Achieving Your Goals is Not That Hard; You Just Need to Think About Them Differently

The summer before my freshman year of college, I worked as a salesman for a massive car dealership in Phoenix, Arizona. It was my first real job following high school, and fortunately for me, the dealership was willing to hire just about anybody.

Throughout that summer we had early morning sales meetings, where all of the salespeople would meet in a giant room on the second floor of the dealership to review the previous day’s efforts and to set goals for the current day. It was one of those typical Rah-Rah, pump you up kind of sales meetings that only the truly deranged could enjoy.

To my eighteen-year-old mind, the meeting felt like a complete waste of time. There were three or four people telling 120 people what each of our goals was for the day, regardless of how we had performed as individuals on any previous day.

The leaders of the meeting included the owner of the dealership and his sales managers; all of whom came across as loud, deeply narcissistic people. The goals they set for us felt completely preposterous and arbitrary. Needless to say, they did not connect with nor motivate me in any way.

Fast-forward to the summer of my twenty-third year. As I was still without a marketable college degree, the most lucrative summer job I could secure was again in sales. This time I was selling alarm systems door-to-door in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Just as we did when I was selling cars, our sales team in Indiana would meet each morning. It was a much smaller group, but we followed the same typical sales meeting routine. The managers would review stats from the previous day, set goals for the current day, and then attempt to psych us up for another long day of selling.

One thing that was different from my experience with the car dealership was the individualization of the goals. On Monday mornings our sales manager would ask each one of us to set a goal for ourselves for the coming week.

Nothing made our managers more visibly annoyed than someone who set a goal for fewer than six sales. We worked Monday through Saturday, so the manager’s argument was that if you set a goal for fewer than six sales, you were essentially setting a goal to go at least one full day during the week without making a sale. This was unacceptable to them.

While I understood their reasoning, I also saw that about half of our team had averaged fewer than six sales per week the entire summer. These salespeople weren’t looking at their sales goals from the perspective of future daily results, they were looking at them in the context of how they had performed historically.

For many of the salespeople, who had never achieved five sales in a week, aiming for five sales was a stretch goal. However, the managers would not accept this and would inevitably write in the number six as the weekly sales goal for these people.

The effect this had on the salespeople was the same demotivation that I had experienced years before at the car dealership. They did not feel the goal was achievable, they left the meeting feeling despondent, and they never closed more than five sales in a week the entire summer.

The power of goal setting to demotivate does not only occur in sales organizations. There are plenty of other examples from my life where goal setting has had a negative effect on the emotional drive of individuals and groups. For example non-sales work teams, nonprofit boards, church groups, school groups, and sports teams.

There seems to be an endless supply of research and resources related to the setting of goals, but I want to provide you with a few thoughts and exercises that you can use to make goal setting more powerful for you and the groups you work with.

Intentional Living Road Goals

Value of Goals

Nobody wants to look back on their life with regret. The desire to look back on life with satisfaction is a huge motivating factor for most people. If you ask almost any entrepreneur why they would quit their job and start their own company, you will hear something like this:

“I don’t want to look back on my life and realize that I never tried.”

Without a doubt, setting goals has proven to be an effective way for people to achieve their dreams and reshape their lives. The first sept then is to determine what you hope to accomplish with your life and set goals accordingly.

Deciding what your life’s purpose is can be a daunting undertaking, but is something that you should not procrastinate. If you’re interested, I’ve written a couple of posts about determining what to do with your life. You can find them here and here.

The next step to live your dreams and reshape your life is to set goals. Setting goals gives you purpose. It allows you to define exactly what you are striving to accomplish or obtain. Once you have your goal in place, you can then begin to outline how you will achieve that goal.

An interesting discovery by researcher Jonathan Haidt, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, is that people experience more satisfaction from pursuing their goals than they do from achieving their goals.

This may sound counter-intuitive, but gaining more satisfaction from chasing goals than catching goals is a good thing. Why? Because, intuitively we all know that despite our best efforts, our lives are subject to chance.

That’s why you very seldom hear an entrepreneur say something like this:

“I don’t want to look back on my life and realize that I never became a millionaire.”

The value of goals is that they point us in a direction. Maybe the right one. Maybe not. But at least we have something we’re working towards, which gives our lives purpose.

