Earlier in a blog post, I asked you to take a look at your goals to see if they were big enough or too big, if they were yours or someone else’s, and if they were really your burning desires. All those are important, but even more important is your “Why” behind your goals.
Why do you want to lose 50 lbs.?
Why do you want to get your counseling degree?
Why do you want to declutter your house, start your own business, quit smoking, find a new job?
The deal is, if your “Why” is big enough, the goal doesn’t really matter. The obstacles don’t matter. You’re going to barrel through and get it done. By the same token, if your “Why” is lukewarm, you’re going to be missing a key part of your motivation for success.
Who’s going to be more likely to start their own successful business: The single mom who has two kids to feed and no safety net to fall back on, or the independently wealthy trust-fund baby? I’d bet on the mom every time, and here’s why: She is going to fight tooth and nail to keep those kids fed and clothed and safe. The trust-fund baby doesn’t have his or her back against the wall – at least not for financial reasons.
You may not be facing the same survival-level motivation, but other “Why’s” can work, too. Here are some that I’ve seen drive people on to incredible feats. Imagine what goals go with these “Why’s:”
  • To prove to my father I’m not a loser.
  • To make my ex regret leaving me.
  • To keep my kids in private school.
  • So I’m not embarrassed on our vacation.
  • So I’ll live longer.
  • To make my family proud.
  • To keep my kids out of day care.
  • To pay for the college of my choice.
  • To keep my mom in her nursing home.
  • To impress people.


Whether you’re trying to save money or lose weight or start a new business, if you want it bad enough at an emotional level, you’ll do what it takes. So spend some time digging into your own “Why.” Go beyond the obvious, and ask yourself again and again why this goal matters, not just in and of itself, but for your life. You might be surprised at the answer – and it might be just what you need to get you moving. 

In the immortal words of Mary Poppins, “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” Sugar – or its psychic equivalent – doesn’t just work for medicine; it can help improve the “taste” of any nasty, scary, or unappealing task. Why do you think there are so many TV sets in gyms? No one actually wants to think about working out while they’re doing it!

If you find yourself bogged down in the pursuit of your goals, try this same principle. Figure out a way to pair up something you don’t want to do with something you love. Some ideas:
  • Take a class with a good friend. Not only will you feel obligated to show up for your sessions, the time will go faster when you’re distracted by entertaining conversation.
  • Listen to music or podcasts while you’re working out, cleaning out the garage, or decluttering the attic.
  • Cutting back to pay off your debts? Make it a game with your family and see who can spend the least, come up with creative ways to save, or unique plans for making a little extra cash. 
  • If your goal is to be on time, get yourself a Mickey Mouse watch so you can keep track of the minutes in style – and smile every time you look at your watch.
  • Can’t seem to get around to writing that book that you resolved to finish this year? Treat yourself to a cup of your favorite expense latte when (and only when!) you’re sitting down working.
  • If making follow-up sales calls is the bane of your existence, sweeten the experience by sitting out on the back deck in the sun, or having your partner massage your back while you’re on the phone.
The key to making this strategy work is to not cheat. That means you have to hold yourself to skipping your latte if you’re not working on your novel, or refusing the backrub if you’re not on the phone with sales prospects. The more you limit your treat to the time when you’re actually working toward your goal, the stronger the association between working towards your goal and pleasant feelings. If you cheat, you short-circuit that connection.
Of course, it still comes down to you doing what you said you'd do. But hopefully by aligning not-so-fun tasks with pleasant associations, you'll be more inclined to get it finished.

We’re an impatient society. We want it all, and we want it now. After all, this is the era of “It’s there in 30 minutes or it’s free!” and next-day Amazon deliveries. Why should we wait and take our goals a step at a time?

Because that’s really the only way to achieve them. In fact, taking a little longer to achieve your heart’s desires may be better for you in the long run:
  • It gives you time to adjust to changes along the way.
  • It lets you overcome obstacles and develop new skills that you may need once you’re on the top of the mountain.
  • It allows you to evaluate whether the goal you’re aiming for is really what you want.
Achieving large goals in a single fell swoop usually only happens on TV or in the movies; the rest of us have to take the not-so-short cut. In fact, trying to tackle a big goal all at once can actually discourage you, as perfectionism, fear of failure, lack of confidence, and other negative emotions can arise if you try to change too much at once.
Here’s how to break your big goal down into manageable chunks:
  • Set your first milestone only as far ahead as your headlights shine. Right now, you may not be able to see the entire path from where you are now to where you want to be. Instead of trying to map out your whole plan, just map out the next step. For instance, if you want to go back to school to finish your degree, you know one thing for sure: You’ll need to find out how to apply to school. Make that your first goal, and set a reasonable deadline. Don’t worry about the rest of the steps (getting transcripts, taking an entrance exam, applying for financial aid) until you’ve tackled that first step.
  • Work in chunks you’re comfortable with. Many of us are very comfortable planning about three months in advance; this is the length of an academic quarter in school and a financial quarter in business. Figure out what you need to accomplish in the next three months, and map out steps for doing so. At the end of the quarter, review your accomplishments and map out the next quarter.
  • Base your daily list on your longer-term goals. Break down daily activities based on your quarterly or monthly goals. Each activity on your list should be something you can accomplish today that moves you forward to your bigger goals. That way everything rolls up together, and you’re not wasting your time on unimportant tasks.
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. How do you achieve any goal, no matter how large? The same way – one step at a time.

