The Best-Laid Plans: How Goal Setting Can Keep You From Realizing Your Dreams

As the end of another year approaches, many of us are hit with the reality of  yet more time slipping away. I try to spin this in a more positive light as best I can.  The end of one year can mark the beginning of another-a blank slate on which new possibilities can be written.

The new year is as good a time as any to bring on change. The prevailing wisdom tells us that if we want to lose weight, start that new business, change jobs, or master an art, we need to establish goals and stick with them.  Why, then, do so many of us ditch our efforts soon after we start?

Here’s something that sounded counter-intuitive. After reading it,  though, it made sense and explained why I’ve been my own worst enemy when it came to meeting my drumming goals.

In his 2014 Psychology Today article,  Ray Williams says the failure to meet goals lies not with us, but with the way we’re taught to create them. He outlined the particulars of goals setting: goals should be written down, be very specific, and have timelines and dates for meeting them.  It always feels good to have a “plan”, doesn’t it? It’s a way for us to have clear and tangible steps, the stepping stones that bring us to our desired destination.

Not so, says Williams. Blame it on our brains.  While philosophers and self-help mavens encourage us to embrace the challenge and thrill  of change, our brains are hard-wired to protect us by resisting the new and strange.  We are programmed to seek pleasure and avoid pain.  Altering thought or behavior patterns can be a huge undertaking, one that induces tremendous fear. And fear is pain.  What if we can’t get our weight down in time for the summer? Or meet the holiday sales quotas? Or master that set list in time for that career-defining gig? It’s the fear of failure, says Williams, that causes us to back off and lose our motivation.

So, how do we cajole our stubborn, fearful psyches to keep moving forward? Take little bites of the elephant, says Julliard-trained psychologist Noa Kageyama. Before my fellow vegetarians get too upset, I’ll explain.

In a recent blog post on his website, The Bullet-Proof Musician, Dr. Kageyama suggests that we divide large tasks into small bits. Fellow psychologist Karl Weick agrees. The “small wins” we attain when reaching goals that are well within our means can spur us on and keep us on the path.

Laying down those easy-to-reach markers can seem an overwhelming task. Dr. Kageyama discusses the merits of working backwards. Start from the desired achievement and work back to the steps needed to reach it. He cited a study where students were asked to create a study plan for an upcoming exam. Possible tasks that they would undertake included things like reviewing lecture notes, memorizing terms and reading specific chapters.  They were divided into two groups: those who “forward-planned” and started setting goals from the present to the future( the day of the exam), and those who used the “backward-planning” strategy; they began from the last task they’d attempt  just before the test and worked backwards to the first task.  Results showed that those who planned backwards were more motivated to attempt their goals and tended to follow through to reach them.

When forward-planning, it can feel like there are a billion possible first steps to take.  Backward planning, it seems, helps you to not only set up a clear-cut final goal, but adds clarity to the steps needed to reach it.

What goals do you hope to reach this new year? What do you think of goal-setting as a practice? Feel free to comment below.  And many blessings to you and yours for the coming new year.