Why ‘Setting Goals’ fails for most of us and why we keep doing it.


You want a New Year’s Resolution that will work guaranteed? Stop setting goals at New Year’s.

To this of course you may say, OK Dora, do you seriously wish not to improve my life or to reach my goals? I say: heck no! That is not what I mean. I simply mean that goal setting is the wrong approach.

To understand my reasoning you must recognize two innate condition that drive any goal setting activity. The first is desire. You desire your goal. Seems obvious, but it is when things are most simple that we tend not to examine them well enough. The second condition is a bit more elusive, it is about the duration of the goal. That is when we think of a goal we think of something to reach. That something is not subject to time. We can either touch it like a BMW or think of it as a concept like weight loss, better health, a job and so on. But we rarely think about the time that it takes to reach that goal and if we do we don’t think of it as quality time spent but rather as time we must ‘bear down’ and ‘buckle in’ and basically force our will power over our spirit to make our goal happen.

duke 4

Duke the cat at the Duke’s restaurant in Hawaii demonstrating; goal, desire and chosen path in action.

But we do have desire pushing us and so we are willing to listen to anybody who will give us a trick, a tool, anything to make our ‘dreams come true.’ It is such strong desire that a whole industry is depending on it. If you are not sure what industry I am talking about then think of Tony Robbins and likes out there and the endless magazines that promise you better figure, a happier life and lifelong dreams reached in 5-10 at most 15 steps. Now some of these advices have good ideas but they are superficially scratching the surface of our existence. They are applying band aids to a symptom. The same band aid for the whole population of United States and beyond. I am not sure how we can take anything seriously that is offering 10 steps anymore. I still remember being in college and sitting in the living room with my girlfriend laughing about how ridiculous Cosmopolitan Magazine was about the “Ten steps to please your man”. Granted we were a couple of good looking vibrant gals with academic honors and plenty of academic snobbism. We thought even the sheer act of picking up a Cosmo was somehow humiliating. Put our snobbism aside, I think our young minds were very much correct. Answers to deep interpersonal problems in a short paragraph is simply absurd. But magazines keep putting these ‘solutions’ in front of us: “How to lose 10 pounds in 10 steps” or “How to get in the best shape of your life….in 10 steps or less”. What is dangerous right now is that life coaching and life advice columns started utilizing the 5-10 step method. As if we cannot read and digest anything unless the steps are numbered. This problem is so universal that when I started writing to a yoga periodical the editor asked me to formulate my essay into 3 or 5-10 steps. “Because more people will read it.” To this my answer was: “Baloney! …with all respect dear editor…People will read what is good and glance over what is bad. Why step by step articles rule the world is because they are elementary writing but easy to glance over without much attention, and that dear editor does not interest me.” Thankfully the editor was also from Eastern Europe thus knew the ways of direct but light hearted dialogue, so she just looked up at me and started laughing. My direct straight forward communication style often can land me in hot water, but I will keep stories on cultural differences on dialogue to another essay. OK, somehow I turned this paragraph into a rant over editorial issues, but it is an important point to recognize when it comes to problems with goal setting advice. Let me explain why.

What do most goal setting articles do? They give you advice (in 10 steps or less – OK I am done promise) goals on HOW to ACT to REACH your goal no matter who you are or what your goal is about. But everyone has different goals and different desires, our life experiences and socio economic living conditions, our cultural background all different, but we still keep on hoping that some writer can give us the “fix” in ten steps.

You will not get stuck in the mud if you enjoy the process.

You will not get stuck in the mud if you enjoy the process.

There is a reason why these motivational speeches and tools hardly ever work on the long term. To help understand I will give you a metaphor. Think of an ox. Now you wish to use this ox to help you plow your field. But this is a wild ox and is scared to move or to be touched. It roots down its legs into the mud pit and will not move an inch. So you decide to tell it to ‘vision’ plowing a field. Maybe you even build a ‘vision board’ for your ox. Then you start training your ox to lift legs, one at the time.   You ask the ox to see himself as walking to the goal. If all this fails during a late night television session you spot a device that can lift the legs of the ox and train it mechanically “guaranteed to work or money back for an easy payment of $9.99 per month.” You laugh right? But we all have been there to some degree. Yes, vision board can help, visualization can be useful. Training and tools can be useful, but they are all worthless until the ox starts trusting the relationship. Until you understand the fear that holds the ox back and until you build a trust and understanding in your relationship.

The problem is that when we set goals our sight is set for the future. We don’t always take time to understand the past or the present. But we cannot move forward without understanding. So before you can take steps to reach a goal, you must understand yourself and your goal!

