Why Most People Don’t Achieve Their Goals

What’s one of the best ways to succeed? Look at what everyone else is doing, then do something different. Why does this work? Because the sad truth is most people go to their graves without ever achieving their goals. People generally sabotage their success through unhelpful habits and behaviours.

The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.
– Samuel Johnson

The first step to breaking bad habits is self-awareness. Many people look to blame external circumstances when the reality is they are their own worst enemy.

13 ways you sabotage your success and what to do instead

  1. Choosing what’s easy over what’s difficult. It’s easy to sit on the couch all evening; it’s easy to procrastinate; it’s easy to wish. It’s hard to get off your backside; it’s hard to take the first step; it’s hard to take action. Left to your own devices, you will likely consistently choose the path of least resistance. You – all of us – are biologically wired to seek pleasure and to avoid pain. Knowing this, you can install a simple test to increase your chances of success: if you’re pursuing a goal and don’t feel discomfort, you’re not going to make it. Comfort should be a warning signal. Discomfort means you’re on the right track.
  2. Not getting enough sleep. This is one of the most overlooked factors of success. Most people don’t achieve their goals because they literally do not have the energy. A lack of sleep translates into lethargy, low-enthusiasm and ineffective action. If you find yourself fighting to stay awake or need to take excessive naps during the day, you need to take control of your sleep. Aim to wake up at the same time each day, including weekends. It will typically take two weeks to correct a disrupted sleep pattern and install a good routine. If you want to chase your dreams, you need to be rested.
  3. Too much food, not enough exercise. If you’re getting sufficient sleep but still feel exhausted, look to your diet. Most people eat too much (and a lot of it’s crap) and move about too little. The result is obesity, lethargy and a range of other health issues. There’s no excuse not to take better care of yourself – there are resources galore online, e.g. YouTube videos, healthy recipes, cooking tutorials etc. If diet and exercise is an issue for you, set improving your health as your first project. You will get direct experience of what it takes to reach a goal; you’ll build your confidence and self-esteem and you’ll develop resilience and persistence.
  4. Not planning your day. If you don’t plan your day, it’s easy to lose it. You wake up and potter about, doing nothing in particular or engaging in unproductive activities. Of course, having a day to relax is fine but it should be scheduled in advance. Losing working days to lack of planning shows you’re not serious about reaching your goals. At the end of each day, plan the next day’s activities. Focus on 80/20 activities (i.e. the 20% of activities that create 80% of the result you’re after).
  5. Making excuses instead of progress. The vast majority of people do not take action. They procrastinate, they plan endlessly, they buy another course or book – anything but actually starting the work. At the root of this procrastination is fear. If this is you, here is a strategy adapted from Dale Carnegie’s book How to Stop Worrying and Start Living:
    1. Ask yourself, “What is the worst that can happen?”
    2. Imagine the worst has happened and you mentally accept it. (Is the “worst” really just unpleasant, embarrassing, disappointing…?)
    3. How can you improve on the worst?
  6. Being negative. Of course, positive thinking is not a panacea but when you consider the alternative, it’s the option that makes most sense. It’s not that positive thinking is infallible but more that negative thinking is so corrosive. As soon as you indulge in negative thinking you short-circuit your greatest resources: your problem solving ability, resilience and persistence. When negative thinking tells you a situation is hopeless, you will probably give up. Many wilderness survival experts agree on the importance of a positive mindset in extreme conditions; commandos are taught to be optimistic because optimism transmutes into toughness. Healthy, objective positivity should be your default operation mode.
  7. Focusing on the wrong things. Are you spending time, money and/or energy on things that, in the grand scheme of things, don’t really matter? Maybe it’s comfortable or you’re “in flow” or you suffer from perfectionism. Whatever the reason, when you put in the effort but don’t see results, it’s easy to become disillusioned and give up. You need to be concentrating on the right things, i.e. those tasks that produce results, quickly. Don’t confuse busyness with effectiveness.
  8. Talking or planning rather than doing. If you’re always reading “one more book”, buying “one more course” or researching “one more website” then, deep down, you’re letting fear beat you. These are delaying tactics. The fact is, you know what you should be doing; you know the next step to take (even if you can’t see the entire journey ahead); you know enough to do something, i.e. you don’t need to know everything… There’s always something you can do. The vast majority of people just talk. Talking is comforting. It gives you the illusion that you are doing something constructive. Here’s the thing: you don’t need more talk, more analysis, more planning. Now is the time to take action.