For now, let’s dive into some different ways of thinking about our goals.

Intentional Living Achievement Mountain Climbing

Reframe Your Mindset


Remember the stories I shared about setting goals as a car salesman and as a door-to-door alarm salesman? One thing that was particularly frustrating about both situations, and as a result extremely demotivating for the salespeople, was the interjection by management into our goal-setting exercises. In the end, we weren’t setting our own goals, so they lacked individualization.

You’ve probably experienced something like this before as well. A leader of a team or organization sets a top-level goal that everybody is supposed to “commit” to, then begins breaking the goal down into smaller numbers that each department or individual must achieve on their own.

The individuals provide no input into the goal setting, thus feels no intrinsic motivation to achieve the goal. Sometimes organizations will provide an external reward system to incentivize individuals to strive for their goals; such as bonuses, commissions, or a pair of custom Nike cross-trainers.

Research has shown that extrinsic rewards have a limited power to motivate people in accomplishing a goal.

In many cases, such as our Monday morning meetings in Indiana, the individuals will not believe the goal is even possible. They will feel as though they are being asked to do the impossible or stretch beyond their breaking point. This, in turn, causes them to become frustrated and less likely to achieve the goal they were just given.

My point is this – goals must be set by the person striving to achieve the goal. Why? It has to be something they want intrinsically, or it will not be motivating for them.

Daniel Pink, the author of the best-selling management book Drive, summed up the value of setting individualized goals when he said, “Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.”


The second problem I had with setting sales goals, was that we didn’t actually have 100 percent control over the outcome. We were assigned the neighborhoods in which we would be knocking doors, so we had no control over how many people were homeowners (a company mandated prerequisite for purchasing an alarm system).

We couldn’t control how many houses were in the neighborhood or how far apart they were from each other. We couldn’t control how many people would open the door for us. We couldn’t control how many people would say yes and actually make a purchase.

In sales, there is always someone else on the other side of the transaction, who has a big say in whether or not you reach your goal. In life, we face the same challenge of incomplete control when we strive to accomplish something. You may set a goal to run a marathon, but the week before you sprain your ankle. You may set a goal to go to a top-notch college, but the board decided to reject you because a board members niece took the last spot.

Misunderstanding control is a big problem in setting goals.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t set sales goals or any other kind of goal, rather I believe that you should set your goals in a smarter way – more on this in the goal setting exercises below.

Do You Actually Want This?

Before you go setting a goal for yourself, you should probably be asking yourself if the outcome is something you really want. Also, you should ask yourself if the activities necessary to reach the outcome are what you really want.

Sometimes we think that we will finally be happy if our wildest dreams come true and we become rich, or famous, or both. The truth is that many people have achieved these outcomes in life and have found them to be grossly underwhelming.

Believe it or not, research has shown that you’re actually more likely to be happy if you have a life-altering accident than if you win the lottery.

Achieving a goal will not make you happier than you are today. Striving for a goal may make you more satisfied with life, but only if that goal is truly worthwhile. Happiness is something that can only come from within. You need to find it before you go looking for external rewards.

In a decisive moment in one of my favorite movies, Cool Runnings, the captain of the Jamaican bobsled team discovers that his current coach had once cheated in an Olympic race. Despondent and unsure of what to do, he asked the coach why he would resort to cheating. The coach, Irv Blitzer, gives a powerful response:

“Derice, a gold medal is a wonderful thing. But if you’re not enough without one, you’ll never be enough with one.”

Before you set a goal for yourself to make sure you ask yourself whether this thing and the pursuit of this thing will actually make you happier; or will it just cause you grief, misery, and pain?

The pursuit of vain goals or things that can’t bring true happiness is sure to lead to misery. Remember the wise words of Epicurus:

“The fool’s life is ungracious and fearful; it is directed entirely at the future”

Intentional Living Achievement Mountain Climbing Standing Atop a Mountain

Goal Setting Exercises

In the classic George Lucas film Star Wars, Master Yoda used a very powerful message to test the drive and commitment of his Padawan learner Luke Skywalker. He said, “There is no try, there is only do.”

I’ve heard this quote used again and again in real life as well. If you are in the right mind frame, it can be motivating. But it doesn’t take into account a number of the things we’ve already learned about goals and life; namely control.

