Why Some Goals Make You Run in Circles

January 10th, 2011 by Steve Pavlina

Why is it that sometimes you can be really clear about a goal, make a plan to get there, and take action on it, but even after years of pushing yourself, you still have little to show for your efforts?

Maybe you made some progress, but perhaps it wasn’t enough to justify the effort. Meanwhile it seems like so many other people are able to achieve similar goals much more quickly. This can be frustrating.

What is it that causes you to run in circles?

A common goal achievement strategy looks something like this:

  1. Define your outcome.
  2. Make a plan to get there.
  3. Take lots of action.
  4. Refine your approach as needed.
  5. Persist until you succeed.

This method will indeed work for certain types of goals. But for other goals, it will actually cause you to run in circles. You’ll burn a lot of time and energy, but you won’t reach your goal in a reasonable period of time.

The method above tends to work okay for goals that don’t require much inner change. Your current thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and behaviors are well aligned with your outcomes. You don’t have to change on the inside. You just have to take certain basic actions that you’re already comfortable with, and you’ll get there.

For example, if you set a goal to organize your home office, and you’re already a fairly neat person, and you know how to organize, and you like the feeling of having everything in its proper place, then you can use this process to achieve that goal. You can imagine your home office the way you’d like it to be. Then make a to-do list of the action steps to get there. Then set aside a weekend to make it so, and go through the steps one by one until you’re done. If something unexpected happens, you can adjust your plan on the fly. This is an achievable goal for you, and if you feel motivated to make it happen, it’s clearly within your power to get it done in a reasonable period of time.

On the other hand, suppose you set that same goal to organize your home office, but your thoughts, beliefs, and feelings aren’t aligned very well. Maybe you’re not particularly happy with the work you do, and having a cluttered office makes it easier to distract yourself from depressing thoughts and feelings. Maybe you worry about having more responsibility. Maybe you fear that your life lacks variety. Maybe you’ve been eating a crappy diet, and it’s bringing down your energy levels, making it hard to feel motivated to de-clutter your office. Maybe you’ve piled up so much clutter that you now view it as a monumental task. Maybe you’re a habitual pack rat and have a hard time throwing things away, even if you haven’t used them in years.

For this second person, the goal achievement process previously described usually won’t work. It may look good on paper, but it can actually have an adverse effect, causing you to run in circles. You may set a goal to have a neat office and make a to-do list just as the first person did, but it won’t yield the same result for you. Even if you make a dent in the clutter, you’ll re-clutter it within a few weeks. Then you’ll beat yourself up, resolve to “stop procrastinating” and “finally get organized,” and try again. Fast forward five years, and your cluttered office still looks pretty much the same, despite investing a lot of mental and emotional energy in trying to improve.

This doesn’t mean you’re broken, lazy, or impotent. It means you’re using the wrong process for your particular goal. If this process isn’t working for you, stop using it. A good process produces good results.

A Tale of Two Vibrations

Albert Einstein is famously quoted as saying that we cannot solve problems at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.

In the case of our first person organizing her home office, she already thinks of herself as a neat and organized person. She likes being organized and feels good about it on the inside. When she sees clutter in her environment, she immediately recognizes it: “This isn’t me.” It feels wrong to her. It’s below her standards to tolerate it for long. Perhaps she just got busy, and things piled up temporarily, but she knows that being neat is congruent with who she is. She may have been at a lower level of thinking when she created the clutter problem (stressed, overworked, tired, etc.), but that isn’t her normal state of being. Once her life is “back to normal,” she feels a strong desire to fix the clutter problem. Clutter isn’t congruent with who she is.

We can say that it’s part of her vibe — her collection of thoughts, feelings, and beliefs — to be neat and organized. While clutter may arise from time to time, it’s in her nature to return to a state of order again and again. Something must knock her down to a lower level of thinking, such as stress or illness, in order for her to take actions that create clutter. And even then, she knows she’ll eventually clean it up when she’s back to her normal self.

With our second person, however, being neat and organized isn’t part of his vibe. His normal, default experience is to create and tolerate clutter, even if he doesn’t like it. He’s a match for clutter. His thoughts, feelings, and beliefs all support the creation and maintenance of a cluttered environment. When he does feel like getting organized and he’s able to get himself to take action, it’s a peak state, and it usually doesn’t last for more than a few days. Even if he can get himself to hold that state long enough to organize his office, he’ll simply re-clutter it in the following weeks when he’s back to his normal level of being.

Can you think of goals in your own life where your experience was like that of the first person? And other experiences that were more like the second person?

Are Your Goals Congruent With Your Vibe?

You can use the previously mentioned goal achievement process (or something similar) when your situation is like that of the first person. But it doesn’t work well in the second situation.

Think about some of the goals and projects you’d like to accomplish. Which ones are already a good match for your current level of being? Which ones are not a match for your current vibe?

For example, if you set a goal to earn $1 million this year, but you’ve never earned more than $50K in a year before, it’s safe to say that the first goal achievement process will cause you to run in circles. That’s because your vibe is incongruent with that goal.

However, if you’ve earned $400K, $600K, and $800K in each of the last 3 years, and it feels normal to see your income increase significantly each year, then the first goal achievement process can work just fine. Your current vibe is already a good match for this goal.

Foolish Plans

When your default level of thinking and feeling (i.e. your current vibe) is not a good match for one or more of your goals, don’t try to use the first goal achievement process. It will almost certainly run you in circles. The reason that happens is that you’re trying to achieve a goal at a level of thinking at which it cannot be achieved. You may come up with a nice-looking list of action steps, but they’ll be the wrong actions. When you try to work on that list, something will feel off. You’ll find yourself procrastinating massively, for instance. This doesn’t mean you don’t want the goal. It means you’re trying to use the wrong process to get there. You’ll probably experience lots of clunky starts and re-starts to try to get yourself moving, but you won’t move much.

For example, if you’ve never earned more than $50K in a year, and you decide to earn $1 million this year, but your vibe is stuck below the $50K level, then when you make a to-do list for how to achieve your million-dollar goal, it won’t be a realistic plan. It will be a fantasy. Your plan will be like a child’s plan to build a space ship. It won’t be something you can realistically implement, and it won’t look much like the plan that a true soon-to-be millionaire would use.

Your plan will probably be cluttered with actions that don’t even need to be done, at least not by you personally. It will include a lot of unnecessary busywork. It will focus on actions that won’t produce strong results under real-world conditions.

If someone who was already earning $1 million per year looked at your plan, they’d likely see it as unbalanced and off-base. Even if they were starting from scratch, their plan to earn that first million wouldn’t look very much like yours.

Don’t bother to create plans for goals that you aren’t already a good match for. Such plans won’t work in the real world. First you have to get yourself to the level of thinking at which your goal can be achieved. After you get to that level of thinking, then you can start identifying action steps, and those actions will make sense.

Vibrational Goal Achievement

So what do you do if you have a goal that doesn’t mesh well with your current level of thinking and feeling? How do you bridge the vibrational gap between where you are and where you’d like to be?

You need to use a different goal achievement process for that. I’ll share such a process in my next post. :)



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