5 Goal-Setting Mistakes to Avoid at All Costs

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Most people overestimate what they can do in a day, and underestimate what they can do in a year.

This saying (or some form of it) is commonly heard when talking about making errors in judgment when setting goals.

When you take the time and effort to set a specific goal, you’re doing so to improve yourself or your life in some way. But unfortunately, it’s easy to unknowingly sabotage your own success by committing goal-setting mistakes.

Another thing that people underestimate is the planning that’s required to set an achievable goal. It’s easy to say, “I want to be rich” but, if a few years later you find yourself in the same financial situation that you’ve always been in, you will probably feel unsatisfied and unresolved about realizing your dream.   

If you tend to not achieve the goals that you set as a result of goal-setting mistakes, you’ll probably lose motivation to create goals in the first place. 

We’ve talked a lot about setting goals on this site and the steps that you need to take in order to achieve your dreams, so I’m confident that you’re familiar with the “Do”s of goal-setting.  

But, what about the Don’ts?

Being aware of the pitfalls that you should avoid when setting goals can help ensure that you’re on the right path to living out your long-term dreams.

In this article, we are going to look at 5 goal-setting mistakes to avoid at all costs to keep you inspired throughout the process of working toward your goals. Eliminating these potential mistakes will help improve your chances of success and quality of life.

Before we proceed, if you're someone who learns through watching instead of reading, here's the video version of this article:

Let’s take a look.

5 Most Common Goal Setting Mistakes to Avoid

1. Focusing on Year-Long Milestones

While it’s great to think long-term, it’s also critical to rein yourself in a bit. Year-long goals don’t line up with the reality of most of our lives because things are subject to change at any time, which can quickly derail our plans. 

Think about the New Year’s resolutions you made for 2020 or the goals you initially set out to achieve this year.

While you were creating a meticulous plan to make a positive change in your life, did you take the impact of a worldwide pandemic and economic crash into consideration? Or did these factors take you by surprise? 

Everyone’s lives got turned upside down just over two months into 2020, as COVID-19 forced everyone to slow down and stay home. This introduced new obstacles and distractions into our lives as children stayed home from school, people lost their jobs, and we had to learn how to function in our personal and professional lives in unprecedented ways.

Everyone had to make adjustments, and I’m willing to bet your annual goals weren’t immune to that.

Rather than making annual goals, quarterly goal setting allows you to make more practical future plans that are less likely to be thwarted by unforeseen circumstances.

Prioritizing your goals by the season will let you refocus your objectives based on developing priorities in 90-day intervals. In our fast-paced and ever-changing world, our personal and professional priorities can change overnight, so trying to plan too far in advance is often a waste of time. 

2. Being Too Outcome-Specific

Without creating process goals, the outcome that you’re hoping for isn’t going to happen. Your process goals are those smaller milestones that are within your control today that add up in the end to amount to your outcome goals. 

An example of an outcome goal is “I will have money saved up by the end of the year to buy a new car.” This goal is vague. Without having objectives, you’re giving yourself a lot of room for error with very little direction in mind.

A process goal related to this outcome goal would be the action that, if achieved, will lead to your desired outcome. This could be something like, “I will put 20% of every paycheck I earn into a savings account.”  

The main reason to create process goals instead of outcome goals is because outcomes don’t come with specific instructions.

Let’s say you decide you want to know more about the current political climate. How do you go about doing that?

It can be hard to make an outcome specific enough that there’s no wiggle room for error. Instead, you need to set process goals such as, “I will spend at least 30 minutes each day reading the most recent political headlines and the most pertinent articles.”

This is a process goal that, if achieved, will help you reach your desired outcome.

3. Being Too Vague 

How will you know when you’ve reached your goal? What will success look like in the end? You want to make your finish line clear so you know exactly when you can start celebrating.

Quotes about Goals, Getting Started, and Investing Time in Your Dreams - “No desired achievement is gained without any goal setting.” – Wayne Chirisa | achievement quotes | inspirational quotes | motivational quotes

Vague goals can’t be accomplished. In fact, vague goals aren’t even goals–they’re ideas.

If you think you want to save money, that’s going to lead to a lot of frustration if you’re counting on having a healthy savings account in a few months. Motivation increases with clarity, so without any clarity, you’re left with nothing pushing you to take action to reach your goal. 

Failing to follow the SMART goal formula is a big mistake when it comes to goal setting that can leave you spinning your wheels. SMART goals give you a blueprint for the specific objectives you need to accomplish in order to make progress toward your goal.

By writing your goals in a format that is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound, you will be able to track your progress, keep your goals organized, and know exactly when your goal has been met.