  9. Clinging to old ways. No doubt you were told something like: get good grades, go to college (go into debt), get a “good” job then get ahead. If you were given that advice (or, worst, you’re giving that advice to your kids) you’ve been duped. The world doesn’t work that way now (if it ever did). Of course, there are some professions – medicine, law, engineering etc. – that require you to take the traditional route but there are many that don’t. The world belongs to creators: the kid who writes and app in their spare time; the designer who publishes a book; the single parent who creates a course. The world no longer cares about what letters you have after your name: it only cares about what you’ve done, what you’re doing and what you can do. You’re surrounded by resources to make things (to demonstrate your value); to build a following; to get your work out into the hands of your fans; and to make a great living from doing so. Whatever your niche, there will be people who will be interested in what you do and who will pay for it. You don’t have to quit work/school to start bringing your project to life, so get started today. (And if you do quit education, remember one thing: never stop learning.)
  10. Letting fear and worry overwhelm you. What could you achieve if you could only master your mind? Every waking hour of your life is spent in the company of an internal voice sharing its fears, criticisms, worries and negativity. Buddhists call it the “monkey mind” – the brain’s natural tendency to wander aimlessly, kicking up random thoughts, many of which trigger sadness and anxiety. You can neutralise the monkey mind through mindfulness meditation and by simply taking action towards your goal. The longer you sit there, ruminating, doing nothing, the more likely fear will defeat you and kill your dream. Fear grows in still soil. Get out there and start working on your project. The outcome will be whatever it will be. All you can do is focus on those things that are under your control – that’s all any of us can do. Give it everything you have and don’t worry about the outcome – you can’t ask for more than that.
  11. Selling yourself short. You think everyone around you knows more than you, is better than you or is more capable. Successful people are simply better at hiding their doubts and insecurities. In life there will be enough people who are against you, so why add to it? Low confidence, low self-esteem, lack of self-belief – these are all habits, learned over time, and which can be unlearned. Here are some simple steps:
    • You don’t have to believe everything you think;
    • Be mindful of your thoughts. In the beginning, set a timer for every 15 minutes to check in on yourself. When you find yourself thinking a negative thought, stop, and replace it with something empowering. Keep doing this until it becomes a natural reaction.
    • If you want to develop a quality or skill, act “as if” you had it already. How would a confident person act? Mimic that behaviour. How would a fearless carry themselves? Do the same. How would a skillful person react? React the same way, and so on.
  12. Associating with the wrong people. You are the sum of the five people you spend most time with. If you spend time with angry, bitter, negative people, you become an angry, bitter, negative person. Conversely, if you hang out with successful, adventurous, driven individuals, those positive traits will rub off on you also. Your peer group exert a powerful influence on your life. Your circle of friends will determine your position in life. It’s no coincidence that successful people become increasingly successful. It’s no secret: they are in the same company of other high-achievers and the effect is a virtuous cycle. Pay close attention to what the people you spend most time with are saying, doing and thinking. .

Takeaway points

  1. Don’t do what most people do. Be different.
  2. Do what others are unwilling to do.
  3. If you feel discomfort, you’re on the right track.

Action steps

  1. Choose a trait to work on. Identify one of the above flaws to work on for the next 30 days. A simple way to do this is to pay attention to your thoughts throughout the day (set a repeat timer every 15 minutes) to see what you are thinking at a particular time. If your thoughts are disempowering, interrupt them with a positive alternative. Continue to do this for 30 days until the new, helpful thought pattern establishes itself. Then move onto the next flaw.
  2. Practise mindfulness meditation. 10-20 minutes of mindfulness meditation will do more for your happiness and well-being than any number of hours at the gym. Learning to manage your mind more effectively – so that it doesn’t seem like you’re at constant war with it – is a life-changing, valuable skill. There are many good books  available and videos on YouTube to help you experience the benefits of mindfulness, first hand.
  3. Take action towards your goals. If there was only one thing you did to be more successful in life, this would be it. Taking action is like a superpower for ordinary people. It breaks down barriers; it dissolves fears; it makes the impossible come true. It makes you more powerful. But take the correct action. Don’t confuse busyness with effectiveness. Make sure your actions are focused on those 80-20 priority activities that bring about the greatest positive results.

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