Motivating yourself to perform at your best seems like it would be the best way to accomplish your goals. However, think back on the goals you’ve set and whether you actually met them or not.

The 3 main obstacles to achieving your goals are time, money, and ability. We'll take each of these in turn.

1. Time

Perhaps you got to work super-early with the intention of clearing out your inbox. However, while browsing that inbox you’re unhappy to learn that a project you thought was finished now needs another hour or two of revising and recalculating. Or perhaps it’s your day off or the start of a long weekend, and you have a set of to-do’s that you feel you absolutely must get done. Just before you begin, though, you get a phone call from a friend who needs your help immediately. It’s also possible that you get distracted, and don’t get started as early as you would have liked. So much for your day’s plans.

2. Money

It might not be unexpected time demands that tear you from your goals, but money. You’re driving along on a lovely day, enjoying the scenery and the music you’re rocking on your car stereo. As you make your way down the road, you miss a curb and all of a sudden two tires are gone and there’s a huge dent on your bumper. In addition to the time you’re fated to lose, you know this is going to cost you plenty. There goes that savings you were intending to put toward a new refrigerator.

3. Ability

Finally, consider the situation in which you’re starting out on a craft or home repair project. You get all your equipment together, read the instructions, and you’re off and running. Halfway through, though, you find that you made a mistake early on which you will now have to correct. Your choice is to go back and start over or to fix it as well as you can as you complete the project. Agonizing, you worry that the mistake will come back to haunt you and you are tempted to go back to square one.

These 3 obstacles can each be overcome as long as you're willing to consider adjusting your goals as each obstacle presents itself to you. New research by University of Heidelberg’s E.A. Arens and colleagues (2018) shows the dangers not of failing to achieve your goals, but of setting them too high and then not adjusting when circumstances get in the way of your "best-laid plans." In what they label as “The Perils of Aiming Too High,” the German researchers examined the role of depressive beliefs in the goal-setting process. They noted that earlier research on depressed individuals found, alternatively, that the depressed set overly high goals or goals that are pessimistically too low. Arens et al. believe that it’s not the goal-setting per se that plagues the depressed, but the failure to adjust to changing circumstances such as the friend in need or the curb that just got in your way.

In the words of the Heidelberg research team, “A key aspect of developing and maintaining an adaptive goal is the ability to make a realistic assessment to what extent the current behavior meets the objectives set” (p. 13). The depressed, they reason, may fail to detect a “goal mistake.” Using an experimental design to test their proposals, Arens and colleagues compared undergraduates tested as being high and low in depressive symptoms in their ability to adjust to feedback as they completed a cognitive task. During this task, participants set goals for themselves, which they were allowed to adjust up or down in response to feedback about their performance. The simple question the researchers tested was whether those high in depressive symptoms would respond differently than students low in depressive symptoms in goal adjustment.

The cognitive task used in this study was one that lent itself well to goal monitoring. While seeing a series of single digits presented to them on a computer screen, participants had to add the digit in front of them with the one they just saw. They then clicked the correct number by using the computer mouse. Then they see the next digit, but rather than adding it to the total they had calculated, they had to add that digit to the one they saw prior to computing the total. The researchers gave participants the incentive of .05 Euros for each correct addition. If the participant made an error, the result was not to lose money, but to be exposed to the unpleasant sound of an explosion. The longer the interval between digits, the easier the task, so the researchers were able to manipulate difficulty by presenting the digits either at one per 1.5 seconds or one per 3 seconds.

Now onto the measurement of goal adjustment. Prior to completing their actual task but after a practice trial, participants rated the minimum percentage correct they would consider acceptable. Halfway through the addition task, they estimated their percentage correct thus far. Then they had the opportunity to revise their goals. The worse their self-rated performance, the more their remaining goals should have been revised downward. This difference between perceived performance and revised goal became the measure of self-monitoring. If you are good at adjusting your goals based on how well you think you’ve been doing, this means you’ve got that ability to adapt to changing circumstances that could, in the view of the authors, protect you from feeling depressed.

The findings showed that the participants with high scores on the depressive symptoms scale indeed had a pattern of goal setting that supported their pessimistic views of themselves and their abilities. In the difficult version of the task, they set higher goals than did those with low scores on the depression scale, meaning that by definition they set themselves up for failure. When they had the opportunity to revise their goals, they did, but their actual performance on the task then suffered. As the authors concluded, “inappropriate high standards (i.e., goals that cannot be reached) may be an important factor leading to frequent negative evaluations which in turn can contribute to a pessimistic and depressive mood” (p. 15). Furthermore, setting those high standards constantly creates a conflict between “the present and the intended state.” Continuing to experience such discrepancies leads the individual constantly to be set up for failure and then, actually, to fail.

Let’s turn now to the ways you can use the results from this study to inform your own goal-setting behavior for each of those obstacles:

1. Time: If you regard the difficult task in the Arens et al. study to be comparable to the situation in which your day is jam-packed, the findings would suggest that when you realize you’re running behind, you figure out a way to finish things tomorrow or the next time you have a chance. That's all you have to do; there's no need to change your goals per se but instead the time frame for achieving them.

2. Money: If the situation is one in which you’re going to have an unexpected expense, similarly, you would be best off not berating yourself for the costly error but instead reworking your expectations. Plan on getting the refrigerator after you accumulate some cash in your bank account.

3. Ability: Returning to the home craft or repair project, once you catch the error, the German study suggests that you don’t start over, but instead realize that no one is perfect, and mistakes like these are inevitable.

Reaching your goals is an important part of feeling fulfilled. Being able to adapt those goals when they require adjustment will help you keep on track in that path to fulfillment.

References

Arens, E., Zeier, P., Schwieren, C., Huisgen, H., & Barnow, S. (2018). The perils of aiming too high: Discrepancy between goals and performance in individuals with depressive symptoms. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 5812-17. doi:10.1016/j.jbtep.2017.07.002

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