Now let’s turn back to your goals. What I said early on in this article is that goals are driven by desire. So it is absolutely important to recognize the root of your desire. Most importantly you must determine if this desire is yours at all. I know at first glance you tell me of course Dora, you are being ridiculous: it is my goal, thus my desire. I say, not so fast. Every idea that we carry in our mind came from somewhere. We learned our culture from the country where we were born and raised, we learned our first wishes from our parents and our friends. So, is your desire yours? For example if you want to go to medical school is it because you want to cure people or is it because your parents think it is a great profession? If you want to lose 10 pounds is it because you will be healthier or is it because society will think you look better? Before you go anywhere with your goal, you must determine the source of your desire. You must understand your desire. It often happens that once someone clearly sees the root of the desire, desire disappears. To that I say; well done! Good work, now you can think and meditate on a goal that is worth your time.

Find a flow to the direction of your goal that you enjoy and enjoy the ride.

Find a flow to the direction of your goal that you enjoy and enjoy the ride.

The second concept I brought up early on was the idea that a goal is something to reach. That this something is not subject to time, we can either touch it or think of it as a concept. So you may wish for a nicer bigger house, a new profession or better health. Let’s suppose that your goal stood up the test of meditation on desire. You have determined that it is your goal and you understand WHY you wish to peruse your goal. Now it is time to examine your goal as a process! Life is not goals, goals happen and life is lived between your goals. So when you think of your goal you must think of the process that leads to that goal. If you don’t like or trust the process, I guarantee you, you will have a hard time reaching that goal. And when you reach that goal you will not feel as satisfied as you thought you would. Let me put this idea into examples. I finished two degrees in college; one in History and one in Neurobiology. My father wanted me to become a doctor. I was not convinced, as most young people, I had trouble distinguishing between my desires vs. desire of my parents. What I really wanted is to be a professor of humanities of some kind but I did not discover that till a later age. What I did know though is that I was not sure about being in medicine. So I did what most young people do when desire is not clear but force from another direction is more than clear, I rebelled. I did not apply to med school or grad school but told my parents, let me try to get jobs in those field to test it out. (Clearly still wanting to be a good child 🙂 ) So I did, I got jobs in laboratories. I learned a lot. I will never regret the path that I took because I value knowledge. All this learning made me the yoga teacher and studio owner that I am today. But I also discovered I hated the day to day routine of the laboratory work. I did not like the slow process of discovery. I loved the learning part of it, I still like reading about scientific discoveries, but I did not enjoy the process of the work. A lot of people go to school to study something, to have a new profession, but rarely do folks think about what that profession entails in the day to day activity. We see the life of a yoga teacher, the life of a doctor, lawyer and so on. We build a concept and a value system around it, but what we need to do is understand the process, the day to day activity of a doctor, a lawyer, a yoga teacher. Only after we understand the day to day and determined that we like what it is about can we say we are clear on our goal.

Of course there are some goals that are more to a point. For example your goal could be to get in shape and lose some weight. Do recognize it is still a process. If you simply focus on your goal you will be miserable. Instead ask yourself the question, what physical activity do I enjoy? Do you enjoy being alone? Being outside vs. inside? The goal should be to find something that you enjoy that has the side effect of moving your body. The goal should never be to force yourself to exercise in a way that you dislike to achieve your goal.

Or if you wish to be in a bigger house, well that will cost more money and more upkeep. Will you enjoy the extra work that reaching this goal requires? Because if you do not enjoy your extra responsibilities then your bigger house will become your prison sooner than you know!

In short life is a process. Instead of being a prisoner of your desires year after year, build awareness in your life and live in full consciousness of your actions.

In conclusion, just to show that I do have my sense of humor, I will outline in a numbered summary.

Don’t just set goals, but understand your goals.

  1. You must understand the desire behind your goals. Is this truly your desire or someone’s expectation?
  2. You must understand the why behind your goal. Why do you desire what you desire?
  3. If your desire stood the test of #1-2 then you must turn your goal into a process.
  4. You must choose a way to your goal that is desirable in day to day process. You must select activities that you enjoy therefore you will stick with it till you reach your goal.
  5. If your goal is a process in itself such as a job, then you must experience and understand the day to day process of the job not just the culturally idealized picture of that job. The last thing you want is to reach a goal that you do not like.
  6. Most importantly: all you need to reach your goals is awareness. Awareness about yourself, understanding of the root of desire and clarity on the process. Never ever act on a desire without understanding. Life is lived in between, make sure you enjoy the process NOT the goal!

If you understand your goal and like the process that leads to your goal when you encounter obstacles and difficulties you will have the power to work through them because the overall process is to your liking. When you enjoy your life you don’t need motivational speeches and even if you never reach your goal you will have a wonderful time living day by day.

Happy New Year Spira! With gratitude, Dora

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