Thomas Webb Ph.D.

The Road to Hell

The Road to Hell

Why people struggle to achieve their goals

Posted Aug 10, 2016

Thomas L. Webb
Source: Thomas L. Webb

Goals both define us and (can) influence our behaviour. I am, for example, “a cyclist”, because I have the goal to commute to work on my bike and this goal shapes my behaviour to the extent that I cycle to work most mornings. However, as popular proverbs suggest, simply setting a goal (e.g., “I will cycle to work each day”) does not necessarily ensure the corresponding action and a substantial body of research attests to a gap between peoples’ “good intentions” and their subsequent behaviour. New Years Resolutions provide a classic example of this in action. How many of us have set a resolution at the start of the year (e.g., “To get fit”, “To drink less alcohol”) only to abandon it in mid-January? So why do people struggle to achieve their goals?

A good starting point for answering this question is to consider the ingredients of successful goal pursuit – in other words, what processes help people to achieve their goals? Control Theory (described by Charles Carver and Michael Scheier, following Bill Powers’ earlier work on Perceptual Control Theory) points to three processes – goal setting, goal monitoring, and goal operating – as central to successful goal striving. First, the person must set a goal (e.g., to cycle to work on a regular basis). Then they must monitor their current position in relation to this goal (e.g., how often do I cycle to work?) and take action to address discrepancies if necessary (e.g., hide the car keys). Unfortunately, problems can arise at any of these stages. Let’s consider a problem that people might encounter at each stage.

First, people may struggle to set an appropriate goal. We know, for example, that people are unrealistically optimistic about what they can achieve and often set goals that they have little chance of achieving. For example, it would be unrealistic for someone who is relatively new to cycling to set themselves the goal of cycling 15 miles to and from work, especially if the dark nights and cold temperatures of winter are approaching.

Second, our work on ‘The ostrich problem’ suggests that, although monitoring progress helps people to achieve their goals (e.g., it tells them when they need to take action), people often bury their heads in the sand and avoid thinking about their progress, even toward goals that they deem to be important. We suspect that this is because taking steps to accurately assess progress (e.g., using Strava to keep a log of miles cycled) often reveals that progress is not as good as hoped, especially since the original goal is probably rather optimistic. The information derived from monitoring progress therefore likely reflects badly on people and so they avoid it. Remember, ignorance is bliss (or at least it is until you realize that you haven’t achieved what you wanted).

Finally, even if people do set themselves an appropriate goal and take stock of where they are in relation to that goal, a number of problems are likely to be encountered actually taking action when needed. For example, evidence suggests that self-control – or the ability to prioritize long term over short term goals – might well be a limited resource (or at least people might believe that it is). As a consequence, people who have recently used self-control (e.g., to extract themselves from a warm bed early in the morning) may be less able or willing to exert more control (e.g., to overcome their reluctance to cycle on discovering that it is raining).

In the words of Paschal Sheeran then, the road to hell is “well-paved” and it is no surprise that people often struggle to achieve their goals. Fortunately, there are a number of evidence-based strategies that can help to overcome these problems. More on this next time…

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