Setting a direction takes a different skills than following it over a long distance or time


Some interesting ideas about goal achievement

by Dr Stephanie A. Burns


This article concentrates on how my theories and strategies of goal achievement relate to what is typically taught in goal setting courses. Especially highlighting the topics of time management, planning and chunking?

It is not about goal setting

Many people assume, when I say that I teach goal achievement strategies that what I really mean is that I teach goal setting. My work, however, has nothing much to do with the subject of goal setting.

I have not personal observed that people have much difficulty setting goals. Setting an intention to achieve something sometime in the future is a normal routine for most people. Most of us have a number of clearly defined goals in several categories. There are daily goals, such as getting to work on time, managing the family, filling up with petrol before the tank runs dry and so on. Short term goals like saving for vacation, finishing a work project, learning to touch type, reading books we buy, putting the wedding photos in the album, paying off debts, doing a course at University, or completing renovations at home. And, of course, there are long term goals like saving money for retirement, writing a book, maintaining our health and fitness, maintaining relationships with family, and so on.

This is not to say we do not all have times in life when we are uncertain about what to do next. Sometimes we don't know what to do in the next moment of a day. But these instances are not solved by traditional goal setting techniques. These are matters to do with interests, opportunities, timing, resources and current levels of energy and stimulation.


Goals are easy to set and start because our dominate brain activity is focused on the goal's achievement, and not on the process of getting there.


It is not about time management or "chunking"

My work also has little or nothing to do with time management, or chunking big goals to manageable size, or planning strategies.

It is not that these strategies are not important, they certainly have their place. But strategies in these areas are notably in the hands of millions of adults and they have done little to assist in the process of achieving important goals.

How many of us have time management systems that are never used? How many have plans for achieving goals broken down into manageable steps, but never look at the plan or our 'to do' lists? On that point, how many of you have 'to-dos' that are carried forward in our organisers from one day to the next? I have had students show me items on 'to-do' lists that have been carried forward for months!

If you are using systems like these and you are getting things done toward your goals I am going to suggest it has more to do with how you motivate yourself to take action, and little to do with your ability to plan. These are good tools for remembering what to do, but have little to do with getting it done.



Goal achievement requires a new perspective

Where my work departs from these other processes is in its emphasis on the natural human tendencies to avoid activities that elicit negative emotions and/or unpleasant feelings. What is problematic about the achievement of goals is manifold:

1) the action is not urgent;

2) the action has no immediate consequence; and,

3) the action is by nature unpleasant.

In the face of taking actions that have these features most of us do two things simultaneously:

1) we do something else instead while

2) we construct a good enough reason to justify our avoidance of the goal action we should have taken.

In doing so we do not do the action related to the goal, and we neutralise the possible negative emotion associated with this decision. Namely, guilt.

Let me give you an example of the differences in decisions we might make at the moment right before taking action and the behavioural results.


Controlling what you allow your brain to imagine is a very useful skill. Imaging fully how happy Spot will look and sound and act when he sees you up, with shoes on and ready head out for a walk can be the difference between getting out of bed or rolling over!


You can read about the Labyrinth online course. But I'd recommend you finish this article first.

Let's say you have a goal to exercise by taking a walk in the mornings and at the same time spend some time with your pooch. You set up a plan to wake a bit earlier each morning to do this activity. Setting a goal like this is not difficult, nor is planning the actions. But I suggest, that for many people, getting out of bed in the morning to do it is indeed difficult.

The person who will not likely get out of bed is, in that moment of decision making, thinking about how good it feels to be in bed, or how bad they will feel to get out of bed. Once the decision is made to not get out of bed this person will begin to construct a good reason or excuse so they do not have to feel bad or guilty. They tell themselves, "I will do it after work", or "It's too cold outside this morning". I say, "Your poor dog!"

The person who is likely to get out of bed is the one who thinks about how good they feel after the walk is done, or how happy the dog is to see you up and ready to go for 'our' walk.

These different thoughts may use the same neurological circuitry but they stimulate different emotions and feelings and hence a different behavioural response. The second approach will not make getting out of bed any easier, but the point is it will get you out of bed.

When I teach goal achievement strategies in the Labyrinth on-line course the participants make these kinds of thoughts available to observation. They become consciously aware of these processes at work within themselves. My work is about installing as a habit a new "thought" strategy that motivates them to initiate and sustain actions that are necessarily unpleasant (e.g. frustrating, boring, nerve-wracking) for the sake of the long term benefit of achieving a significant goal.

Much of work is based on an understanding of the biological imperatives of human behaviour. For instance, my work on learning effectiveness was based on how to best use the brain and body for learning. One thing we all have in common are biological imperatives related to survival, protection, connection, energy management and so on.

What of these is important in relation to goal achievement are the biological urges driving us to do what feels good or less bad from the range of choices available to us. We use our thoughts, images, internal dialogue and body state to inform our decisions about what choice to make. You can learn to control these types of thoughts to motivate yourself to do what is perhaps not 'liked', for the sake of doing what is in the long run good to do.

My work on goal achievement describes what is problematic about goal activities. It uncovers the strategies that people use to avoid action and those they use to motivate action. The face to face program I conducted on goal achievement allowed the participants to experience the problem in everyday goal situations and then coached them through the process of learning new strategies that lead to frequent and consistent action toward their goal.


Some times a new insight is caused by breaking up strongly held beliefs to see how information reorganises itself. It took quite a bit of personal work to release my mind from the beliefs I had about those who procrastinate to make this breakthrough in my research.



Six weeks in the life of a well-educated, professional learning to touch type

The article is a very funny piece displaying clearly the cognitive activities leading to goal avoidance in action! The article provides an excellent insight into procrastination behaviour.

Defining willpower and procrastination

Self-determination, discipline and willpower
are all the labels used for a person who has a strategy
to do a thing that he or she does not like doing.

Procrastination, laziness and lack of willpower
are the labels applied to a person who lacks these strategies.

The one thing to remember about all goals, no matter how large, is that they only require small actions in any given moment. Books are written one word at a time. Getting fit is done one day at a time. Clearing our debts takes making small payments regularly. Therefore, goal achievement is about having the ability to initiate small actions and sustain them over time.

In closing ..

Delaying action toward our goals until we can take a big action makes little sense, because there are no big actions, only lots of small ones. People who succeed in achieving their goals do not let not being able to do a lot be a good enough reason to do nothing. This is why daily, short term and long term goals benefit from the same strategies. The same cognitive activity leads to initiating the action of changing a burnt out light bulb and initiating the action of saving your first dollar for a long awaited vacation.

Stay tuned,





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