Goals That Fail: Are You Falling Victim to These 3 Common Culprits?

Goals can fail for many reasons, and though we try our best to not let that sense of failure dampen our confidence, when the frequency of those “downs” begins to outweigh our sense of accomplishment, it’s easy to burn out.

Often we set goals with great intention to knock them out of the park, yet we fail to see the impact that the finer pain points might have on our success over time. If you find yourself falling into a cycle of goal setting, plateauing, then re-setting, there is a good chance that there may be a flaw in your approach.

Take a moment to think about goals you struggled to achieve in the past (or even ones you might be struggling with right now)…

If any of the following feel “cut from the same cloth,” a shift in your approach may be long overdue.

  1. The Crystal Ball Goal

Can you see clearly into the future, a year or more from now? No?

A close relative of the “dream,” the Crystal Ball Goal assumes you have razor sharp psychic abilities to map out everything that will happen far off in your future.

Why is this a problem? For one: when you set your sights too far down the road (or when you lack a clear timeline overall), you leave your goal vulnerable to infinite unforeseens, including life changes, value shifts, or – totally out of left field – a global pandemic.

Nobody can predict what will happen later today, let alone five years from now, and it is a pretty safe bet that something you didn’t expect or couldn’t possibly plan for is in store for you.

Holding yourself accountable to a Crystal Ball Goal means committing long term to a sense of non-progress and disorientation. When you assume that things will fall into place in the ideal fashion you envision them along the long and winding road to your dreams (and, spoiler alert: they won’t), you will inevitably hit roadblock after roadblock. Over time, these roadblocks may begin to feel like monuments of your failure, despite simply being inevitable products of circumstance.

Not to mention, if you somehow stay steadfast and true to that Crystal Ball Goal without tending to emerging priorities and interests *in the now,* eventually accomplishing that goal may unearth a deeper sense of failure: that you didn’t honor your growth and evolution along the way.

The Antidote: 

Shorter-term benchmark goals. 

It is absolutely ok to have dreams (your three, five, ten year idea of how you would like to grow). But, it is important to not let your dreams be what dictates your day to day progress. They can certainly inspire the type of goals you set today, but as they can’t be acted upon tomorrow, they can’t be the guiding light of your action plan.

Think realistically: what is *possible* for me to achieve over the next month? What about the next quarter? Stop there, and evaluate your progress and next steps when you reach that finish line. Setting tight timelines helps increase the density of our accomplishments (thereby increasing your momentum instead of leaving room for the anxiety of non-progress to creep in) and allows you the flexibility to respect evolving values.

2. The Hydra Goal

Don’t look now…but your goal is actually a monster with nine heads…

If you are a victim of the Hydra Goal, you may have tried to meld what should be a handful of separate goals, parsed out over time, into one “win or die trying” feat.

Why is this a problem? When you overwhelm yourself with a myriad of “to-dos” – assuming that only by balancing the sum of such is “success” – you are likely to be pulled in far too many directions to reasonably “achieve” or successfully juggle any one of them in a meaningful way.

You have one head, one body, and a limited amount of time in your day. Bonus: you are actually more likely to achieve multiple goals over a shorter span of time if you take them on one by one instead of all at once.

Start small, from a place of attainability and achievement, then build from there. Nobody is expecting you to become superhuman overnight, and expecting that from yourself is to needlessly embody (an entirely unfair) sense of failure.

See also: Candy Store Syndrome.

The Antidote:


Break that nine-headed monster down to a nine-step plan, beginning with the “head” that feels most manageable right now. Once you feel like you’ve tamed that beast, move on to the next.

Sure, you can work toward different initiatives in tandem with others, but it is important to be mindful of your personal capacity. If you push yourself too far over that threshold, the quality of your progress thus far is bound to give.

Pro tip: your capacity for varying sizes and amounts of commitments will fluctuate. Be cognizant of emergent stressors or energy drains that may affect the amount of time and thought you can put forward. Rather than a “sign of failure,” this is valuable information that – when digested with grace – can help us build our resilience for future initiatives.

3. The Zombie Goal

The Zombie Goal eats your brain.

Ok, figuratively… but this type of goal really does gnaw away at your mental health.

The Zombie Goal is that one thing you tried and tried to achieve a million times, that keeps coming back from the dead to distract you. In its life, it may very well have been a Hydra or a Crystal Ball…

This one is sneaky, because it is probably not something you would vocalize if someone asked “what are your goals for this quarter?” Still, you know it is there: reminding you of *the one thing* you couldn’t accomplish. In the back of your head, you may even be inviting it back to life unwittingly by dreaming of all of the “could have beens” that ultimately brought it to the grave.

Why is this a problem? If you have a Zombie Goal creeping around your subconscious, odds are it is taking away from the very real successes you achieve each day and, as a result, it is dragging down your progress toward new goals.

Allowing that goal – and its bullyish reminder of bygones – to set up residence in your mind is not only cruel, but can be fatally infectious to the typically energizing mindset that comes with setting new, more meaningful goals.

The Antidote:

Grieve and achieve.

Zombie Goals don’t stick around unless they feel they have unfinished business. Meaning: if you can feel a goal from your past weighing on your shoulders, it is likely because you never took the time to acknowledge and pay your respects to its death.

Look back at the time when it was alive and well, and identify how and why it came to rest.

For one reason or another, that goal had to die. Maybe you experienced a change in circumstance, a shift in priorities – i.e., you needed more time with family or pivoted to follow new passions – or, through the process of “failure” you learned you were better suited for a different direction. It could have been a variety of things – all of which are equally honorable and entirely human. 

Important: everyone “fails” at one point or another, and participating in this cycle of life does not make you a failure. That said, it is up to you how much influence you allow your past failures to have over your mindset and future growth opportunities.

Once you make your peace with your dead, shift your focus to all that you achieved despite whatever curveballs were thrown your way. Better yet: take a look ahead at what you will achieve without that zombie clinging to your back.