What makes long term personal goals so damn hard?

By Bill Harding
Published February 3, 2019

The pursuit of long-term goals is a defining aspect of the human experience. Its grand promise is to translate our most precious dreams into lived reality. Sounds pretty good, right? And yet, according to the best available science, only about 8% of goal setters realize their goals. If long-term goals are so essential to realizing our hopes and dreams, why are we so inept at sticking to them?


Luckily, I have a lifetime of goal setting failures to probe for answers. The common theme behind my failures snapped into place when I read this popular article about procrastination from WaitButWhy. This article was my first introduction to the idea of the "Eisenhower Matrix." Named after 1950s U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, the matrix breaks apart people's goals into the following four quadrants:

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Think about how your own time is divided among these four groups. If you're like most people, at work you probably tend to inhabit quadrants one and three -- whatever seems most urgent on a given day receives your attention. At home, you might relax in quadrant four and dabble in quadrants one and three as necessary.


Long-term goals fit in the second quadrant (henceforth, "Q2") of the matrix: they're important, but they're never urgent. As you begin to unpack the discipline required to visit Q2, it's little wonder this region gets about as many visitors as a Siberian winter. Q2 is a region primarily inhabited by the world's most industrious and successful achievers: people who can identify their goals, and possess the willpower to pursue them over a protracted period of time.


So what does it take for us average goal setters to gain access to the rarified domain of the Q2 achiever?


Case study in Q2 pursuit

To get a tangible sense for why most people struggle to set and achieve their long-term personal goals, let's analyze a real world example. We'll use "call grandma every month" as a representative Q2 personal goal. I choose this example because many people have some family member they'd like to keep in touch with better, which makes it relatable. Also, since the time required for a phone call is low, it limits the range of possible excuses.


The goal sounds so very simple: just pick up the phone once per month and chat for 30 minutes with someone you love. How could we fail at such a quick and straightforward goal? And yet, when it comes to Q2 objectives, our brain seems inexorably drawn to create real and imagined barriers to our success. The creativity our mind applies to procrastinating on important, non-urgent goals would be ✨dazzling ✨.... if it weren't so depressing.


The most basic excuse not to call grandma is that it's hard to remember to perform an infrequent task when you lead a busy life. "Aha," says the seasoned problem solver, "so why don’t I just schedule my call to grandma on my calendar, like I would a recurring business meeting?"


A most logical solution, seasoned problem solver! However, the calendar-based solution comes with its own set of problems:


What time & day to schedule for the task? Spoiler: it doesn't matter. No matter what time you choose, there will be months where you're busy that day. Or you just aren't feeling it right then. Or grandma is out playing pinochle with her frenz. Unfortunately, the moment you dismiss that calendar reminder, you're on your own.


Miss the goal once, get discouraged. Every time you receive a calendar reminder that you don't act on, it grows more likely that you'll abandon the goal (even if you don't have the heart to remove it from the calendar).


Periodicity break. Let's say you are the rare human possessing of such incredible memory and willpower that you remember to call grandma a few week after your calendar reminder. Congratulations! You're on the way to achieving your goal! The only problem is, that same recurring reminder is going to ping you again next week. This sets you up for failure, along with the commiserate likelihood of getting discouraged.


A calendar isn't the right tool for sticking to long-term goals

The fundamental problem with a calendar is that its fixed recurrence paradigm is too rigid to work for pursuing long-term personal goals in the messy and complex real world. 💡


What we really need is a recurrence paradigm less like the calendar, and more like "whenever I get around to completing this task, remind me to do it again X days later."


I couldn’t find a calendar application that would let me do this – so our team created Amplenote: a sort of "personal goal-setting coach." Amplenote has built a paradigm we call "relative recurrence." Its express purpose is to help you succeed in pursuing your long-term, Q2 aspirations.


How Amplenote works

Every task created in Amplenote can be opened up to expose the following options:


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In the screenshot above, the Due Field is set to trigger a reminder to call my grandma exactly one month from the last time I called -- whenever that happens to be.


The Start Field dictates that, after I've called, this task will be hidden from my personal todo list for three weeks (thereby reducing todo list noise), until one week before I'm supposed to call grandma again.


The Priority and Duration Fields indicate that this task is both important and quick to get done. That means it receives lots of Task Points , which will put it near the top of my todo list when I click the "Sort Todo List" button. If the task isn’t done within two days of the due date, then it receives another 10 Task Points, further increasing its visibility on your list.


In the real world version of my "Call grandma" task, I also used Rich Footnotes to provide myself ideas on what to talk about when I call. This means fewer reasons to procrastinate when the task pops back onto my list a week before it's due. So far I'm on a streak of four months worth of calls. These calls have far exceeded my expectations regarding how much satisfaction they'd provide -- my grandma turns out to have a lot going on in her life!


Design and become your best self

With Amplenote as coach, we hope to provide busy people the courage to stretch the limits of what they try to achieve. Once you have conviction about what's important to you, be bold and start doing it! If you've tried and failed in the past, well, that makes two of us. 😄 As we've discussed in this note blog post, it takes a little help to stick to a goal when you've got a busy life full of competing priorities. You probably just haven't been using a tool specifically designed to unleash your focused productive energy toward your Q2 goals.


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Along with using a tool specifically designed for long-term goal setting, here are a few bonus tactics that have increased the rate at which I make progress against my goals:


Progress begets progress. Knock a couple small items off your list at the beginning of each day. It will generate "progress momentum" that sets you up to tackle the more audacious goals on your list.


Smaller is better -- so time box your goal. This strategy is perfect when you have a challenging or tedious task that could end up taking hours of time. In these cases, write the task down as "30 minutes progress on [challenging or tedious task]." After you've completed 30 minutes, you're done!


Be specific. An important-but-vague goal like "One hour progress searching for new job" is inviting your future self to procrastinate for lack of a starting point. Such tasks are at especially high risk of becoming barnacles. If you've found yourself consider a task 3+ times without starting it, reframe it to be more specific and bite-sized.


Have fun. If your personal todo list is stuffed full of big audacious goals, you're probably going to find a reason to avoid opening it. When you hear about an interesting concert, movie, art exhibit, restaurant, or something else you look forward to -- add it to your personal todo list! By upping the "fun factor" of the list, you decrease the potential for avoiding it altogether.


Inspire the rest of us?

With the right tool, achieving long-term personal goals is within reach for most anybody. Do you have any stories about audacious personal goals you've set and achieved? We’d love to hear from you! Add a comment below (or drop us a line at hello@amplenote.com) and tell us about your greatest long-term goal triumphs.

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