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  • Pauline Bradley

Motivation and goals

New Year is a time when many people set themselves goals or “New Year’s Resolutions”; it’s a fresh start and an opportunity to “change” ourselves, usually for the better. People will often resolve to get fit by joining a gym, find new relationships, lose weight, learn a new skill and many others. In fact, society positively encourages us to take on New Year’s resolutions – advertising for gym membership, diet plans, dating websites and so on soar at this time of the year.

Yet a recent study (US & World Report) shows that up to 80% of New Years resolutions fail by February. In this article I examine the reason why so many resolutions fail, and what we can do to maximise our chances to be successful in our resolutions and goals.

First let’s start with a couple of definitions to set the scene. Motivation is a derivative of the word MOTIVE which is a need that requires satisfaction; your motivation (or maybe lack of motivation) comes from how strongly you feel you need to satisfy a particular need. A Goal (which is what a New Year’s Resolution is), is an idea of a future desired result that a person or a group of people envision, plan and commit to achieve.

Why do people fail to meet their goals?

There are many reasons why people may feel to meet their goals. Most of these are to do with the individuals themselves and can be caused by poor self-belief or self-esteem, social anxiety or a propensity to impulsiveness. The following are some of the key reasons that I commonly see when talking with people in my practice

1) Lack of planning - If you haven’t thought through the goal or aspiration beforehand and planned how and when it will be achieved as well as considering the pit falls that may occur, then the steps to achieve the goal are not fully recognised and the difficulty may come as a surprise.

2) Disillusionment (“this is harder than I thought”) - People are often too focused on the end result without realising that there may be a process to go through, and consequently fall at the first hurdle. We can tell ourselves I’m not up to this, I’ll fail so we can make excuses - “weather bad, won’t go out today”, “haven’t got a babysitter”, “I’m too tired”, “no one to do it with”

3) The goal is too hard / too easy – people experience peak motivation when they perform a task which is right on the edge of their capabilities, it presents a bit of a challenge not too hard but not easy either – just right. This is known as the “Goldilocks Principal” for obvious reasons.

4) Our expectations of other people – Does our goal require the involvement of other people? We are social creatures in the main, and a lot of the time we need support or companionship to go into new territory – we sometimes are dependent on others to do the thing with us and if they give up we can give up. We might take up some activity hoping to meet new people only to feel left out or excluded for some reason or perhaps through lack of other people we end up doing the activity it on our own.

5) Too many goals – If we set ourselves too many goals, we run the risk of becoming our own taskmasters and falling foul of the tyranny of the urgent. Then as one goal fails, as a result, others follow quickly after as disillusionment sets in

6) Our goal is not consistent with your core values. For example, if you want to take that job or take up hobby that requires you to be away from home a lot, BUT you also have family commitments (especially at the weekends) and they are you’re priority then the goal may come into conflict with your core beliefs.

What can people do to help them achieve goals?

As described, there are many factors that may conspire to prevent us reaching our goals, so why bother? The important thing is to understand what those factors may be and then to use a number of simple measures to maximise our chances of achieving goals. A counsellor or life coach can help you identify approaches you may take to improve your likelihood of success.

1) Careful planning when setting goals. Consider using the SMART principal when setting your goals; each goal should be:

  • Specific – make sure the goal is precise enough and not too vague (e.g. “I want to reduce my weight” or “I want to improve my cholesterol levels” rather than a general “I want to be healthier”). Also make sure you can identify clear actions you need to take to achieve your goal.

  • Measurable – set a target for the goal, so you know when you have hit it or how you are progressing towards it (e.g. “I want to improve my 10K running time by 90 seconds”)

  • Achievable/ Attainable – the target should be achievable while still stretching (remember the Goldilocks Principal)

  • Relevant– there is no point having a goal that is not relevant to your life (“I want to walk on the moon”); R can also stand for and Risk Assessed - make sure you understand the risk for you in taking on a particular goal – losing weight is a good example, where setting yourself an extreme weight target may adversely impact your health.

  • Time Based – include a target date for achieving your goal (“I want to have given up smoking by the end of June”). Don’t forget you can amend your target date (both forwards or backwards) based on your progress.

2) Break down the goal – consider your goal and look at intermediate steps on the way to achieving it. For example, if your goal is to run a 10K race and you have never run before, start with short runs, or even walks, and over time build it up to 1K, 5K and 10K. You can put target time frames for each intermediate step and monitor your progress against them.

3) Habit Formation – on average it takes 66 days (2 months) to establish a regular habit. So if, for example, part of your goal is to attend a gym 3 times a week, you should recognise that this will not become habit immediately, but if you persevere it will eventually just become part of your routine. The same is true with habit breaking.

4) Limit the number of goals - avoid the temptation of having too many goals at a time or they will compete with one another – focus on one or two things and put your energy into them until they are achieved.

5) Make it easy to start with (“Paint the Corner”) –Newtons 1st Law –states that objects in motion tend to stay in motion; the same is true for our own activities. Start the process towards your goal with an easy step and build from there. A colleague of mine wanted to paint her kitchen, and for months the pots of paint sat on the floor as she could not summon the energy to undertake the task. Eventually she decided to just paint one corner of the kitchen – and she found that once she started, she built enough personal momentum to complete the task.

6) Employ a ritual or routine – To help you get started create a mini ritual or routine, such as having a cup of coffee before you start reading, lacing your runners in a particular order before you do on a run, driving a specific route to the gym; this will help create a routine and accelerate the habit formation.

7) Build in a reward system (the treat). We forget to pat ourselves on the back and say well done; giving ourselves rewards for completing stages towards our goal, or the achieving goal itself makes that progress more enjoyable and easier to achieve. Bring a bar of chocolate you will eat when you make it to the top of the mountain, have a glass of wine to celebrate meeting that important deadline.

8) Timing – you don’t need to wait to set and start working towards a goal; although January is the traditional time to set your resolutions, you can start at any time. Most importantly, don’t use excuses like “waiting for the New Year” to procrastinate about goal setting.

9) Mindfulness – The stories we tell ourselves make all the difference so we need to keep an eye on our thought process. Be aware of your inner critic, the procrastinator, the fearful child. It is very common to feel Resistance when faced with a challenging new task – it’s about noticing that resistance but not giving into it but smashing through it until we achieve the goal or form a healthy habit.

10) Be compassionate with yourself - if you don’t meet your goal or fall behind schedule, don’t beat yourself up, don’t look at it as a failure. Think about what went wrong – maybe you were too optimistic, maybe the timeline was too aggressive – learn from your mistakes and start again.

In summation, there are many factors, within and without our own control, that may impact our ability to achieve goals we set ourselves, but we also have a helpful set of tools that can maximise our chances of success. Finally, remember that goals and resolutions can be made (and re-made or revised) at any time, not just at New Year. There are 365 days in a year and 1,440 minutes in each day – you can make decisions for your future self at any time, so don’t feel pressurised into using the New Year (which, in Ireland at least, precedes the darkest, coldest, wettest days of the year) as the time to make your goals and resolutions.

Pauline Bradley, Psychotherapist & Life Coach


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