Why do so many people fail to achieve their goals? Often the reason isn’t their ability, willpower or desire. When the National Institutes of Health examined failed attempts to lose weight, quit smoking or exercise, they found that the most common reason for failure was poor preparation. People did not make the necessary preparations before attempting major life changes…and they did not mentally prepare themselves for the inevitable setbacks.

Here is my four-step process to overcome these hurdles and accomplish your goals…


To achieve a goal, it’s important to consider the pros and cons of making a change. It is not enough to tell yourself that you “have to” do something, because then you will feel like a victim and rebel against the process. It is not enough to tell yourself that you “want to” do something, because wanting is only dreaming, not reality. You have to truly “choose” a goal.

Example: Say to yourself, I’m not going on a diet because my doctor told me to. I’m going on a diet because I choose to be healthy.

Sometimes we lack confidence in our ability to achieve a goal because an earlier attempt failed. Do not wait until you feel confident before trying again—you might be waiting forever. We each have a stronger self that can decide that it’s worth trying again despite any fears.

Helpful: Imagine that five years have passed and you’ve done nothing to achieve your goal. How bad would your situation be? How bad would you feel about your life?

By creating a clear mental picture of the future pain you would face if you do not pursue your goal, you can make it easier to face the near-term inconveniences and unpleasantness of taking action.


Start searching for the best path toward your goal by experimenting with small changes that lead in the right direction. Don’t get down on yourself if you have trouble sticking with these changes—at this stage, you’re not yet attempting to achieve your big goal. You’re simply gathering information about what works for you and what doesn’t.

When an attempt doesn’t produce the desired result, take a moment to ask yourself what went wrong with the experiment and what you can do to correct it. Do not start actually pursuing your goal until you have a plan that you believe you can see through to its conclusion.

Example: Angela, 29, had trouble with late-night snacking in front of the television. Through trial-and-error experimentation, she found that she had the most success avoiding snacks when she told herself that she was required to fast for 12 hours in preparation for a doctor’s exam the next morning. She used this mental tactic on the nights when she felt particularly tempted to snack.

Once you become more aware of the distractions that could pull you off the path to your goal, you can design a system that makes success more likely. Structure is better than discipline when it comes to clearing the hurdles that keep us from our goals.

Example: Bill, 42, had attempted to quit smoking twice before but failed each time. This time, he began by spending one week just noticing when and why he smoked. He learned that he would automatically reach for a cigarette in the morning to start the day…whenever he felt stressed on the job…when he felt lonely or down…and as a way to unwind at the end of the day.

Instead of struggling with willpower or discipline, as he had done before, this time Bill simply made it more difficult to automatically reach for a cigarette. Even before taking action to quit, he experimented with keeping cigarettes and ashtrays at least 20 feet away from his bedroom and other places where he was more likely to smoke.

This structural change gave him time to take three deep breaths (about 15 seconds) to discover that he could calm himself without depending on smoking and nicotine. Within a few days, Bill found that most of the time he would rather take a breathing break than get up to find a cigarette.


Accomplishing a goal requires more than just desire—it requires deadlines and a daily plan. Each day, write down the next step you need to take to achieve your goal and the time that day when you’re going to work on it. Be clear about when and where you will start and what specifically you will do.

Example: Your goal is to eat more fruits and vegetables. The next step is to stock your kitchen with these foods. The time to do this is 6 pm today, when you stop at the supermarket on the way home from work.

Doing nothing is comfortable—striving for goals takes effort. But the process of working toward a goal becomes easier once we break through inertia and start building momentum. Just as a car must shift through its lower gears before it reaches cruising speed, so we must work our way through the initial discomfort of starting something new before we hit our stride.

Whenever you take a step toward your desired objective, take a moment to envision how wonderful you’ll feel when your goal has been achieved. Reward every step along the way by imagining yourself happy, healthy and fulfilled.


Setbacks are inevitable when we pursue ambitious goals. To succeed, we must bounce back from our mistakes and learn how to avoid them in the future.

Understand that a setback does not equal failure. If you successfully quit smoking for 29 days but slipped and smoked a cigarette on day 30, you still managed 29 cigarette-free days. When you get back on track tomorrow, that will be day 30 of your new smoke-free life, even if the 30 days were not consecutive. If you tell yourself you’re back to day one, your feelings of frustration and hopelessness will demoralize you.

Self-criticism increases stress and decreases your chances of achieving your goal. Use soothing self-talk when you err.

Example: Tell yourself, I’m not going to make myself feel bad because I slipped up. My commitment is to trying.

Two questions that can help us learn from our setbacks…

  • What were the thoughts that preceded the mistake? Perhaps you thought, I’ve had a really hard day. I deserve some ice cream. You need to prepare a better response for the next time these kinds of thoughts come to mind.

Example: Yes, I had a hard day, but I’ve also made a commitment to my body to eat healthy foods. An apple is a perfectly fine snack.

  • What was the situation that led to the lapse? Perhaps you are more prone to poor decisions when you have been drinking…when you have had a fight with your spouse…or when you see others doing what you have resolved to quit.

If you can avoid these situations in the future, you are more likely to remain on course. That might mean having just one beer rather than drinking until your judgment becomes impaired…making up with your spouse quickly after fights, rather than letting the bad feelings linger…or avoiding locations where other people do the things that you are trying to stop.