Why do we set a goal and then NOT take action to achieve it?

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Why do we set a goal and then NOT take action to achieve it?

I know you’ve done it. We’ve all done it.

You’ve set a goal and created a plan to reach it…

… and then you gave up on it.

Let’s be real - desire and motivation are just not enough. Change is scary. Even when it’s a positive change, your brain is still fiercely working to protect you from ALL change.

Your brain’s natural tendency to protect you directly competes with your desire to reach a goal.

Harvard professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey wrote a book about it called Immunity to Change which basically states that “beneath our desires lie competing commitments.”

Do you find ways to procrastinate when you’re sitting down to work on a goal? Do you find yourself trying over and over again without getting anywhere? Your competing commitments are literally standing on the brakes while you’re trying to press the gas pedal.

Your competing commitments are totally specific to you, so there are no “one size fits all” strategies and tactics to work through them.

So, how can you identify when it’s happening and work to overcome it?


Step One: Identify what you currently do that is actively preventing you from reaching your goal.

The first step to reaching your goal is to look at the behaviors you do that are actively working against you.

Do you know someone who says they want to find a better job, but continues to stay in the job they hate? That is a competing commitment.

Your friend who hates their job might have a behavior pattern like this:

  • Never speaks up about frustrations at work to a manager or leadership, instead voicing her anger to friends who can’t change the situation.
  • She doesn’t know what she really wants to do or what kind of job she would enjoy.
  • She goes to Meetups and events and gets business cards without following up.

You probably know someone who is trying to start a business. Their competing commitments might look like this:

  • Instead of working on her business, she listens to business podcasts, reads more books, and browses the Internet for courses.
  • She keeps telling herself that it takes a lot of money to start a business.
  • She keeps telling herself and others that she just hasn’t found the “right” business idea.


Step Two: Identify the scariest thing that would happen if you did the opposite.

Once you’ve figured what you do that actively works against you, identify what would happen if you did the opposite?

This is the scary part where you dig into your fears and worries. It’s time to get real.

Our friend who wants a new job has fears like:

  • Speaking up when something bothers her feels it would result in workplace drama and she might be fired.
  • Defining what she wants in a job feels like she’d be limiting her options.
  • Going to Meetups and getting business cards makes her feel like she has options, but choosing not to act on them gives her the feeling that she’s in control.

Our friend who wants to be an entrepreneur has fears like:

  • Moving from reading and learning to taking action feels scary because the idea she has may not be profitable.
  • Actually starting a business without a lot of money feels scary because she may not be able to follow through on the big idea she wants to reach.
  • Committing to an “idea” rather than waiting for the “right” idea feels scary because she fears that her idea might not be impactful.


Step Three: Identify your big assumptions and your deeper why

Consider Step Two the rough draft of your deeply held fears. Step Three takes your fears and moves your attention a few layers deeper. You will know when you’ve touched on your deepest fears and competing commitments when you go “Oh!” or “Ugh!,” followed by “Yes! That is definitely the reason.”

Here is a short but powerful guide to take your fears from Step Two.

“If __________, then _________ (insert negative event) will happen."

Our friend who wants a new job might have big assumptions like these:

  • If her job ends and it’s not her choice, then she will be unemployed. If she is unemployed, she will never find another job. She will feel like she is a loser - an undesirable employee.
  • If she limits her options, she will feel trapped. She is scared to make the wrong choice when committing to a job. She needs to be sure she is choosing the “perfect job.” If she doesn't choose the perfect job, she might wind up never feeling happy in her work.
  • If she acted on the connections and business cards she gets at Meetups, she might have to care about the new company and worry about whether or not they want to hire her. If it’s not up to her whether or not they hire her, she feels like she’s not in control of the situation. If they don’t choose to hire her, then she’s not a desirable employee.

Our entrepreneur friend has big assumptions that might look like:

  • If her business doesn’t take off, then she will be a failure. She won’t be able to quit her day job and her friends and family will think she’s stupid for trying.
  • If she chooses a small idea, then she won’t be doing important work. If she does unimportant work, then she won’t matter and will never make an impact on the world.
  • If she feels like she didn’t make the “right” choice for her business, then she will feel like she created another job. She will feel trapped and hopeless like she does now.


Step Four: Experimenting with your assumptions

Steps One, Two and Three are important, but they are largely just emotional. Emotions are helpful for understand yourself, but they don’t compare to actually testing your assumptions in the real world.

Testing your assumptions must be safe and small enough so that the practice doesn’t feel overwhelming and end up causing you to feel too paralyzed to move forward.

The main point of actively testing your assumptions is NOT to try prove your assumptions wrong. You are simply trying to gather data.

Start with a single assumption.

Ask yourself which assumption most actively gets in your way.

Which of your assumptions - if you changed it - would make the biggest, most positive change in your life? (If you're willing, share it in the comments below)

Some of your tests may remain in the gathering research sphere such as our friend, the entrepreneur. She could look for people who started with small business ideas that became something much bigger or found deeper meaning in how small they stayed. She could also test out her assumption by launching a small idea over the course of two weeks and seeing how it goes.

Our friend who desires a new job could experiment by connecting with a career coach to do review her resume, do a strengths assessment or try out a mock interview to challenge her assumptions that she would be an undesirable employee.


Following each of these steps will take some time and requires some emotional digging. The authors of Immunity to Change suggest dedicating about an hour a week for at least three months to practicing these new habits.

Our failure to take action is not an inherent flaw in our character. We have competing commitments at work, and we can’t help that they’ve been built from a lifetime of stories.

You owe it to yourself to take some time and uncover these competing commitments. Working through them is the difference between feeling the wind behind your sails and constantly battling a boulder up a hill.

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