Setting Goals Should be a Scary Proposition


Statistics attract me like a magnet sucks up a nail. Numbers packaged in a statistic can tell a story. The story is not always true, but that is another aspect of stats better left for another discussion. A statistic can drive home a point or idea, and I find them helpful for remembering information.

Two statistics stand out on the topic of personal goals. One stat has to do with setting goals; the other stat deals with goal achievement. First, statistics on goal setting make a clear point: The overwhelming majority of people do not have written goals. Author and success expert Brian Tracy says best estimates from research have found that only about three percent of adults write down their goals. That stat is disheartening to me as someone who is among the three percent and has experienced payoffs from having written goals.

The second stat may be even more disheartening. The probability of not achieving goals is high… very high. Researchers at the University of Scranton found that 92 percent of people who set New Year’s goals do not meet them. Maybe the 97 percent who do not have written goals are onto something. Why write down a goal if you probably will not achieve it, right?

A goal should scare you a little and excite you a lot. Joe Vitale quote

The thought I am reflecting on this week is a challenge to rethink how we view goals. Author and success coach Joe Vitale suggests goals should contain a blend of fear and excitement. I’m all for goals being exciting, but should we deliberately include fear in them, too?

What Goals Do

Personally, I cannot imagine what life would be like without having written goals. Well, yes I can as I did not have written goals for the first thirty years of my life. I have accomplished exponentially more in the last twenty years with written goals than in the first thirty years of life without them. Why is that the case? Goals serve many purposes, but the three most important for me relate to direction, performance, and accountability.

  • Goals give direction. The most precious resource we possess is time. You cannot buy more of it, nor can you borrow it from other people. Goals help allocate our time resources. They define priorities, clarifying how we should spend time.
  • Goals “stretch” performance. A well-developed goal pushes us out of our comfort zone. We stretch to accomplish more than we have previously. Even when I fall short of achieving a goal, the effort expended in pursuit of it usually leads to growth in some way. It is this aspect of setting goals that Joe Vitale’s quote speaks to directly. A goal could instill some fear as it pushes us to forge new performance boundaries. But, the uncertainty of doing more or different things is usually offset by the benefits of getting there.
  • Goals create accountability. If time is our most valuable resource, we must be accountable to ourselves for how we spend it. We are kidding ourselves if we opt not to be accountable for our actions and performance. Goals dictate what we need to do, and measuring to determine progress is a must.

Fear and Excitement

If you are convinced: a) you should have written goals, and b) they need to at the same time scare and excite you, what is next? Writing the goals, of course. But what should goals containing these two ingredients look like?

  • Fear. Think of an accomplishment you would like to achieve, then observe any doubts (fear) you have to reach it. I often share the thought process I went through when I first considered setting a goal of earning a Ph.D. and becoming a college professor. It went something like this:

– “Pass a written comprehensive exam after two years of coursework. I can’t do that.”

– “Pass an oral exam in front a committee of faculty. I can’t do that.”

– “Develop a proposal for dissertation research and defend in front of my faculty committee. I can’t do that.”

As I reflect on my initial thoughts about meeting requirements for a Ph.D., I realize I never told myself why “I can’t do that.” It was just the standard response that came into my mind. Thankfully, I did not listen to myself!

That goal contained some fear. It would be the most challenging academic program in which I ever studied. Also, the goal entailed fear such as would my family adjust to a dramatic drop in income as well as moving to another state? Fear may or may not be motivational to you (it does not have to be). But, an element of fear or uncertainty in your goals is not only normal but desirable.

  • Excitement. Goals should energize you. They represent a destination you want to reach. It is fun to think about being, doing, or having more than your current state. Without a plan and action, these thoughts are not goals but dreams. Goals motivate and spur action. That is why even when we fall short of a goal, we are usually better off and closer to achieving it than we were before setting the goal.

Be in the Minority

If you are not among the three percent of people who have written goals, you should join the club. Write goals that simultaneously scare and excite you… with a heavier dose of excitement than fear!

Choose Your Focus or It Will be Chosen for You


Time is the great equalizer. For all of the variation existing in resources such as education, experience, and income, the one resource that you cannot multiply is available time. We all have 24 hours in a day with which to accomplish how much (or how little) we want to do. Moreover, time has the upper hand in our lives as we do not know when time will be called and life on earth is over. Time is clearly a precious yet finite resource. Time scarcity makes choices about how we focus our attention and thoughts all the more important.

The One to Grow On quote this week is simple, but it is a message that I often need to be reminded to follow. It is a call to make a priority of people and situations that are truly important and recognize the rest for what they are—less important.

I came across this quote at a time when some of my co-workers were hurting. They did not tell me they were hurting, but they did not have to say a word. Setbacks occurred in projects in which they were heavily invested. They had a right to be disappointed, frustrated, and even angry. It saddened me to see them dejected. It also saddened me to see them stewing in so much negative energy for situations that do not matter much in the big picture.

Recognize the Distractions

It is not too difficult to become ensnared with issues and situations that do not matter much in the long run. We do not set out to do let small matters rob us of growth opportunities, yet that is exactly what can happen. We fixate on small things that do not go as we want, dragging us down to the point it impairs our ability to work on big things. You can cite many explanations for succumbing to these distractions:

  • You want to do right. If you have strong beliefs about how an issue or project should be handled, you may feel led to get involved to do something about it. But, if the outcome does not go your way the personal investment you made can feel like a loss.
  • You want to win. Sometimes, our competitive spirit overcomes us, and we take on a non-priority project or issue because we seek the satisfaction of being on the “right” side of the outcome.
  • You forget there is more than one way. Becoming sidetracked with matters that are not related to your true priorities can occur because we think we have the best solution. You may have the best solution, but is it an issue worth your investment, or will someone else’s solution suffice?
  • You welcome the distraction. If you regularly become distracted by low priority issues and projects, are you seeking them out as diversions? Shifting your focus to tackle a project that is low priority might feel good to you. Perhaps you justify the diversion by convincing yourself it must be handled… by you. The unintended effect can be you spread yourself too thin, causing more important projects to suffer.

