Three Obstacles Blocking Progress on Your Goals

june 2024

We’re at the mid-point of the year. If you’re like 91% of Americans, you haven’t thought about your New Year’s Resolutions in months – unless it’s to lament how quickly you gave them up.

In my hall of shame, I resolved to read a chapter a day of War And Peace – 361 chapters – and finish in a year. I abandoned that effort in about April of 2023, but my son pointed out this week that the book is still on our family room coffee table for easy access reading.

Despite any over-ambitious start-of-the-year hiccups, the chances are good that you DO have a couple of meaningful-to-you goals still at the forefront of your mind. It could be a weight-loss and exercise plan, it could be a financial goal – the list is endless. For those of you who are ticking off the monthly goal boxes and feeling a sense of pride as your vision moves closer to reality, kudos to you. For the rest of us. . . this article is for you!

As I often remind my clients, having a gap between where you are and where you want to be is NOT a sign of failure; it’s a sign of ambition and desire for personal and professional growth.

So there’s nothing wrong about the fact that you’re not there yet.

That’s the fundamental good news – you care enough to be on the path of growth.

Yet if you’re like many clients reaching out to me, you are aware that stating your goal, and even making your initial plan, hasn’t closed the gap between you and your dream as quickly as you had hoped, and expected. You’re in the messy middle when it’s tempting to give up, when your lack of success feels like a personal flaw, and when you may question whether that goal is even possible for you. If this resonates, read on. 

Three Obstacles Stopping You from Making Progress on Your Goals

1. You Don’t Have An MVP (minimally viable plan): A few months ago I wrote about how our brains often overcomplicate plans we want to make. One of the biggest reasons our plans get overcomplicated is that we “start as we mean to continue.” Now this common advice can be a helpful reminder in many situations (such as setting boundaries in a new role at work), but in terms of goal-setting, years of research points to the fact that starting small, with a minimally viable plan, is much more effective. Want to work out five times a week for an hour? Try walking for five minutes a day three days a week. Want to read 20 books this year? Try reading one page a night three times a week. If it sounds crazy easy to you – that’s the place to start! BJ Fogg of Stanford and Tiny Habits fame also suggests celebrating yourself consciously each time you complete your MVP to lock in the positive association in your brain.  So if you’re not achieving your goals yet, take this year’s mid-point moment to strip back your goal into laughably easy steps. Over time you will build on these easy steps, of course, but changing your identity from someone who wants to read to being a voracious reader can start to happen even with one consistent page a few times a week. As Laura Vanderkam (who I secretly fan girl) famously says, “Anything you do three times a week is a habit.” 

2. You’re Working Against Yourself: One powerful model for organizational change, Lewin’s force field analysis, can easily be applied to individuals as well. Lewin posited that change is met with forces pushing us towards that change (e.g.,“We want something to be better”) and forces pushing against that change (e.g.,“We don’t know how to get a different result” or “We’re scared of knocking over the apple cart”). When you’re stuck, it’s usually that these two forces are working against each other, keeping us stuck at the same spot the way a tug-of-war rope might barely move despite all the effort being expended. Lewin argued that it’s often easier to minimize the opposing force; in your case, this means figuring out what DOES work for you about the status quo that you don’t want to disrupt. For many people leaving a job means leaving their comfort zone, the devil you know and all that. Similarly, maintaining a new workout plan might mean more negotiation with your spouse about the division of responsibility in your household which is its own additional stress. Take a piece of paper and divide it in half. In the left column, put all the reasons you believe this change is right for you. In the right column, put all the worries you have about what might suffer or be worse when you achieve your goal. Is there something you can do to ease one or two of your right-side concerns? Sometimes a frank conversation with a spouse or friend can be all that’s needed; other times it might be necessary to mitigate a concern with a plan B, just-in-case back-up.

3. You’ve Forgotten Your Why: In his uber-popular TED talk and then book, Simon Sinek recommended everyone to “Start with Why.” And I bet you did. Earlier this year when you set your weight loss/career move/personal goal, you were tapped into why it was important for you and how you would benefit from achieving that goal or building those habits. Now though, when your alarm clock wakes you on Monday morning, you’re much more connected to sleeping for 15 extra minutes. As countless internet memes remind us, the struggle is real. It’s time to figure out how to reconnect with your mission. Whether you do this through hiking with a friend in nature, journaling while sipping your favorite latte, or surfing at your local beach to get in the zone, find time to ponder these questions: Why did you decide this was an important goal to you? What dream do you have for your future, and how is this on the path? What will success mean to you?  Life is busy and I bet you are too. When everything else screams loudly for your attention, you need to work even harder to create space and time to reconnect to the importance of your goal to keep your motivation from flagging. This is why I frequently remember this Zig Ziglar quote “People often say motivation doesn’t last. Neither does bathing—that’s why we recommend it daily.”

And if you can’t find that motivation anymore? This might not be the right year for this goal. Life changes, and we change as we deal with the unexpected. If something no longer matters to you the way it did when you set your goal, it’s more in integrity to admit that to yourself and stop holding yourself hostage to a goal that former version of you created when things felt different.

The little-remembered secret to achieving goals is that they are rarely “set it and forget it.” Instead, we need to tend to our goals the same way we might grow a new plant. But instead of water and sunlight, our bright shiny goals need to be nurtured through consistent adjustment for new barriers; make it even simpler to sustain it, make a plan to lower your resistance and regularly tap into what’s important to you that this goal helps you achieve. Wishin’ and Hopin’ is a lovely song from the 60s but it’s a pretty ineffective strategy to use when you’re stuck achieving progress on your most important goal.

Jo Ilfeld, PhD

An executive leadership coach, Jo helps C-suite leaders, executives, and high-potential managers develop the flexibility, skill, and frame of mind to meet the challenges of the next five, ten, twenty years…. and beyond. She works with individuals, teams and organizations on four core areas of leadership development. Check out Jo's bio page for more information.

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