7 Goal Setting Mistakes That Hold You Back From Success

athlete goal setting

Do you make these goal setting mistakes?

New Years resolutions. Sales targets. Weight loss.

Goals surround us. Strap on a smart watch or pocket your phone, and goals will track you while you sleep, and be your first buzzing reminder when you wake up. Steps. Calories. .

And while there is no question as to the benefits of having a sense of purpose and direction in life (), goal setting culture has become so rampant that you practically have to set goals about setting your goals!

With so much pressure towards goal setting, it is no surprise that many are finding it difficult to feel like they are being successful.

Their broken goals discarded like a land of misfit toys.


But let’s say you’re motivated. You’re inspired. You have a clear sense of WHERE you are trying to go and now you are ready map out a route of routines, behaviors, interactions, and milestones that will lead you to the desired outcome.

Here are the seven most common mistakes people make when setting goals that can help you take the first step on your journey to achievement:

1. The goal is too big

One of the most common mistakes made when setting goals is going too far, too big, too fast. A Silicon Valley creed credited to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is “move fast and break things”, a mindset that evokes feelings of fearlessness and divine purpose and has driven the rise of “ ” and “” culture.

Being someone with a “reach for the stars” mentality and setting large goals is easily confused for ambition despite there being no actual capacity in place to achieve those goals.

This is how people find themselves spending hours, days, weeks, or even YEARS crafting perfect goals while not taking a single step towards achieving them. They live in the fantasy.

Imagine standing at the foot of (North America’s highest peak) and fantasizing about .

You can picture it clearly, victorious, smiling. An enjoyable mental space to spend some time. All the while, those with better goals are out there actually climbing that peak and enjoying those views.

2. The goal is too small

Important to note: all goals are relative. A small goal for one may be an enormous step for another. For example, not having a drink tonight may not be a big deal for person A, whereas abstaining from alcohol for the next five minutes may be a monumental challenge for person B, actively in recovery from addiction.

The size of a goal does matter so much as the motivation it can provide. A goal completed, or just envisioning a goal completed, should stir feelings of excitement, confidence, energy, and pride.

Goals that fall too far inside of our “comfort zone” are unable to do this because they are so routine, and the outcomes so familiar.

A good guide for finding the “sweet spot” is this . The midpoint between ambitious challenge and blissful security is where we hope to find ourselves.

Another path to learn about this is to this is to find your Flow State.

goal setting
Are you setting goals the right way?

3. The goal is too public

The modern impact of social media can even be felt in our goal setting habits. Research debate the pros/ cons of public goal setting given the misleading satisfaction it can bring to the creator.

Sharing your goal with your support network can add layers of accountability and motivation to your journey. However, sharing your goals and your progress on Facebook or Instagram (#instagains) can also trick you into thinking more progress has been made than there actually has been.

What happens is the brain responds to the positive social feedback received through announcing a goal similar to the reaction that occurs when the goal is fully completed. By publicizing the goal or the progress, you are bypassing the difficult work required to fully achieve the goal and stealing the psychological benefits that are supposed to be saved for when you cross the finish line.

Imagine getting your IronMan medal after finishing the first leg of the race. Would that impact your motivation to complete the rest of the race?

Overall, it is important to avoid the tendency to reach for temporary social approval (telling everyone about your goals), especially if this may impact your long-term achievement.

4. The goal is too private

Goals, like plants, die in the dark. Give your goals some light! Once a goal is set, it should be written down. Get it out of your head.

Put that piece of paper somewhere you will see it every day (bathroom mirror, night stand). That consistent reminder will be there for you even when you busy or avoiding the work necessary to make progress towards your goal.

And while too much sunlight (see #3) can be harmful to your goal, finding creative ways to consistently and openly be reminded of your goal is a healthy path forward.

confusing goals
Goals and outcomes aren’t the same

5. Confusing process vs. outcome goals

Yet another common mistake made in goal setting is that people prioritize outcome goals over process goals. Outcome goals focus on the end result: win my race, make my sales quota, or earn a promotion within two years.

While this version of goal can be beneficial in a) identifying the desired outcome, b) initiating useful behaviors and change, and c) offering motivation, they do nothing to help answer the question of “HOW?”.

It’s great that you want to set a goal and achieve a high standard of performance. But HOW are you going to do that?

This question of “HOW?” must be asked over and over again of a single goal until the actual process (or processes) are uncovered that will lead to the desired outcome.

For example: earning a promotion will require improving performance, which includes increasing sales, which is done by establishing new buyer relationships, which requires making X amount of daily phone calls.

Using the established desired outcome, uncover the essential processes that contribute to your potential success.

6. Not focusing on SMART goals

There is rarely a discussion of goal setting without the mention of SMART goals. This is an acronym tirelessly used to help teach proper goal setting techniques, and its simple message applies in various topics already discussed here.

Apply these strategies to your goal to make it stronger, more resilient, and to enhance your potential of being successful.

  • Specific: “I want to get into better shape” vs. “I want to train for the upcoming triathlon in my town”. Be absolutely clear about what you want!
  • Measureable: What is being counted? What feedback will you be assessing? Data is everything !
  • Agreed Upon: Is this goal really worth your time? Consult with trusted sources to make sure you are applying your energy to the right cause.
  • Realistic: What are your realistic chances for achieving this goal? Are you setting yourself up for failure or success?
  • Time-bound: When does the buzzer sound? When do we tally the score? When will you determine whether or not you accomplished the goal or failed? Remember, an assignment without a due date rarely gets completed.
goals and achievement
Why did you set the goal in the first place?

7. Not knowing your why

Lastly, take the necessary time to understand why this goal is important to you. Are you being told to do this? Is the motivation external? Is this a childhood dream? Or are you chasing someone else’s dreams?

Setting and pursuing goals is an incredibly personal experience that should be taken seriously. Write in a journal or talk to a counselor/ coach about what started you on this journey. For a high-quality goal to take root, it is not the first step that is most important.

Rather, effectively preparing for the first step will often determine your level of consistency, discipline, and determination towards realizing the wonderful feeling of accomplishing a goal.

Wrap Up

Setting goals is one thing but going about the business of reaching them is another thing entirely.

Hopefully, the suggestions offered here will help you make wiser, smarter decisions on goal attainment.

If you are interested in learning more, consider picking up a copy of SMART Goals Made Simple by Scott (See Amazon). Inside, you’ll find lots of useful insight with hands on, practical application.

Thanks for stopping by.


Quote block: credited to Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Outdoor Magazine. (2018). Katie Bono Just Set the Speed Record Up Denali.

8 ways to create flow according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Posted in “Positive Psychology Program” and updated February, 2019

About AJ Sturges 4 Articles
Dr. AJ Sturges is a journalist and blogger who writes about topics of interest to men and the people who love them. His interests include psychology, health, sports, and current events. He holds a PhD in Psychology from West Virginia University. Follow him on Twitter.