Wish it were easier to achieve your goals? Here are 6 barriers you didn’t know were holding you back — and the quick mindset shifts to overcome them.
Each season, it was the same. I’d set exciting goals, but within weeks—okay, sometimes days—they slid to the back burner while more urgent matters took control of my time and energy.
I’d think: Maybe I’m not cut out to achieve my dreams?
Negative thoughts spiraled in my head and made it even less likely I’d accomplish my goals. It seemed obvious: if I wanted to do big things, I’d first have to conquer my negative thoughts.
But I was wrong.
If this pattern feels familiar, I have good news (and bad news) for you. First, the bad news: you’re never going to stop having negative thoughts. I mean never. They’re a necessary part of life.
The good news? Your negative thoughts aren’t the reason you’re not meeting your goals; they’re a symptom.
Even better news, here are 6 subtle barriers to achieving your goals—and the mindset shifts you need to overcome them.
The Barriers Keeping You From Achieving Your Goals
Author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once said, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” While that’s true, sometimes we get stuck in the planning stage, trying to get all the details right.
If you’ve ever spent the day with your brand-new planner and favorite purple pen, mapping out the details of how you’ll accomplish your big goals, you know the danger of over-planning— you spend so much time figuring things out that you have no time to implement.
But here’s the thing:
- Which is the best diet? The one you’ll stick with.
- What’s the best plan to accomplish your goals? The one you’ll take action on today (and tomorrow and the next day).
And even though planning feels like action, it’s just motion. It tricks us into thinking we’ve made progress toward our goal when we’ve merely identified it. In fact, the feeling you get after a big planning session can be detrimental to achieving your goals, making you more likely to engage in behaviors that conflicted with your goal.
(If you’ve ever said, “okay” to that delicious piece of cheesecake because you just ate a healthy salad for dinner, you’ve seen how the progress you’ve made can sabotage your goals.)
Recognizing that there’s no perfect plan is the first step toward freedom. Train yourself to take action by thinking like a scientist. Treat your good-enough-for-now plan as an experiment, implement it for a few days or weeks, and then review the results. Tweak your strategy accordingly, being careful to keep what’s working.
Mindset Shift: Instead of spending hours outlining all the steps you’re going to take to meet your goal, ask yourself: what’s one thing I can do right now to move me toward my goal? Then, take that action!
2. Relying on willpower
How many times have you told yourself you can achieve your goals if you just…
- try harder,
- get up earlier,
- be more disciplined.
The word just signals that you’re relying on willpower. But willpower is a finite resource. Research shows that if you exert willpower at the mall by not purchasing a pair of super-cute shoes, you’ll have less willpower available to resist the Dairy Queen drive-thru on the way home — Hello, hot fudge sundae!
In addition to evoking willpower, however, using the word just implies that the change is easy. But unless you’re already skilled at being more disciplined, this four-letter word is setting you up for failure. Why? Because the biggest predictor of future behavior is past behavior, and if achieving your goals were as easy as “just” being more disciplined, you’d be achieving them already.
So, how do you stop relying on willpower? By setting up your environment so willpower’s not required.
- Put your running clothes beside your bed so you can put them on as soon as you wake up.
- Leave your laptop open to the document you’re working on (with all other distractions hidden) so you can start writing immediately when you enter your office.
- Don’t bring potato chips home from the store— or even put them in the cart. (Yep, I saw that loophole, too: If I finish them off in the car, then I haven’t technically brought them home…)
Mindset Shift: Instead of powering through, reduce the barriers to achieving your goals by preparing your environment ahead of time to increase your odds of success.
3. Trying to implement big habits
Have you ever decided to run 10 miles every day when you haven’t put on sneakers since high school? (That’s okay — me neither!) Or resolved to write 2000 words a day on a book manuscript? (I have tried that one.) Or, have you ever tried to overhaul your eating habits by giving up sugar or starting a restrictive diet? (Me, too.)
The problem with implementing big, new habits is we often frame them as an all-or-nothing proposition. For each day you run only one mile (or only nine and a half) instead of ten, you’ve failed. The same is true if you write 500 words or 1500 words. And mindlessly adding sugar to your morning tea ruins your habit before you’re even awake. That’s demoralizing.
To establish a new habit, research says you should choose a goal you’ll have no problem completing, no matter how excruciatingly small:
- Put your running shoes on and walk out the door.
- Put fingers to keyboard and type for 10 minutes.
- Eat something green every day.
This doesn’t preclude you from doing more, but it reduces the barrier so it’s low enough to hop over.
