your goal (because you keep thinking about your goal) goes on long enough, it’s very likely to lead to quitting or self-sabotage.

Ironically, being too focused on the final goal or outcome can derail you from getting there.

On the other hand, you could take a more process-oriented approach to your goals:

  • Even if your main goal is to be less stressed and more relaxed this year, you could break that goal down into smaller and more regular routines or habits.
  • For example: maybe your daily routine is to meditate for 10 minutes each morning. Or go for a 20-minute walk each day at lunch.
  • Because these daily routines are much smaller and more doable, you’re far more likely to feel encouraged by them, which will end up increasing your motivation rather than sapping you of it.
  • All the while, these smaller routines are still moving you toward your final goal as well.

When it comes to goals, I like to take a set-it and forget-it approach…

Do your research, pick a goal, then forget about and keep your focus on the small routines or habits that, when done consistently, will get you to your goal eventually.

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

― Ursula K. Le Guin


2. Perfectionism

Perfectionism is a particularly dangerous thing when it comes to goals because—like thinking about outcomes—it often feels productive despite being destructive.

Here’s an example:

  • Let’s say you’re super motivated to get started on and stick with your goal of putting in a garden in the backyard.
  • You’ve done tons of research and have a beautiful idea of what you want your garden to look like.
  • But as you get started working on it, things don’t work out exactly like you’d hoped…
  • Turns out, it’s really hard to make those cedar planters look as nice as they do on Pinterest. I mean, you get it done, but it just doesn’t look the way it should. And as a result, you don’t feel the way you should…
  • You keep thinking about those planters and how the spacing between boards is too loose. Or how the plank on the backside split a little when you put the final screw in.
  • The same thing happens when you try to add new irrigation and buy the right vegetables. It just doesn’t go according to how you saw it in your head. And as a result, your garden constantly triggers negative thinking and discouraging emotions.
  • After a while, these discouraging thoughts and emotions kill your motivation and the garden sits half done—a constant reminder of one more way in which you never stick to your goals and can’t do things well enough.

Now contrary to popular opinion, perfectionism has nothing to do with performance, and everything to do with feeling.

In this case, you would probably admit that it’s not very realistic to think that your first time planters would look as beautiful as the ones you see on your professional Pinterest gardener’s gallery.

And yet… you feel like they should. And when they inevitably don’t, you feel like you shouldn’t feel so bad about it. You quickly go from criticizing the planters to criticizing yourself.

The problem with perfectionism isn’t high standards; it’s the intolerance of difficult feelings.

Perfectionists frequently get discouraged and give up on long-term goals because they’re unwilling to tolerate feeling less than perfect.

The solution is to go ahead and maintain your high standards of performance, but loosen up your standards for how you should feel when you don’t perform exactly the way you wanted.

It’s okay to build B+ quality planters on your first try. And it’s okay to feel a little disappointed by that.

But if you want to stick with your goal of having an awesome garden by the end of the year, you’ve got to avoid getting judgmental about how you’re feeling.

If you insist on feeling perfect about working toward your goals, you’re very likely to not achieve them.

“Tilly was downcast; as with all perfectionists, it was the detail others might not notice that destroyed for her the pleasure of achievement.”

― Elspeth Huxley


3. You’re chasing someone else’s goals

A few months ago, I was at the park with my kids. And I overheard a couple other parents next to me talking about their upcoming plans for their kids’ activities next year…

  • Piano lessons every Tuesday and Thursday
  • Gymnastics on Mondays
  • Spanish tutoring after school during February and March
  • Ski school on weekends this winter
  • Private tutoring to get those math skills up

And as I was overhearing this, I started wondering about whether I should be doing all this stuff with my kids…

  • She’s only six, but maybe she should be in piano lessons?
  • She would really like gymnastics…
  • It would be so great if the girls were bilingual! Maybe we should start Spanish tutoring?
  • We missed skiing last year because there wasn’t much snow. I would love to get them into lessons.
  • Private tutoring in first grade? That’s crazy! Or is it…?

In just a few short minutes, I found myself physically tense and noticeably anxious about all the things these other parents were doing for their kids—and by extension, all the things I wasn’t doing for my kids.

But then, thankfully, I took a step back and reminded myself of a few things…

  • Sure, the girls are getting old enough for some of the activities. And maybe we’ll do some of them. But there’s no rush. And we certainly don’t need to do ALL of them!
  • I’m getting worked up because of fear… I’m afraid that I’m missing something because of all these things I’m hearing other parents talk about. But in general, I don’t want our goals as a family to be based on fear of missing out.
  • Most importantly, there’s a very deliberate reason our kids aren’t in tons of activities: Right now, the most important thing for our family is spending quality time together and fostering good relationships. That’s our most important goal. And for us, we want to be very careful about adding lots of activities that could interfere with that goal.

It’s very tempting to start chasing other people’s goals because we’re fundamentally social creatures.

This means that, among other things, our desires and goals are easily influenced by what other people want…

  • We say it’s important for our kids to play piano. But is that because we genuinely believe it and want it, or because all the other families are doing it and we’re afraid that we’re missing out?
  • You tell yourself you want to make partner at your firm. But is that because you actually want to be a managing partner or because it’s what everyone else in your profession wants and is supposed to want?
  • You tell yourself you want to start reading more. But is that because you actually enjoy reading or have a clear reason for doing so? Or is it because everyone on social media is talking about how they read 50 books last year or all the timeless wisdom they’ve learned from reading every day?

If you have trouble sticking with a long-term goal, it’s worth reflecting on who’s goal it really is and why you want to pursue it.

Have you clarified the values behind that goal?

Because if you’re pursuing a challenging goal for the wrong reasons, you’re likely to either not make it or make yourself miserable in the process.

“Transformation happens when I spend enough time with my desires to know them by name and know whether or not I want to live with them.”

Luke Burgis


Want to get better at sticking with your goals?

I teach a six week course called Mood Mastery that’s all about building a better relationship with your emotions so that you can stop self-sabotaging and stick with your long-term goals and aspirations. Learn more here →

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Absolutely love the way it has been framed. Validated a lot of my own thoughts and realizations. Thank you so much!!

Absolutely love the way it has been framed. Validated a lot of my own thoughts and realizations. Thank you so much!!

I find the explanation of where the problem with perfectionism lies interesting. That it is more to do with how intolerant we feel about our performance rather than with how high our standards are. I did not get like that before.

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