Goals = Focus

How can we avoid falling into a dark hole of anger and discontent when something does not go our way? Set goals. Priorities are established when goals are in place. They give focus to how to spend your time, attention, and even your money. Pursuing those outcomes that will contribute to your growth leaves little room for distractions in the form of unimportant issues to creep in to your life.

In the book Me: How to Sell Who You Are, What You Do, and Why You Matter to the World, Colby Jubenville and I devote a chapter to setting goals. The practice of personal branding is pointless without having clearly defined outcomes. In Me, we urge setting goals for different life parts. We are not one-dimensional beings, and your goals should reflect your varied interests. The life parts for which goals can be set include:

  • Career
  • Relationships
  • Wellness
  • Spiritual
  • Financial
  • “Bucket list”

When you set goals for multiple life parts, you set priorities for what is important to you and in turn, demands your focus. You will be too busy to be dragged down by the minutiae of low priority or non-priority matters.

Short Indeed

We are wired for accomplishment. The thrill of achievement is one of the greatest feelings we experience. Realizing achievement and success in the right areas can be easier said than done. Resolve to focus on what matters most and let go of what doesn’t. Life is short, and time is limited. Decide what your priorities will be and enjoy the journey of pursuing goals.

Forget Making New Year’s Resolutions

The calendar flips to a new year, and along with this milestone comes a tradition practiced by many people: making New Year’s resolutions. Evidence of New Year’s resolutions can be traced back as far as 1671, with more specific mentions of the practice found as early as 1813. A notable characteristic of New Year’s resolutions then (and still today) is they seemed to excuse or acknowledge undesirable behavior in the run-up to a new year. New year’s resolutions offer a fresh start… at least in theory.

Resolutions Fall Short

If you have made New Year’s resolutions for 2017, you need to know that the odds are against success. A study on New Year’s resolutions found that only eight percent of people who make resolutions are successful in achieving them. Maybe the low success rate explains why only 45 percent of Americans usually make New resolutions.

So what are we trying to accomplish when making New Year’s resolutions? Google search data are revealing about what we long to be, do, or have. According to digital marketing firm iQuanti, the top New Year’s resolutions based on search queries include:

  • Getting healthy
  • Getting organized
  • Living life to the fullest
  • Learning new hobbies
  • Spending less/saving more.

The goals are worthy; that is not the problem. New Year’s resolutions fall short of their intended outcome so often because of the absence of a plan to reach the destination. We would not get in a car and drive from Memphis to Miami without directions. Yet, New Year’s resolutions without an action plan is the equivalent of blindly making that long distance drive.

Set Goals Instead

Replace New Year’s resolutions with personal goals. In the book Me: How to Sell Who You Are, What You Do, & Why You Matter to the World, Colby Jubenville and I discuss how setting goals is essential to managing your personal brand. Setting goals offers two significant payoffs. First, goals align action with purpose. Pursuing goals is a way to to spend your time in ways that are consistent with the big picture you see for yourself. Second, goals give focus to how to spend time and energy. It is easy to fall into a trap of working on projects not aligned with your goals. Setting goals and identifying actions needed to achieve them can minimize getting sucked into other people’s priorities.

Set personal goals with two criteria in mind:

  1. Goals for different life parts
  2. Goals with different time horizons.

Life Parts

Pursuing goals could get you to the destination you want, but will you be happy once you get there? Colby and I caution against putting too much emphasis on a single area. Instead, we advocate setting goals for six different life parts:

  • Career goals
  • Relationship goals
  • Wellness goals
  • Spiritual goals
  • Financial goals
  • “Bucket list” goals.

The idea is setting goals in multiple areas can help create balance in your life. None of us is one dimensional; our goals should reflect the various roles we concurrently take on. For example, it might do little good to reach career goals if the actions taken to get there ruin personal relationships or damage your health. Setting goals for different life parts serves as protection against self-sabotage.

Time Horizon

In addition to setting goals for different life parts, we need to set goals with differing lengths to achievement. Why? Not every accomplishment we pursue requires the same amount of time. Set goals that are:

  • Short range- 12 months or less
  • Mid range- one to three years to achievement
  • Long range- More than three years to achievement.

Also, use short-range and mid-range goals as stepping stones to reaching long-range goals. A long-range goal might be that end destination you envision but requires a lengthy journey to get there. The relationship between short-range, mid-range, and long-range goals is evident in the question “What is the best way to eat an elephant?” The answer is “one bite at a time.” You are more likely to achieve long-range goals set when broken down into smaller “bites.”

Do Something

Despite the preceding discussion on the limitations of New Year’s resolutions, it is OK to set goals or make resolutions. The point is do something that will spur personal growth. If you are among the eight percent that can see resolutions through to achievement, then go for it. Keep in mind that resolutions are essentially short-range goals. Complement them with more ambitious, longer range outcomes. And, set outcomes in multiple life parts; do not zero in on a single aspect of your life and ignore others.

Good luck pursuing your goals (or resolutions) in 2017!