01/27/2012 03:10 pm ET Updated Mar 28, 2012

When Goals Go Bad

I recently caught up with a previous client who is a professional athlete who was telling me about his Christmas and New Year's regime. It seems that he did not have a break from his intense preparation leading up to the new competitive season. Our conversation got me reflecting on the typical post-New Year's period, drowning in well-founded resolutions whereby we all try to eat healthier, exercise more, give up bad habits and attempt to be happier as a result. For a period of time, our lives change to accommodate these new ideals. We become focused on maintaining the new way of life, or exercise, or diet for whatever period of time we want to "test" ourselves for.

Goals are an amazing way of generating motivation, momentum and keeping us focused on going the extra mile. As any coach, mentor or so called "expert" will tell you, goals are an essential mechanism for delivering progress and focusing on the task at hand. My view, however, is that goals can often go bad and a dichotomy is created! Through working with my various clients, it is a common occurrence that goals, the way they are defined and worked towards can easily become the single constraint that ever prevent them from actually being achieved. That is to say, the goal itself and the environment that it creates will actually prevent it from being realised -- hence the dichotomy or irony.

Goals can become self-imposing, and dictate what we do and how we live for whatever period of time we manage to hold our willpower in check for. Let me explain using the New Year's resolution example...

After a wonderful December becoming increasingly filled with parties and pre-Christmas meals and drinks, followed with the unwritten rule of stuffing ourselves silly on Christmas day itself and topped off with a stereotypical New Year's Eve, it may be you decide you need to be healthier. So you set resolutions to exercise more and follow a diet plan. Sound familiar?

As time passes following your chosen path towards achieving your resolutions, the first day painfully merges into the first week. Over this period of time you will notice the pressure to maintain "performance levels" increase. You cannot let yourself slip up and those times of wayward thoughts or lack of progress lead you to resort to self-motivation. This can come in many forms and may include talking to yourself, reading something inspirational or chatting to a friend who you hope will spur you on. More time passes and those initial chats (to yourself or otherwise) just don't cut it and eventually the inevitable happens and you blow out. You may have a takeaway, a chocolate bar or a drunken night out. The problem is once you have slipped once, it becomes mentally and emotionally easier to put the resolution(s) on hold again just for another break. Once the shell of an egg is cracked, it is far easier to break open compared to an egg without any crack at all.

The key is to attempt to prevent the slip-up in the first place, and this is where I totally differ from other so called psychological experts (sports or otherwise). Most will try to create a level of motivation and focus that aims to prevent any faltering or wavering from the given path. There are many exercises and techniques to create and maintain motivation and these definitely have their place and their uses. However, motivation or a lack of it is actually a symptom of another "problem." The pressure that builds up and starts to constrain your attempts to achieve your newly-created goals is also a symptom of this same problem area.

The important thing to do is in the conception of the goal. How you define what you want to achieve will determine whether you are stacking the odds against you or with you before you even begin. So following the previous example, if you say, "I am not going to drink or smoke for the month of January," the pressure will start building very quickly because you are focused on the period of time and at least initially, how far away the goal line is. On the other hand, if you say, "I am not going to drink alcohol or smoke for as long as I can," or "as little as possible," then any attained reduction is achievement. Achievement will naturally spur a side effect -- motivation. This becomes even more critical in the area of professional sports because the smallest change can have the most dramatic effects.

Be careful how you define what you are hoping to achieve because its too easy that it could actually prevent you from achieving it.

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