Often the first habit we need to establish, before we can achieve our goals, is showing up. Starting small trains your brain (and your body) that you’re trustworthy— that you do what you say you’re going to do. As you build consistency with these small habits, you lay the foundation to create the bigger habits that will help you achieve your goal.
Mindset Shift: Instead of reaching for a huge goal and then beating yourself up each day when you fall short, choose the teeniest first step that leads to your goal and track it. The bigger habits will follow.
4. Making it too complicated
Sometimes we inadvertently create the obstacles that keep us from achieving our goals by putting conditions on what the goal has to look like. For instance, if your goal is to eat dinner at home more regularly, do you catch yourself thinking: sure, I technically made dinner, but it doesn’t count because…
- it’s not a 7-course meal
- It didn’t use all homemade ingredients
- it was just something I threw together?
If so, you may be constructing unnecessary barriers to achieving your goal.
To uncomplicate your goal, shift your focus from the end-product to your purpose. Why do you want to make dinner at home more often? Is your primary goal
- to save money,
- to eat healthier,
- to gain more family time, or
- to develop your cooking skills?
Focusing on the reason behind your goal will help you simplify your expectations. If increased family time is your primary goal, any meal around the table “counts.” If you’re hoping to save money (or to improve your nutrition), there’s no need to attempt to live on $1 a day (or to eat all organic home-grown veggies). Aiming for meals that are slightly less expensive than restaurant meals (or slightly more nutritious than the drive-thru) accomplishes your goal.
And as you become more consistent in your pared-down habits, you’ll improve your skills, paving the way to implement more complex habits.
Mindset Shift: Instead of choosing a goal because it aligns with one a friend is reaching for or because of a challenge you saw on social media, examine your reasons for wanting to achieve that specific goal, and narrow your expectations to the one that’s most likely to help you meet your goal.
5. Creating stop goals
Have you ever experienced this: You’ve given up junk food and are doing well with that goal… until you plop down on the couch for family movie night and see everyone else snacking on chips?
Goals that require you to stop a habitual behavior — eliminate sugar, watch less TV, or quit biting your nails — are more difficult to accomplish because our brains have trouble acknowledging the word don’t. (Need proof? Don’t think about elephants. If an elephant popped into your mind, you can see the problem.)
Stop goals, such as “stop eating junk food,” tell you only what you shouldn’t do, not what you should do. Instead, focus on your why, and convert your stop goals into go goals.
For instance, decide beforehand that you’ll eat a bowl of fresh fruit for movie night. In this instance, having a go goal — something you’ll do, rather than something you won’t do —
- keeps you from eating junk food,
- is an action your brain understands, and
- avoids the willpower struggle that accompanies stop goals.
(Incidentally, you could eliminate the stop goal altogether: rather than giving up junk food to get healthier, increase the number of vegetables you eat each day.)
Mindset Shift: Instead of trying your hardest not to do something, which sets up your brain for failure, re-word your stop goals into go goals— actions your brain can easily understand and carry out.
6. Dreaming about your end goal
You may have heard that imagining your goal is the key to accomplishing it. In fact, whole industries have sprung up to teach you how to create vision boards, taking over entire shelves at Michael’s craft store in the process.
Although it can be useful to keep in mind the destination you’re reaching for, picturing yourself crossing the marathon finish line, pondering what life will be like as a published author, or imagining the cute clothes you’ll wear when you’ve reached your goal weight actually makes it less likely you’ll reach your goal.
Why? Because dreaming about your goal isn’t the same thing as working toward it. But more important, visualizing your end goal sets you up for failure because it doesn’t prepare you for the obstacles you’ll encounter.
Dreaming imagines the highlight reels without considering the work it takes to get there. So when you hit obstacles in achieving your goals — and there will always be obstacles — life doesn’t look (or feel) like the end result you’ve been imagining, and your brain doesn’t know what to do next, causing you to become confused or even to give up.
A better strategy is to ask yourself: what obstacles might prevent me from accomplishing my goal today? Then plan the steps you’ll take to overcome them. By acknowledging your destination goal and the barriers you may encounter along the way, you can set yourself up for success.
Mindset Shift: Instead of dreaming about what life will be like when you’ve reached your goal, acknowledge there will be obstacles along the way and plan for how you’ll deal with them when they arise. Think of this exercise as carrying a spare tire in your car trunk— you may never need it but if you do, you’ll be back on the road to your destination in no time.
Start Achieving Your Goals Today
If you have difficulty seeing your goals through to completion (like I did), or think you’re not cut out to achieve your dreams, know this — you have the power within you to do amazing things.
Regardless of whether you long to run a marathon, write a book, improve your health — or any other goal — implementing these six tips will help you overcome the barriers keeping you from achieving your goals.