By: Marshall Goldsmith Posted: Apr 6th, 2016

The typical advertisement or “infomercial” – designed to help people “get in shape” - provides a great example of what not to do in goal-setting. The message is almost always the same, “For an ‘incredibly small’ amount of money – you can buy a ‘revolutionary’ product – that is ‘unbelievably easy’ and ‘fun to use’. This product will produce ‘amazing results’ ‘in almost no time’ and you will ‘have the body that you always wanted’.” Most infomercials imply that you will not have to continue exercising and dieting for years - that you will continue to look young – and that you will have frequent, wonderful sex for the rest of your life.

In reality there is no “easy answer” - real change requires real effort. The “quick fix” is seldom a “meaningful fix”. Distractions and competing responses are going to happen and the most successful people, and those who really want to be great, understand this.

Below are three of the most important reasons that people give up on goals followed by a brief description of how successful people “do it differently” and are ultimately well-positioned to achieve their goals.

1. Ownership

One of the biggest mistakes in all of leadership development is the roll-out of programs and initiatives with the promise that “this will make you better”. A classic example is the performance appraisal process. Many companies change their performance appraisal forms on a regular basis. How much good does this usually do? None! These appraisal form changes just confuse people and are seen as annual exercises in futility. What companies don’t want to face is the real problem – it is seldom the form – the real problem is the managers who lack either the courage or the discipline to make the appraisal process work. The problem with the “this will make you better” approach is that the emphasis is on the “this” and not the “you”.

Rather than rely on the latest “program,” successful people have a high need for and reliance upon self-determination. They commit to the challenge, task, or process that needs their efforts and make a plan to meet their goals. Because of this commitment, they are far more likely to achieve success.

2. Time

Most of us have a natural tendency to underestimate the time needed to reach targets. Everything seems to take longer than we think that it should! When the time elapsed in working toward our goal starts exceeding expectations, we are tempted to just give up on the goal, and often do.

Successful goal-setters are more time-sensitive than the general population. They are more realistic about the time it will take them to implement and complete various changes and/or tasks. In addition, they review their goals frequently and adjust their plans for progress as necessary. Thus, they are more likely to meet their own goal expectations.

3. Difficulty

The gripe with difficulty is, “The challenge, process, or task is a lot harder than I thought it would be. It sounded so simple when I was starting out!”

In setting goals it is important that we realize that real change will take real work. Expecting that “this will be easy” and “this will be no problem for me” can backfire in the long-term when we realize that change is not easy and that we will invariably face some problems in our journey toward change. 

Successful people understand that there will be a price for success – they will have to work hard to achieve their goals. This realistic outlook prevents the disappointment that can occur when challenges do arise later in the change process – and as a result they are less likely to give up.

All of these messages may sound “tough”, but they are real. Successful people are not afraid of challenging goals. In fact – clear, specific goals that produce a lot of challenge – tend to produce the best results!


In November 2015 Dr. Marshall Goldsmith was recognized as the #1 Leadership Thinker in the World and the top 5 Management Thinker at the Thinkers50 Award Ceremony in London. He was also selected as the #1 Executive Coach in the World by GlobalGurus.org, and one of the 10 Most Influential Management Thinkers in the World by Thinkers50 in both 2011 and 2013. In 2011 he was chosen as the World's Most Influential Leadership Thinker. Marshall was the highest rated executive coach on the Thinkers50 List in both 2011 and 2013. What Got You Here Won't Get You There was listed as a top ten business bestseller for 2013 by INC Magazine / 800 CEO Read (for the seventh consecutive year). Marshall's exciting new research on engagement is published in his newest book Triggers (Crown, 2015).

Marshall Goldsmith teaches in several of Tuck's Executive Education courses throughout the year, including the Tuck Executive Program (TEP), Leadership & Strategic Impact, and select Custom Programs.

You may purchas Marshall's book "Triggers" online at Amazon or Barnes & Noble!

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