Let’s look at some examples of goals that do not follow the SMART goal formula so you can know what types of mistakes you should be looking out for: 

Without having specific goals, you won’t have focus or direction. Your goals should give you a benchmark for determining your success, and they have to be clear and well-defined in order to do so. You need SMART goals to show you exactly how to get to wherever you want to end up.

4. Not Having a “Why”

Have you ever felt pressured by someone to accomplish something that you really didn’t care about? 

Years ago when I worked in sales (which was not for me), our team had goals created for us by our supervisors. This was the first time in my life that I was facing solid, hard-numbered goals.

However, they didn’t have a single impact on my work ethic. I didn’t care. The outcome of achieving these goals didn’t benefit me personally, it benefited the company, so my motivation was low. 

And because that was the only model of active goal-setting I had ever been exposed to, in hindsight, I see that it made me feel like my overall motivation in life was low. I associated setting and achieving goals with people who were productive, energetic, and successful–which was not me. 

But now I know that working in sales isn’t a source of energy for me like it is for other people. And, if you don’t feel like you fit into this mold either, it’s probably because you haven’t found what that source of energy is for you

Accomplishing anything that’s meaningful requires a sense of intrinsic motivation. You need to feel rewarded by the process and be personally invested in the outcome.

Your goals need to serve a purpose that’s strong enough to carry you through the obstacles that you’ll face along the way. If you don’t feel dedicated to the purpose, you won’t feel the sense of urgency that’s required to make your goals into a reality. 

To stay motivated, you need to see the value in reaching the outcome of your goal–and if the potential outcome is irrelevant to the bigger picture of your life, then the chance that you will make it a priority is small. 

It didn’t impact my life one way or another if my team’s sales goals were met. And, in the absence of this push, I wasn’t driven to take the necessary steps to achieve the goals set by my supervisor.

Make sure that all of your goals are attached to your “why” or whatever gives you a feeling of purpose in life. Without limiting and focusing your goals in this way, you may end up with a lot of meaningless goals in your life with very little time to commit to each one. 

Write down exactly why each of your goals is valuable to you and worthwhile to accomplish to ensure you remain enthusiastic about achieving it. Ask yourself:

  • Will achieving this goal benefit me or will it benefit someone else? 
  • Does this goal line up with my values?
  • Why am I working toward this goal?

Answering these questions will help you recognize whether or not your goal is attached to your life’s purpose. 

The video below explores and provides practical strategies you can use so you can find more purpose with your daily routine.

5. Failing to Make a Plan 

“Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

One thing that is more dependable than motivation is your habits. Do you feel like you need to be motivated to brush your teeth in the morning?

No, because you just do so out of habit. Every action that you do on autopilot each day is part of a habit loop–a cue, routine, and reward that happen without having to think about it. 

It’s important to turn your goals into habits so the actions become an integral part of your routine. By using implementation intention statements, you remove the option to decide whether or not you’re going to follow through with your objective for the day. 

Your implementation intentions answer the questions when? and where? to satisfy the two most powerful cues for any action– time and place. Doing this forms concrete plans that don’t leave your success up to chance. 

Implementation intention statements give you a new “normal” so you don’t have to wait for what feels like the “right” time to come along to take an action, you simply follow the plan that you’ve created for yourself, leaving all of the guesswork out of it. 

For example, “I will meditate for ten minutes after brushing my teeth in the morning and at night on my meditation cushion.”

With this implementation intention in place, you will start to practice meditation automatically after brushing your teeth–eventually without having to think about it.

By planning out the actions that will lead to your goals, you will default to meeting your milestones and you’ll be guaranteed to make progress toward your ultimate goal.

Final Thoughts on Goal-Setting Mistakes

The whole process of setting goals is something that takes practice. But, once you get the hang of it, it will be life changing. Once you accomplish one goal, it can easily lead to more goals and ultimately evolve who you are as a person.

Setting goals in a way that sets you up for success can be the key to staying motivated and inspired to persevere until you’ve achieved your dreams.

So, learn from the successful people who have come before you and avoid making the mistakes laid out in this article. With the right planning and a well thought out process, you’ll be on your way to accomplishing great things.

And if you're ready to start setting goals, here are some roundups of templates that can help you get started:

Finally, if you want to take your goal-setting efforts to the next level, check out this FREE printable worksheet and a step-by-step process that will help you set effective SMART goals.

Connie Mathers is a professional editor and freelance writer. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Marketing and a Master’s Degree in Social Work. When she is not writing, Connie is either spending time with her daughter and two dogs, running, or working at her full-time job as a social worker in Richmond, VA.

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