What are you more likely to achieve, a goal to earn twenty thousand dollars a year in sales or a goal to earn a hundred thousand? Rationally it would seem obvious that setting the smaller goal makes its attainment more likely. Recently, however, I’ve started to have my doubts that this seemingly logical conclusion holds up in reality.
Taking a look at the goals I had set for myself, I started to notice that more ambitious goals have a greater chance of realization then seemingly modest ones. Setting a goal to fully produce an interactive personal development program  in only six months was fairly ambitious considering I had no budget, little experience and had to produce the artwork, coding and content by myself. Yet I managed to achieve this goal when I had once failed to stick to doing a half-hour of speed reading practice a day for a month.
This trend of achieving goals that were really difficult and letting modest goals slip in my past was too obvious to ignore. Why would a goal that, objectively, has less chance of success, consistently beat the odds, while goals that seemed like sure things never manifested? In exploring this problem I noticed two key factors that were present in the success of a difficult goal and seemingly absent from the modest goals I couldn’t achieve.
The first factor that seemed to created this paradox was that more difficult goals inspired more action than modest ones. Goals I knew would be difficult inspired me to work doubly hard to complete them. Conversely, modest goals didn’t inspire the extra effort needed for their achievement.
It is easy to exaggerate the ease of completing a modest goal. Even though setting a goal to lose five pounds in six months may sound easy, you still need to restrict your diet and exercise more. Without the sense that the goal is a worthy challenge, you may feel it will get completed without your direct attention. This translates into zero action and zero results.
Concentrated action is an all or nothing event. Either you are pushing hard or you aren’t pushing at all. You may oscillate between these two states throughout the achievement of a goal, but modest aims are likely to create a lot of time with virtually no pushing. When you know the goal will be difficult in advance, you are more likely to push hard almost the entire time to ensure its success.
Believing a goal will definitely be doable, but will require all your resources is the best way to ensure that you actually use all your resources. Having a challenge that is worthy of your effort is absolutely necessary if you want to achieve it.
The second factor that makes it easier to achieve a challenging goal than a modest one comes from the identity and self-image of the person who usually sets these goals. People who feel that they have a lot of talent or skill in an area already are more likely to set difficult goals for that area. While people who feel that they are below average or naturally poor at an area will likely set very modest goals when trying to improve.
Now these beliefs become a fulfilling prophecy. The person who thinks they are great at something already and are going to get greater will put a lot of effort into improving. The person who feels they are awful and lacks self-esteem in an area won’t put in the effort and will fail to achieve even a modest goal.
I’ve noticed both of these goal-setting behaviors in myself for different areas. When I would set a health or project related goal, I knew I was already skilled in that area. Thinking about those goals charged me with positive emotions and allowed me to utilize all my resources in achieving them.
In the past I had set social or relationship goals that didn’t come from this place of confidence. I would set seemingly modest goals, but every time I would think about the goal I would frustrate myself, filling with negative emotions. My resources were under-utilized and I failed to achieve some of those goals.
In a conversation with a reader, he pointed out a way around this factor. By focusing on all the things you do well at and show you have talent in an area after setting a goal, you are more likely to achieve it then by focusing on what you lack. This can move you to a place of greater confidence, where you can set more challenging goals and summon up the will to improve it.
So if you consistently fail to achieve even minor dietary goals, focusing on other areas where you are successful with your health or commitment might give you the greater confidence you need to move forward. Maybe you don’t smoke or you are currently free of major diseases.
Set a challenge that is worthy of your attention. Believing that a goal is possible is necessary, but you also need to believe the goal will be challenging or you won’t invest the resources to attain it. Once you set a challenging goal, pick out references that demonstrate your underlying skill in an area to move you into a state conductive to achieving the goal. Mediocrity isn’t the result of too many obstacles but usually, in having too few.