Science-backed reasons why aiming too high can be harmful. Bonus: The psychology of setting more achievable goals.
A few days ago, I had to stop myself from writing “I’m a failure” over and over again in my journal.
The urge was strong, but my will prevailed, and I could finally calm down.
I’d set myself a deadline of one hour to finish two articles. At the end of two hours, I’d completed only the first draft of one. For a while, I couldn't stop blaming myself, using harsh words like “too slow,” “loser,” and “not good enough.”
Looking back now, the reason seems so childish. But back then, how I’d failed to meet the self-inflicted deadline was all I could think of.
I even Tweeted about it. Several other writers sent me messages that this is something they can relate to. This made me realize that perhaps I’m not the only one burdened with the curse of overstretching my goals and having unrealistic expectations from myself.
You might have heard over and over again that setting high goals is good as it assures you a consolation prize even if you fail to achieve one hundred percent of everything you set out to do.
“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” — Norman Vincent Peale.
But is it really necessary to overshoot your goals every time to achieve what you want?
Studies prove that overstretched goals can be counterproductive as they do more harm than good. Research published in Harvard Business Review defines overstretched goals as having either or both of the following characteristics:
- They are extremely difficult to achieve. (Like, can you even imagine writing two 1500-word articles in one hour?)
- They include extreme novelty that takes time for you to get used to.
Though you might be shaking your head now, I’m pretty sure you must have fallen victim to setting far-too-big goals at least once in your life.
How many times were you not able to achieve your goals?
Instead of blaming your lack of self-control and calling yourself a failure, have you taken time to re-assess your goals? As Harvard Psychologist Amy Cuddy has explained, the biggest mistake people make while setting goals for themselves is that they focus too much on the outcome, and not enough on the process.
You try to do a thing that will take five days to complete in just one day. Even if you happen to complete it, your expectations increase even more that you fall into the productivity trap.
So, how to set goals that are really achievable and not so small that you can feel proud of yourself after hitting your target? This article aims to dissect the psychology of overstretching goals and how to avoid it. It also provides some realistic goal-setting strategies so that you never miss the moon, even if you aim for the stars.
Overshooting Can be the Worst Limiting Belief
Overshooting feels inspiring as the big reward associated with it helps you keep pushing on. But the catch is that your subconscious knows the goal can’t be achieved within the limited timeframe you allotted, hence, making you lose motivation mid-way.
Studies show that 70% of company employees are not able to achieve their goals because they don’t feel much dedication towards it if the goals seem too far-fetched. And when they continuously miss their goals, it causes them to obsess over their inability, leading to a lot of psychological damage.
Aiming high seems to be the favorite “hack” among all self-improvement gurus, but it can have some pitfalls as well. Here are some traps you can fall into if you aim too high, backed by science:
- If you don’t achieve your goals for a long time, your subconscious will get trained into believing that you only set goals but you are never going to achieve them. It will become harder for you to come out of this negative loop.
- There’s a limit to how much work your brain can handle and how much focus you can give to your tasks, once that limit is crossed, you enter into a state of burnout.
- Your focus shifts more on what you couldn’t achieve rather than what small you did achieve in the process, which makes you feel unsuccessful in your attempt. And when this happens many times, you stop believing in your goals and start to feel like a failure.
Aiming High Can Waste More Time
Let’s say you aimed to complete watching a long course within a day. You speed up the videos and skimmed through all the content to end it by the day. Will you feel happy after finishing it? How much of the learnings are going to stick in your head? Not much, right? You’ll have to rewatch those videos and that takes even more time.
When you try to quickly do stuff that generally takes more time to complete, you’re compromising on the quality.
Understand that good things and quality work take time. But when you tighten up your schedule so much, then there is just no breathing space for good things to manifest properly, either the quality suffers or the task is not completed. You need to redo most of the tasks, which ends up taking more time.
You Start Losing Patience
You become so impatient that whenever results don’t come easily, you become infuriated.
You just can’t wait for things to happen, can you?
You might have observed this yourself many times. Completing a book, a course, your work, everything in the least time possible. This impatience impairs your focus and distracts you a lot, and then you start looking for shortcuts to achieving your goal.
Impatience makes you do a lot of stuff that is mediocre, and thus the results you get are also fruits of mediocrity.
You Fail More if you Aim too High
Unrealistic expectations are bound to make you fail many times. Although failure in itself is inevitable, people who cannot stomach a few failures suffer a lot psychologically.
According to Ted Harro, the founder of Noonday Ventures, there are three reasons to why unrealistic goals create an environment of constant failure:
Failure becomes excusable
You start giving excuses why you couldn’t achieve something and how the universe is completely working against you. This makes you feel good about your failure and you don’t try to reassess what was wrong. This mindset results in repeated cycles of trying and failing.
Failure becomes acceptable
You get inside your comfort zone and don’t even want to try. You start feeling like failing is your second nature and success starts sounding alien to you.
Failure becomes expected
You become assured that you’re bound to fail, so why even bother to try?
This kills all the motivation for you to try and do different things. It makes it harder for you to even believe that success will come. This again gives you a very strong reason to make excuses and not grow.
When all of these three combine and happen over a period of time, your self-confidence suffers and you lack the inspiration to do new and interesting things.
How To Set Realistic Goals
The solution is very simple. It will come to you by practice and experience. Reassess all the previous goals that you couldn’t achieve. See what was wrong with them and what was common among all of them.
Maybe the time frame allotted was highly impractical, could be that you outstretched the goal a bit too much, or you had highly unrealistic expectations from yourselves for achieving things which do not resonate with your habits.
Once you identify the problem, then start working towards eliminating it one by one.
Let’s say you set yourself a very unrealistic deadline earlier, so now give it some more time, see if you could do it, then shrink the time in with further iterations.
As Ted Harro writes, there are few more factors that you need to care about while setting realistic and achievable goals.
Get your goals clear
You need to have the exact clarity on what exactly you want to achieve. Stating something like “I want to lose weight” is not as effective as “I want to lose 10 Kg in 2 months”.
Don’t have too many goals
Don’t confuse yourself with so many goals to work at the same time. Have a few goals on the list, achieve them, and then move forward.
Make sure you have the resources to accomplish those goals
You need to have all the resources and investments ready with you to achieve your target. Make a list of all the stuff you need. Then, make sure you have the availability of time and space to execute your plans.
In today’s fast-paced world where you want everything done instantly, you somehow forget that quality work takes time. This is just like expecting a tree you planted today to grow tomorrow and start giving you fruits, which is not going to happen.
You make unrealistic goals, and sometimes when you know that they are unachievable, you don’t even start working towards them. You start feeling the fatigue that you have to do so much work holding you back from actually planning and executing.
If you ever feel overwhelmed by your goals, pause and slow down for a moment. Notice why you keep missing the target. Understand that this doesn’t make you a failure. It just means you need to reassess your goals, internalize the lessons learned, and then move on.
Your to-do lists need to evolve as the day passes, especially if you tend to force too much on yourself in a day. Once you let go of the insane unrealistic expectations, you’ll notice you can do much more work in a shorter time.