What Most People Have Wrong About Achieving Goals

You start with the vision, and then you think about the design.

Posted May 30, 2019

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According to Dr. Marshall Goldsmith, if you do not create and control your environment, then your environment creates and controls you.

Often, people think about the achievement of a goal in terms of what needs to be done–the strategy. Instead, you're better off thinking about the design. 

You have a vision of what you want to accomplish, and then you design your environment, your situation, or your organization to bring that vision to life.

I once interviewed a man named Jason Moore, who is a lifestyle and success coach. Jason had struggled with his weight for years. Then, rather than focusing on willpower or strategy, he focused on design.

Unlike willpower, where the focus is to try harder, commitment is making a declaration about what you’re going to do and following through.

What Jason discovered is that, over the years, he had developed a weak relationship with commitment. He couldn’t trust himself to actually do what he said he would do. Eventually, he was so weak at the commitment that he became afraid to make any commitments at all.

However, when you fully commit to one thing, it trickles over to the other areas of your life, allowing you to develop a strong relationship with commitment.

For Jason, he needed something big to commit to. He signed up for an Iron Man Triathlon. Small goals, 1-3 months out weren’t a big enough commitment for him. Interestingly, smaller commitments were easier to break. He needed something way outside his comfort zone.

In order to ensure he followed through with his commitment, he needed a higher level of accountability. He made his goal completely public by posting shirtless pictures of himself on Facebook with a declaration that in one year, he will be an Iron Man. He hired a coach to keep him accountable to his plans.

In his own words, “I called my results into being by the conditions I created. My results became inevitable because of how I set things up.”

According to productivity expert, Eben Pagan, the next evolution of goal-setting is going to move away from focusing on willpower and outcomes. Instead, the focus will shift on creating conditions that make it impossible for you not to achieve your goals.

Pagan calls this concept “Inevitability Thinking,” and it’s how Jason Moore has overcome the health hurdles he’s been dealing with for decades. According to Pagan, “Inevitability Thinking is thinking and acting as if what you are doing is a foregone conclusion because you set up the conditions for it to happen.”

This level of thinking is akin to the research done by Stanford Psychologist, BJ Fogg, who has said, "Design crushes willpower!" Fogg then clarified, saying, "If you can design your life and behaviors well, you don't need to rely on willpower ... Others design things that overwhelm your willpower."

Fogg learned this through his own research and by watching his Stanford students apply this research to design Instagram, which is one of the biggest mobile apps on the internet. Instagram and other apps are literally designed to destroy your willpower. They are so dopamine-inducing that you can quickly become addicted. 

Smartphones, in general, are designed to addict you. 

The idea that your environment and the overall design of your life poses another question: What about the design of your organization?

That's a question I had for organizational psychologist Laura Gallaher, who owns the leadership consulting firm Gallaher Edge. What Dr. Gallaher has found is that organizations often fail to focus on the design of the organization after setting a target. Instead, organizations often design around some form of "anchor" or piece of information they previously had, which blinds them to achieving the goal they are really setting out to do. 

According to research done by Sugden, Zheng, and Zizzo (2013), during decision making, anchoring occurs when individuals use an initial piece of information to make subsequent judgments. Once an anchor is set, other judgments are made by adjusting away from that anchor, and there is a bias toward interpreting other information around the anchor.

A better approach is blank-slate thinking, where you "begin with the end in mind" and then work backward. Rather than designing around the functionality of your current system, you design your organization fresh, based on the goal you're striving to achieve. 

As Dr. Gallaher told me, "It's hard to get a toaster to be a microwave." Sometimes, organizations are designed and set up as toasters but the goal requires them to be a microwave. Rather than going back to the initial design, organizations often try to force the toaster to do the job.

This is akin to relying on willpower rather than simply redesigning the situation to bring about the desired result. 


Whether you are an individual or organization, rather than thinking about things from an atomistic viewpoint, where you isolate and decontextualize, it's better to think holistically and systematically.

You first start with the result you want to get. You then think about the design or structure that would organically bring about that result. This is "inevitability thinking" at play. It's how Jason Moore finally learned how to make healthy commitments to himself. It's how leading organizational psychologists are train to bring about desired results and change in organizations. 

It can be difficult because it requires you to stop doing what you've always done. It can require you to let go of old models or approaches that have no grounding in the new goal. 

But if you're committed to certain results, then you won't rely on willpower or brute force to get things done. You'll stop being a toaster and start being a microwave. 


Sugden, R., Zheng, J., & Zizzo, D. J. (2013). Not all anchors are created equal. Journal of Economic Psychology, 39, 21-31.