3 Simple Strategies to Use When Struggling to Achieve a Goal

Do you have a goal that you have been trying to reach but struggling to attain it?

Before throwing in the towel, why not consider a change of approach?

Okay, so maybe you tried really, really hard the first time when you began your challenge.

This time keep it simple.

Chances are one of these three super simple strategies might be exactly what you need to tweak your goal to give it real attainability.

And this first goal fix is probably the best place to begin.

Fix #1: The 10-Minute Fix

What is the easiest thing that you can do but still be able to call it a challenge? Meet the 10-minute goal.

10, the perfect number! Try to do something for only five minutes and it just is not enough. Continue until 10 minutes and only then do you gain that smirky air of satisfaction.

In fact, the latest research has shown how this amount of time is short but potent. A 2018 study revealed that a single 10-minute session of very light-intensity exercise rapidly enhances memory function.

And that is just one 10-minute session! Just think what 10 minutes each day can do.

How Do You Apply This Fix?

This tweak works best when it is applied to something you want to do more of, whether it is exercising, learning a foreign language, or being a better partner or parent. Now, think of a task related to this goal that you can do each day for 10 minutes. Maybe it is going for a walk, or studying Spanish flashcards, or reading a story to your child. But do it each day, every day, for just 10 minutes.

If you want to work towards your goal in other ways concurrently, that is fine. Just keep it separate from your 10-minute challenge. For instance, if your objective is to exercise, you can still go to yoga or lift weights when you feel like it, but every day set aside that allotted 10 minutes to go for a walk.

Why? The idea behind this fix is to simplify your action item in order to allow it to be repeatable.

We want it to be repeatable not necessarily because we want to form a habit, but for a different reason entirely: to build self-efficacy in that particular area. 

Albert Bandura explained that self-efficacy refers to one’s belief in her or his ability to succeed in a specific situation. This means that if you possess more self-efficacy in a certain area, you are more likely to work towards the goals and challenges in that domain.

The first step to being able to achieve a goal is really believing that you have the capability of doing so. Thus, the 10-minute fix works on this important preparatory aspect of goal-setting.

It is important to note that once you have decided on the 10-minute goal, do not adjust it to make it more complex.

Research published in 2009 showed that perceived difficulty, which is the question “Is this too complex for me?” impacts task performance. If you think the task is attainable, you perform better; but, if you think it is too complex, you tend to perform poorly.

Thus, the 10-minute challenge is always something that you know you can do and do, consequently increasing your confidence in your ability to succeed in that domain.

It works on your ability to meet goals as much as on the progress towards a specific goal.

Fix #2: Do Not Write a Goal in the Negative Create a Positively Framed Goal

This tweak might not apply to everyone, but if you have a goal constructed in the negative, this fix is for you. If you do not have a negatively framed goal, pat yourself on the back, yell “booyah”, then move on to Fix #3.

Approach vs. Avoidance Goals

This particular fix concerns avoidance goals that involve wanting to give up a habit or decrease an action as opposed to working towards an action. There are many bad habits that we want to avoid, such as smoking, giving up Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, you know the typical ones.

Wanting to eliminate a bad habit is great but creating a goal that is negatively framed, research has shown, can be problematic.

One study demonstrated that subjects with more avoidance goals rated themselves as lower in self-esteem and optimism and higher in depression than subjects with more approach goals. More importantly, the study also revealed that a causal relationship exists whereby more approach goals lead to higher self-perceptions of success and satisfaction.

A negatively framed objective refers to a goal of avoiding a particular action in the sense of “I will not do x” or, “I will give up y.” It concerns when the written action item describes what you are not doing rather than what to do.

But negatively framed goals are not only harmful to our self-esteem and satisfaction, science also shows us that they are counterproductive. Daniel Wegner and colleagues’ research on thought processing demonstrated how.

Do you remember the “white bear” thought suppression study? In this groundbreaking research, participants were asked to not think of a white bear during a five-minute period and to ring a bell if the thought of a white bear came to mind.

This first experiment showed that the participants thought of the white bear on average once per minute.

In the next experiment, those same subjects were now asked to think of a white bear. The results revealed that this group thought of white bears more often than a different group of participants who did not undergo the initial thought suppression experiment. The evidence indicated that thought suppression had a paradoxical effect as a self-control strategy, producing the very obsession or preoccupation that it is directed against.

