Why It’s So Hard to Stick to Your Goals (and How to Make it Easy)

What is the biggest source of failed goals, dreams and ambitions?

Is it luck? That you just didn’t have the right cards, and so there was nothing you could have done?

Is it talent or method? If you were just smarter and used the right technique, you could have made it work?

I’d like to argue that the vast majority of our struggles in life come down to one simple problem: our actions don’t match our intentions.

The Action-Intention Gap

Think about the last goal you struggled with. Maybe it was losing weight, learning a language or starting a business? Why did you struggle?

Sometimes you do everything right—you make a plan, put in effort exactly how you intended to, and things still don’t work out. That can hurt, but most of the time, this isn’t the case.

Instead, our projects flop and goals fail because we had some intention to do something, and we didn’t follow-up.

You started the new exercise habit, but gave it up after three weeks.

You thought about trying to learn a language, maybe even downloaded some apps, but then life got in the way.

You’d like to start a business, but you’re not sure what to do, and you never made progress.

This is what I call the action-intention gap. It is the difference between how we would intend to do things, and what actually happens. It’s the difference between a great idea and great execution. This is where most of our struggles, failures and frustrations originate.

Action-Intention Gap

How to Close Your Action-Intention Gap

Closing this gap isn’t easy, but there is a fairly straight-forward process. It has three steps.

Step One: Understand Your Intentions

The first reason people have a gap is that their intentions weren’t very clear to begin with. If you aren’t even sure what you intended to do, how could you possibly stick with it?

So many dreams die because they were never more than fantasies. If you want to have any chance of improving your life, it needs to start with being clear about what you intend to do, even if you’re still imperfect about following through on those plans.

Example: “I’d like to learn French” = no clear intentions. “I’m going to buy this book and try to study fifteen minutes every morning” = clear intentions. The latter person may not actually follow through, but the first person’s goals are so ill-defined she can’t possibly succeed.

Step Two: Understand Yourself

The next step is harder. It’s not enough to set goals, intentions or plans. You need to understand who is the person that will be acting on them.

What are your strengths and weaknesses? Why did your goals fail in the past? What obstacles will get in the way and how can you work around them?

If not having intentions is the first cause of failure, the second is imagining an idealized superhero is actually going to act on your plans. That person doesn’t exist. There’s only you. So you’d better align your intentions with the kinds of things you can actually follow.

Example: You typically start projects with a lot of motivation, but give up after a few weeks. Why don’t you try to set a very small minimum amount of work you’ll do each day? Then, even if things get busy, you won’t completely drop the ball.

Step Three: Align Your Intentions

Your end-goal has two parts. The first part, is that your intentions, if followed, should get you where you need to go. If you’re trying to launch a company, learn a language, graduate from college or lose weight, the plan you set has to at least have a decent chance of working out.

The second part is that your intentions need to be engineered so that you can actually act on them. Knowing yourself, and what things in your life, personality and habits will interfere and support your intentions can help you design your project to accommodate your situation.

Alignment is an ongoing process of examining these two parts and responding the feedback. While you’re working, you see how your intentions are working out, you also look at how well you’re following through on your intentions, and you adjust both to make progress.

Example (Aligning Intentions with Goal): You want to lose weight, so you’re trying a habit of filling up your exercise meter on your fitbit every day. But you’ve been trying it for months, and you haven’t lost any weight. Therefore, you adjust your intentions to something more effectively, like cutting down on portion sizes.

Example (Aligning Intentions with Action): You’re now trying to cut portion sizes, but you find you end up overeating a lot, especially at restaurants. You redefine your plan to eat half your meal, and wait twenty minutes before eating the other half (only if you’re still hungry). Now you’re able to follow-through better on your initial idea.

Make it Happen this Year

This is the first lesson in a multi-part series I’m giving to kick-off a new session of my course, Make it Happen!

This course is all about closing your action-intention gap.

How can you set intentions that will actually get you where you want to go in life? Are they too weak? Unrealistic? Misguided? This course will help you design plans that actually work.

