Why Can’t I Achieve My Goals?

An Idea Isn’t a Plan. A Wish Isn’t a Goal.

We often fail to achieve our aims in life because we mistake ideas for plans, and wishes for goals. I received a reminder of this recently, and in reflecting perhaps I can illuminate some aspects of goal setting and planning which might help others.

This past weekend I competed in the RangeMaster Tactical Conference Pistol Match. I’d hoped to finish among the top 16 competitors, who then compete in a single elimination bracket-style tournament to determine the top shooter at TacCon. I shot okay, but not nearly as well as I’d wanted, and finished 37th out of 169 shooters. I finished behind, and in some cases ahead of, many shooters whom I consider to be far better than I, and so I am not too terribly despondent with the result. Still, I think I’m capable of better, and thus am a bit disappointed.

Examining why I fell so far short of my goal of making the Top 16, the answer is simple: I’d allowed myself to mistake ideas for plans, and wishes for goals. I hoped to make the Top 16. Hope is not a strategy, nor a plan. My failure was that I didn’t set a Top 16 finish as a true goal, then develop and enact a plan made up of intermediate goals to actually make it happen. I know how to do this, I just failed to, you know…actually do it, and the results reflect that. Now I’ve got to decide if I’m going to correct that this next year. Whether it is shooting or something else, I’m sure everyone has a similar experience.

The author prepares to fire another glacially slow and wildly inaccurate follow-up shot, probably.

The nice thing about planning and goal-setting is that the concepts and principles are essentially universal, so if we understand them we can apply them to any aspect of our life, from shooting, to our relationships, to our job, to fitness or diet. So let’s look at some principles I usually try to follow that make the difference between ideas/wishes and goals/plans:

Define Our Goals and Their Sub-Components

We simply must define our goals in a clear, concise manner. Now, our goals might actually be quite broad, but if that’s the case we’ve got to define the sub-tasks or sub-component goals that inform the larger goal at hand. For example, let’s say that I’ve realized that I’ve been overly harsh with my wife of late, and so I decide, “I’m going to be nicer to my wife, and be a better husband.” I’ve made up my mind, and that settles it. A week later, she seems no more pleased with me than she was a week ago, so I self-evaluate: “Have I been nicer to my wife? Have I been a better husband?” I may think so, but that’s just like…my opinion, man. There’s no way to measure my progress.

Now, being nicer to my wife and being a better husband is certainly a noble goal, as my wife will no doubt agree. The important task is, I have to define what that means, precisely. Let’s say that I decide that the way in which I can be nicer to my wife and a better husband, based on comments she’s made in the past, is to help around the house more often, ask her about her interests and actively listen, and initiate sex more frequently. Now we’re getting somewhere. The goal is to be nicer to my wife, and what that means is I am going to perform these three actions with greater regularity. Likewise, with my pistol shooting, “Making the Top 16” is a goal, but I’ve got to determine the subordinate tasks I must do to increase the likelihood of achieving my goal. It might be spending time dry-firing, spending more time on the range live-firing, and getting some extra training from an instructor or coach before the match.

Quantify Success 

For our purposes here, let’s keep it simple and define “quantitative” as easily defined, counted, and measured, and define “qualitative” as more ambiguous and difficult to define, count, or measure. One of the surest methods to fail to achieve your goals is to set ambiguous goals rather than quantitatively precise goals. For example, let’s say you’ve resolved, “…to do more chores around the house” as part of your efforts to be nicer to your wife. How do you measure that a week later to check your progress? Is one chore, one time enough? Or I’ve decided to “dry-fire more often.” Is one time, for five minutes enough? Maybe it is, but you’ve got to think hard about it and define success in a measurable way.

A good, clearly defined quantifiable goal isn’t, “Do the chores more, listen more, and initiate sex more.” A good, clearly defined quantifiable goal is, “Three times each week, I will do the dishes, take out the trash, and fold the laundry after I get home from work. Once a day I will leave my phone in another room, ask my wife about her day, and giver her my undivided attention for 15 minutes. Twice a week I will attempt to initiate sex by doing that thing (whatever it is) my wife likes.” Or, relating to the making the Top 16 next year, perhaps, “Every weekday I will dry-fire for 10 minutes, working on my presentation from the holster. Twice a month I will go to the range for at least a 100 round live fire session, and I’ll take at least two technical shooting classes this year.” Some people will protest and say, “That’s just checking the block!” Well…yeah? We can do another post later on about qualitative performance and its value, but for now let’s acknowledge that the first step is just showing up and doing the work. Checking the block is better than…not checking the block. With quantifiable goals, it’s easy to clearly understand what you need to do, and easy to tell whether or not you’ve done it.

Goldilocks Goals

Goals need to be difficult enough they require some effort, but achievable.  We too often sabotage ourselves by either setting unrealistic goals that are too far beyond our reach, or by setting goals that are laughably easy and thus let us off the hook by not attempting any real improvement or achievment.  We need to seek out Goldilocks Goals, which are not too hard, nor too easy, but just right.  For example, too many people hit their New Year’s Resolution and, despite being terribly unhealthy and out of shape, set a goal to work out five days a week and lose 5 lbs weekly or some such.  By mid-January they’re already discouraged and have given up.  Let’s make sure we’re not setting goals so drastic that we’re dooming ourselves to failure.  Conversely, some woefully out of shape people set goals like going from smoking a pack of “light” cigarettes a day to a pack and a half of “ultra-lights.” Let’s make sure our goals are actually helping us to improve ourselves.  

If it is a goal to get into better shape and you typically do nothing, set a goal of being active for 20-30 minutes once or twice a week and go up from there when you can. If you work 16-hour days, don’t set a goal of making a nice dinner for your wife every single night of the week because you’re setting yourself up to fall short. Same if you have a largely sexless marriage. If you’re trying to have sex every night all the sudden your husband or wife is probably going to wonder what’s up and then you’ve got whole new set of problems. If I made it my hard goal to win next year’s TacCon Pistol Match, or else consider myself a failure, I’d be setting the stage for disappointment. However, from a 37th place finish this year, finishing in the Top 16 with dedicated effort seems doable. Start small, and do more as your able. Goldilocks goals. Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right.

Simple, Yet Hard

So to succeed in achieving our goals, we need to clearly define our goals and their sub-components, establish quantifiable metrics by which we measure success or failure, and ensure that we modify our goals to Goldilocks-levels of appropriateness to ensure our sustained growth as people. That’s all pretty straightforward and simple, but it’s also terribly hard. It’s quite difficult to sustain proper goal setting and pursuit of one’s goals over the course of our lives, as I was reminded recently as I ignored all my own rules in failing to properly prepare for the TacCon Pistol Match. Now, the last secret to goal setting is this: Sometimes you’re going to fail. When that happens, acknowledge it, study the failure to learn the reasons behind it, and resolve to do better tomorrow than you did today. Moping and obsessing over missed goals of the past profits us nothing, but if we resolve today to set clearly defined, quantifiable, and achievable goals, we begin to grow into better versions of ourselves, and that’s among the highest goals of all.

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