If you have the mindset that you will never fail, what happens when you do fail to reach some of your goals? Which, by the way, is inevitable.

A quote that I think is much better at describing how the world really works is attributed to Wayne Gretzky, who is considered the greatest hockey player to ever lace up his skates. Wayne said:

“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

Of course, the goal is to make every shot you take, but nobody has ever shot 100% over the course of their career. Do athletes get discouraged when they miss? Yes. Do they stop shooting? No.

In sports, they track how many shots each player makes, but they also track how many shots each player takes. In life and business, I think we should be doing the same thing. We should be setting goals based on results and we should be setting goals based on activities.

Results-based Goals

Results based goals are what we typically think of when we go about setting our goals. We set goals to lose 15 pounds, publish a book, or pay off all of our debt.

I’m not going to go into much detail on results-based goals because there is already so much good research available. Rather, I offer a word of caution. Results based goals can be worthwhile pursuits, but they can also be double-edged swords.

If they are not individualized, realistic, worthy goals they can lead to feelings of failure, demotivation, and even self-doubt. Be cautious when setting goals based on results and recognize that, while you may appreciate the potential outcome, you also do not have 100% control over that outcome.

Results based goals should be used to give yourself a guidepost and to help you determine your activity based goals.

Activity-based Goals

One of the results based goals I have set for myself is to publish a book someday. This drives me to write here at Pacific Swells, as well as other places (e.g., Short Stories from Saturday). However, I understand that some things are outside of my control.

I can’t expect everyone to love my writing; including the folks who may be the decision makers at the publishing company. So, rather than putting all of my time and energy into worrying about being published, I put that time and energy into my activity based goals.

My goal for Pacific Swells is to publish a new post, such as the one you’re reading, every week. This is a goal I have much more power to control, I feel that it helps me move in the direction of my results based goal, and it makes me feel satisfaction every time that I achieve it (which I can do every week).

If I miss a week, my dreams are not ruined. With activity-based goals, I can simply start again the following week and still move towards my eventual dream.

Looking back on my days selling alarms door-to-door, one of the things that we were clearly missing was activity based goals.  We never set goals for how many doors we were going to knock, how many homeowners we were going to speak with, or how much time we were going to spend studying our sales material and practicing our pitch.

There is an old quote that says, “80% of success is just showing up.” But I think the quote should be more like this, “75% of showing up is adequately preparing yourself for the moment, 24% is making sure you showed up in the right place at the right time, and only 1% is actually walking through the door.”

I found that when I spent time in the morning reading our sales training manuals and practicing what I would say at the door, my sales closure rate increased. These preparatory activities were things that I could control, all it took was commitment.

If you have a goal that you want to achieve, go ahead and set that results-based goal, but then take the time to think about what you really need to do to put yourself in a position to realize that goal. Take the activities that move you in the right direction, and set goals for how frequent or how often you will perform them.

Activity goals are things you can iterate on in pursuit of your results based goals. You’ll find that it feels good to track your progress, and as you do you’ll see things that are working or not working. You’ll be able to see what is actually moving you towards your results goals and make adjustments accordingly.

You’ll begin to feel that sense of satisfaction that comes to people in pursuit of worthy goals.

Managing for Activity-based Goals

If you’re in a position to set goals for others, I have a few parting thoughts for you. We’ve already discussed how setting both results bases goals and activity-based goals reconcile the problem of control.

What I’ve found through my own experiences, is that when you’re working with others it’s really important to lay out both results-based goals and activity-based goals in the very beginning. It’s also just as important to track activity goals and call out people when they miss them.

You can never expect to achieve your results based goals if you don’t give enough attention to your activity based goals. You’ll also come across as a poor manager if you wait until the results don’t come through before you call someone out for being lazy about their activities.

Stay on top of the activities and the results will follow.


I hope that this was helpful for you. As always, my intent is not to be prescriptive, but to help you think about things in a new way. Being mindful of our approach to all things helps us to live life more intentionally.

If you found this helpful please share with others, and if you have a question or comment please share them below. Thanks.

Pacific Swells is a collection of short stories and helpful articles about finding happiness through intentional living.

2 thoughts on “Achieving Your Goals is Not That Hard; You Just Need to Think About Them Differently”

Leave a Reply