This means that when you tell yourself “Do not eat Flamin Hot Cheetos,” in attempting to meet this goal of not performing the action, one part of your mind is constantly monitoring the Cheetos thought suppression, creating an obsession that translates to: “I want to eat the Cheetos!”

From Avoidance to Approach

Wegner and colleagues went on to describe how a more successful self-control strategy involved giving participants a particular thought to use to distract them during suppression.

Thus, Fix #2 involves providing a positive aim such as “eat fruit for my daily snack” to replace/redirect the old avoidance objective.

If you have experience working or being around kids, you may know that rather than telling a child not to do something, she or he is much more likely to listen to you if you give them a different action to perform instead.

For example, instead of: “Don’t throw your plate on the floor!” Try instead, “Hand your plate to Daddy when you are finished.”

Channel your inner child and remember how you too did not like being told what not to do. Then reconstruct your goal into something you can do that redirects your thoughts and actually allows you to focus on your target.

Fix #3: The Try-Before-You-Buy (TBYB) Type Goal

If you use Amazon prime, you might be familiar with one of its special offers, Prime Wardrobe, the ability to try out products and only pay for the items you want to keep.

Once that iconic brown box arrives, you get seven days to test out what you ordered, whether it is several products or different sizes of the same item in order to find out what you like in person, in the comfort of your own home.

Try-before-you-buy (TBYB) services are very useful because often you only know what you really like and what works for you by testing it out.

It is funny; is it not? We are so serious when it comes to our clothing, taking the time to make a good decision and really testing if it is a good physical and emotional fit for us. Why do we not take this same approach in goal-setting?

We are conscientious when it comes to buying a new outfit online because we do not want to waste our money, but what about when we make an action plan? You would think that we would not want to waste our valuable time.

And working towards a new goal takes a lot of time. According to a 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it takes on average about 66 days to form a new habit, ranging from 18 to 254 days.

 An 18-day fix sounds very nice, but that upper range of 254 days is a big-time commitment.

If you have broken a recently set goal, like a returned Amazon Prime Wardrobe item, that exact goal might not be a perfect physical or emotional fit for you.

The way to find that right fit is Fix #3: the TBYB approach to goal-setting. Test out the goal before putting in the time to make it a habit.

The Mini Experiment: How it Works

Take your goal and convert it into a little experiment to test it before you buy into it. The experiment allows you to gain information about how your body responds to the changes in order to decide if the changes would be beneficial for you.

There are many well-known people who take this experimental approach to self-transformation. One example is Benjamin Franklin and his quest for moral perfection through 13 virtue-specific experiments. Virtues including silence: “Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. Avoid trifling conversation.” And tranquility, “Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.”

Just like Amazon, Franklin thought that seven days was a nice amount of time to test things out, explaining that he would give “a week’s strict attention to each of the virtues successively.”

The one-week time frame is important not only to observe how you are changing, but also to question if this particular process of self-transformation, that you thought you would like, really does make you happy.

Timothy Wilson and Daniel Gilbert’s research in affective forecasting, which refers to our ability to forecast our own feelings, reveals that we are not good at predicting what will make us happy, as well as, predicting the intensity and duration of our future emotional reactions.

This is why the mini-experiment fix is so handy. It enables you to test if your desired goal really will make you as happy as you think it should.

The brilliant aspect of this tweak is that if your target really does not make you happy, you know that now, instead of continually chasing after something that is not right for you. Or maybe worse, regretting never attaining something that in actually would not make you happy.

It’s Not Failure. It’s Just Data

This article spotlights three fixes you can employ to give you a fighting chance at attaining your goals. While there are other strategies out there, these ones in particular are great because they show how self-efficacy, concentration, and experimentation are important and, perhaps, overlooked elements to keep in mind when (re)designing your action plan.

They remind us that goal setting is not about focusing on the goal itself but on the goal-setter.

Oh, and one more thing. Before you begin, as an added pick me up, recite this mantra:

The fact that I have not succeeded at my goal yet is not failure; it’s just data.



This article was written by Adoree Durayappah-Harrison MAPP, a graduate of three masters programs, one in Applied Positive Psychology from UPENN, another in Buddhist practices from Harvard. Check out her other writings at Thriving101.

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