Most of us spend our lives in avoidance of pain. It’s not surprising; researchers have shown that the drive to escape pain is greater than the drive to experience pleasure. All things being equal, if we’re not hurting bad enough, we’re not going to be very motivated to seek out change.

The good news is that we can use this human quirk to our advantage. If the good parts of achieving our goals aren’t enough to get us motivated, maybe the bad things that will come from NOT achieving our goal will get us moving. It’s the carrot-versus-the-stick debate, and let’s face it: Sometimes we need the stick.
Put bluntly, if you increase the pain associated with the status quo to a high enough level, you’ll be motivated to change. In fact, the higher the pain, the greater the motivation. For instance, think of:
  • The businessman who won’t quit working on the weekends until his wife threatens to divorce him.
  • The overweight mom who won’t lose weight until she’s diagnosed with diabetes and told that she may die and leave her small children motherless if she doesn’t lose 100 lbs.
  • The employee who can’t seem to arrive at work before 9:30 until he’s threatened with being fired.
Pain can be the ultimate motivator. But there are ways to kick it into high gear before you’re being threatened with termination or death. Here’s how to ramp up the pain quotient:
  • Focus on the negative. We’re all told to focus on the positive, but sometimes it’s the focus on the bad that will get us going. Dave Ramsey, the personal finance guru, suggests that people post a list of their debts on their refrigerator. The constant in-your-face nature keeps you motivated and moving forward.
  • Extrapolate. Again, psychologists and counselors will recommend that you don’t extrapolate your worries. Well, if you’re trying to motivate yourself, worry away! Think about yourself living as a bag lady if you don’t bring in four new clients this week. Picture your kids growing up in day care if you don’t find a new job. Paint a vivid picture of what you’re trying to avoid and remind yourself of the horrible alternative.
  • Find a negative role model. Just as you can find role models to inspire you to great things, you can find negative role models who have dropped to the depths of despair (VH1’s “Behind the Music” is especially helpful for this!). People DO die of diabetes. People DO get fired. Find a few folks who have experienced your greatest fear and remind yourself that it can happen.
Of course, it’s a lot more fun to imagine yourself in a string bikini and paste a picture of Cindy Crawford on your fridge. But if that’s not working, you might have to go to the other extreme and post your bikini “before” shot in a public spot. Do what you have to in order to reach your goal.
You know you want to declutter your house, find a new job, or lose weight. But somehow, you’re not getting around to it. The first place to start is with your goal. Sometimes procrastination occurs because your goal simply isn’t clear enough. To have an effective, motivating goal, you need to know precisely what you’re heading for.
Decluttering your house is too broad; to make it motivating, try breaking it down more specifically. Measurable is helpful, too. Getting rid of 50 books, clearing out all clothes that the kids haven’t worn in six months, reducing the number of DVDs the family has so they all fit on a single shelf… these are motivating goals! They give you something to aim for.
Another common problem with goals is not setting a deadline. Which is more likely to get your rear in gear: Losing weight in order to attend your high school reunion in three months, or losing weight… someday? Even self-imposed deadlines can be effective, so don’t set a goal without setting a deadline.
Many goal-setters set a goal that is too ambitious (“Be debt-free by next month”) or not enough of a stretch (“Ask one person about job openings at her company this month.”). The best goals lie somewhere in the middle. They’re large enough to require some serious effort, but realistic enough that you have a good chance of achieving them.
Effective goals need to be reviewed regularly, too. Just writing them down on an index card on January 1 and sticking them in the back of your Day Planner isn’t going to get you very far; some experts recommend re-reading your goals – OUT LOUD – at least once in the morning and once at night. You might also try posting them throughout your home: On the bathroom mirror, on the refrigerator, on the dashboard of your car. This leaves no doubt about what you’re aiming for, and also serves as a constant reminder. (It’s harder to reach in the freezer for the Ben & Jerry’s when there’s a picture of a bikini-clad you stuck on the door!).
Maybe the most important thing to evaluate your goal for, though, is to make sure it’s really yours, and really what you want. Sometimes we set goals because they sound good, we think we should want them, or someone else told us it was a good thing to aim for. Forget all that! If your heart isn’t in it, no wonder you’re not working towards it and are watching reruns of “Lost” instead. Find something you can truly put your efforts into – learning Japanese, drawing pictures of famous people on your Etch-A-Sketch, feeding pets that were abandoned in natural disasters – and work on that. You get one go-round in this life, so you may as well spend it where it matters to you.