What stops you from achieving all your goals? Whether they be new year’s resolutions, life ambitions or business goals, we all make aspirational plans about what we might achieve with the right focus and application. In the main these tend to be at least vaguely achievable. They also tend to be things that we know will make our lives or our work better;
“learn to play guitar” “run a 10k” “get a new job” “win 5 new clients” “eat healthier”
As familiar as we are with setting these sorts of goals, we’re also used to seeing them drift and fade, the energy of our good intentions and optimism slowly replaced with the stagnation of the status quo.
We’re also just as familiar with the narrative around failure. Like the January gym joiner, we probably started with good intention, but over time grew lethargic, failed to prioritise well and our motivation waned. The apparent solution is also familiar – more motivation. Whether it be a motivational YouTube video, an inspirational case study or a personal trainer, a whole industry exists to help us stay motivated and determined.
In all of this narrative, the common enemy to achievement is bad excuses. Lack of motivation, laziness, insufficient will in the face of struggle. Failure comes in the moments we skip a workout, or order a takeaway, or watch TV instead of studying, or take our eye off the ball. Success, therefore, is just about staying on the straight and narrow and not succumbing to our usual vices.
But there’s a less obvious reason for our failures, hidden beneath the common narrative of poor effort and motivation.
Often, our failures come about because of good excuses.
Every year, I try to cycle at least 2000 miles. Before I had kids, not achieving this goal came down to what I considered bad excuses – lie-ins, days off, Netflix marathons and other distractions. I’d always feel like I should have found a way.
For the last three years though, I’ve had children to parent. The guilt of the bad excuse has disappeared. I’ve now got two very good reasons for not spending hours of my weekend away from home pedalling around the Peaks. Last week, my eldest spent two evenings in A&E, two more very good reasons for the bike staying in the shed for the night.
Unlike bad excuses, these good excuses take the blame away. We no longer feel responsible for not achieving our goals, as some force outside of ourselves was responsible. These external factors aren’t solved by a dose of motivation, they sit beyond our control.
This is what commonly stymies our work goals in particular. Growing revenue, winning business, learning new skills; all are generally frustrated by the external reality - the client said no, the market shifted. Most commonly of all, the urgent day-to-day got in the way; people left, we launched a new product, we had a big pitch, we were really busy, the to-do list got too long, other things were more urgent…
While good excuses are as reasonable as they are uncontrollable, the end result remains the same. We might not be personally to blame, but our goals remain unachieved.
Business and individuals often attempt to combat good excuses with the motivation approach – developing incentives, ramping up pressure. In toxic businesses, individuals are left to combat these external factors on their own, their good excuses treated like bad ones by bosses who see any failure as purely down to a lack of will – any excuse is a bad excuse.
So what can we do? How do we acknowledge and combat the good excuses? How do we achieve goals in the face of reasonable reasons not to?
The first step is to ground our goals in reality. Often, we ignore the fact that we don’t have hours of idle time set aside to focus on a new goal. Whether trying to lose half a stone or generate £1m of new business income, any challenging goal will take some dedicated time to achieve. That will mean spending less time on other things, or finding extra time from somewhere else. This isn’t just an obvious observation. If we make goals without also identifying the time needed to achieve them and where (or who) it’s going to come from, we’re not giving ourselves a realistic chance of success.
Similarly, we need to remember that good excuses will inevitably come along. We’ll have times when we’re too busy, or life will get in the way. When faced with good excuses, we can either give up on our goals guilt-free, or find new ways of achieving them – bringing in more people to help or revising future plans. To combat the good excuse of being a parent, I’ve started cycling indoors when they’re in bed. To make up for two nights of A&E, I’ll realistically need to give up an evening in front of the TV this week.
All too often, either as individuals or businesses, we set goals that overlook the competing demands of the day-to-day. When good excuses come along and get in the way, we either treat them as definitive obstacles or crank up the pressure and try to motivate our way through challenges that are nothing to do with motivation.
To achieve our goals in the face of the good excuses that inevitably come along, we need to stay vigilant. We need to review our goals each week, not just annually or quarterly or whenever they get done. We need regular check-ins, a plan as to what we can do towards them this week. If we don’t make the progress we hoped for this week, we need a plan to get back on track next week.
If you schedule a review in three months, you can be sure some good excuses will have got in the way between now and then.
If all this sounds too labour intensive, it needn’t be. Taking some time up-front to ground goals in reality, thinking of how to prioritise them in competition with the day-to-day, and having a brief review and revision each week needn’t take hours at a time. And if your goals are truly worthwhile, some further attention to them should be worth it too.
There will always be good excuses. When they come along, we can’t just ignore them or attempt to push through them. But if we don’t plan a way around them, we’ll never achieve the transformational goals we aim for. A more hands-on approach to our goals is the best way to achieve the things we want to in the face of good excuses and the pressures of the real world.