How can you make sure you act on your intentions? How can you understand yourself deeply so that you can overcome your past struggles and failures? How do you design the systems in your life so that achievement becomes automatic?

Over the next week, I’ll be giving more lessons like this one. After, if you’ve found these lessons helpful, I encourage you to join our full course, Make it Happen! where we have many more lessons and in-depth worksheets to truly make the things you care about happen in your life.

(A Little) Conformity is a Good Thing

In North America, we give a lot of lip-service to the idea of non-conformity being a good thing. Think outside the box. Be a rebel. Don’t be a sheep.

Except, in practice, people are extremely conformist. Think of all the things we do in, not because we thought for ourselves it was a good idea, but because society tells us to:

  • Go to school, and make sure you graduate.
  • Buy a house, so you don’t waste money on rent.
  • Get a good job, work most of your life and then retire.
  • Wear the clothes other people wear.
  • Make small talk and be polite.
  • Don’t speak up if you see something unacceptable, don’t draw attention to yourself.

The lip-service to rebellious free-thinking, and mythic stories of entrepreneurs, scientists and politicians who ignored the status-quo is contrasted by these overflowing examples of how conformist we all are.

Social Desirability Bias and Non-Conformity

Whenever there’s a discrepancy between what people actually do and what they say to do, beware of social desirability bias.

Social desirability bias is a psychological term for when people will advocate for options that sound good, even if their actual behavior shows they don’t really practice what they preach. If you ask people what they think about democracy, they’ll express how essential it is—and then not actually go out and vote in elections.

Social Desirability Bias

The standard tale about these things is that people just don’t live up to our higher ideals. Voting in elections is really important, it’s just that people are lazy.

The darker tale about these things is that when action and behavior conflict, the lip-service may not reflect how the world actually works. In practice, an individual’s vote has almost no chance on deciding an election, so the hypocrisy actually makes perverse sense.

You want to support voting, because if nobody votes (or only your political opponents do) you’ll elect bad leaders. However, since the impact of your vote is almost non-existent, the selfishly beneficial thing to do is to skip out on voting yourself.

The Social Benefits (and Private Costs) of Non-Conformity

This same analysis applies to conformity. We need to preach the value of free-thinking and rebellious invention, because these things have strong positive externalities.

Society benefits when scientists create better models of reality, rather than just publish papers and collect grants. Society benefits when innovators create new technologies, rather than just collect monopoly rents and maintain the status-quo. Society benefits when we make moral progress, and increase our sphere of cooperation.

The problem is that for each of these successful acts of non-conformity, there’s a large risk of failure. The cost of that failure is often borne personally.

The scientist who gets involved in a bizarre theory that turns out to be false is a crackpot. The inventor working on a technology that fails gets nothing for it. The moral entrepreneurs who pick the wrong sides are ridiculed at best, considered unethical deviants at worst.

Who Needs Conformity?

Rather than repeat the mantra that we need more rebellious freethinkers, and act surprised when this falls short in practice, I’d like to suggest the best way to think about it from the perspective of how it actually tends to work in practice:

  • Non-conformity is good when you’re good. Meaning, being a weirdo is acceptable when you otherwise have a strong foundation of quality. Being extremely intelligent, credentialed from the best institutions, well-financed or having a track-record of success turns weirdness into eccentricities.
  • Balance your strategic non-conformities with conformist compromises. If you’re going to be weird in some ways, it helps to balance that with being strategically normal in others. The more weirdness you stack on, the more you need your competing signals of quality (education, wealth, intelligence) to balance those out.
  • Social skills offset your non-confomities. The more charismatic and socially successful you are, the weirder you can be before it starts to hurt you.

This perspective ignores the idealization of how society “should” work, and observe how unconventional thinkers and people tend to actually make their mark. A combination of offsetting signals about their quality, strategic non-conformity mixed with conformist compromises and charisma allows people to succeed while not doing what others expect.