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Why we fail at the things we want

Why we fail at the things we wantHow is it that people armed with the best of intentions and the latest strategies fail to reach their goals?

With the abundance of life, diet, fitness, and travel hacking sites out there, in addition to the plethora of “how-to” manuals, self-help books and guru websites, shouldn’t we have every tool tools necessary to succeed? If you are finding yourself stuck despite all this advice and help, there might be a simple answer and a not so simple solution to your problem.

It’s an average weekday morning the alarm goes off, and you find yourself pushing the snooze button a half a dozen times before finally rolling out of bed. Now you’re late! You have to get washed-up and dressed, pound your coffee, and if you are lucky cram some food down before rushing out the door so you can get to work on time. You are stressed, frazzled, it’s another great start to the day!

This might not be your everyday, but it is for many of us, and it always sucks. This particular scenario described the average morning of a former coaching client, Shawna. For her it didn’t matter, workday or weekend, she just couldn’t make herself get up with her alarm clock. She perpetually ran late. She was frustrated and embarrassed about her chronic tardiness, but didn’t seem able to change.

We tried a number of things, from moving the alarm clock further from her bed, to going to sleep later, to using coffee and light to help her wake up on time … nothing seemed to work. Shawna just couldn’t motivate herself to get up on time. We had to drop the goal and work on different priorities for a while.

Are we just too lazy to thrive?

Several months later I launched a One Month, One Change challenge in the middle of the holiday season to show people that with the right plan they could achieve their goals. Shawna jumped in on the challenge, hoping this time she would be motivated enough to do something about her pesky alarm issue.

Buoyed by the promise of change and self-improvement challengers embarked on a process of defining their goals, coming-up with an actionable plan, and working towards their objectives. Within a few weeks many of them were saying that they had already failed. By the end of the month, only a handful of challengers were still engaged and sharing their progress. I can only assume the rest just dropped the ball on their goal.

Were these people too lazy? Did they lack motivation? Were they not skilled enough to reach their objectives? Maybe it was a mistake to set the challenge for the holidays; there is so much to do after all.

I don’t think so! So what did we miss? How come more of the challengers didn’t succeed at their goal? How can we say we want something, but then fail to make it happen?

To make it you have to want it:

During the challenge I shared information about setting goals, coming up with realistic plans and staying motivated.

I talked a lot about strategy, and strategy is a great place to start, but what this challenge demonstrated was that strategy alone is often insufficient to succeed. That is why I didn’t just talk strategy; in nearly every post I wrote, I alluded to the importance of identifying current drives and values and aligning any goal a challenger set to those drives. Unfortunately, a lot of people see that dream/value piece as kooky and un-pragmatic, so it gets overlooked.

If success were simply a function of coming up with a good strategy, anyone with the ability to read would be living their dreams. To stay on target, remain motivated and succeed, your goals have to matter to you.

How do you make something matter?

Reward it… the right way

I think a lot of people were initially motivated to enter the challenge because there was the promise of a prize at the end of the month. That extra boost may have encouraged them to focus on a goal that they were putting off.

Prizes are fun and enticing, they provide what is called extrinsic (externally driven) motivation; they are a great way of boosting motivation short-term. For anything that requires a real effort, however, extrinsic motivators like prizes or money are inferior to intrinsic (internally driven) motivator, and  can even be counter-productive.  Research shows that extrinsic motivators can actually interfere with our innate drives, making us less likely to pursue a task on our own. Intrinsic motivators are things such as the reward of feeling successful or the positive outcomes that derive from reaching a goal; intrinsic motivators are very powerful!

Tie it back to something you want deep down…

Success is about motivation, as well as having a good plan, the right strategy, and of course there is that bit about putting in the work. The problem I see time and again is that people don’t know how to identify what they really want, and because of that they struggle to understand what motivates them. They are either coming-up with the wrong goals, or can’t come up with the right strategies to reach their goals.

For example, during our work together Shawna and I practiced some great strategies, ones that have worked for others, but they failed in the long run for her. She just isn’t’ a morning person, and getting-up most days is not important to her. She wanted it to matter, because it had a negative impact on work, and because it seemed like a grown-up thing, but that didn’t mean it would.

It’s hard to do something when deep down inside you don’t really care about it. People who make goals based on what they think they should want, rather than making goals based on what actually matters to them rarely succeed.

Figure out what it means to you

Once again, Shawna was failing to reach her goal, and it dawned on me to ask her a simple question: “Do you have trouble waking-up to you alarm on days you are doing something that is exciting to you?” The answer, of course, was, no; on those days responding to the alarm was not an issue. Why, because her assumptions about the value of getting-up and challenging her inner night owl changed on those days. It wouldn’t have mattered what strategy we implemented if it didn’t involved scheduling something that was exciting or desirable to her, it was going to fail. What we needed to understand was what was keeping her in bed – which was a complete lack of excitement about the day ahead.

Armed with this insight she not only changed her snoozing habits, but went ahead and made sweeping changes to her life. She quit her job, went back to school, got certified in a number of training and coaching skills, started working as a personal trainer while attending school and is on her way to building her very own personal-training business. Shawna isn’t hitting the snooze button much these days. Getting up is no longer an issue now that she’s building a life that has her feeling excited every morning. It’s hard work, with late hours and early morning, but there is no lack of motivation for this new trainer.

A plan is only right if it is right for you!

When you understand what matters most and what your choices mean to you, then you can set goals that are right for you, and watch your barriers and fears disappear. A big part of coaching involves helping people define two things:

1) What currently drives them? What it is that they value or need to feel fulfilled? 

2) What is holding them back from realizing their dreams?

This kind of insight work may seem like a cute or frivolous thing to do in a world where strategies, life hacking and short cuts are the norm, but it is fundamental to staying motivated, and achieving real success.

So what can you do when all else fails?

[bctt tweet=”A plan is only right if it is right for you! #drwallsays #lifecoach #truth #inspire” username=”lifenfocus”]

So what can you do when all else fails? Go for the heart! If trying to strategize your way into reaching a goal isn’t working for you, then it’s time to look at your personal motivations.

1) Make sure your goals are aligned with what you value and need.

2) Explore your thoughts and feelings about the behavior your are trying to replace, as well as the new goal you are trying to achieve. Look for thoughts and emotions that are holding you back and create strategies that directly target those barriers.

3) Move into action only once you know what you need and understand what’s going to stand in your way.

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Hi! I'm Dr. Alessandra Wall

I help smart driven women and forward-thinking companies bridge the gap & build real conversations.

Here on the ‘Dr. Wall Says’, I share tools, tips, and insights about speaking up, getting heard and how women can take up space and thrive in the 21st century.



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