Setting goals is a great way to keep yourself motivated to achieve the things that are important to you in this life. Without goals, none of us would have a reason to keep doing what we’re doing.
However, on the flip side, setting unrealistic goals can be worse than setting no goals at all. While I would strongly encourage you to set goals throughout your life in all areas, I would also recommend that you keep your goals realistic.
The consequences of setting unrealistic goals can be pretty hefty. Let’s take a closer look.
Unrealistic Goals: The Biggest Consequence
Possibly the biggest consequence of setting unrealistic goals is the negative effects it has on our emotional and mental well-being. An unrealistic goal has an aura of failure surrounding it. Chances are if it’s unrealistic, you’re not going to accomplish it.
Failure leads to disappointment, and continual disappointment can have serious impacts on our mental health, self-image, and general positivity.
Psychologically, when an individual is considering a risky or unrealistic goal or action, that person forms a preemptive expectation. When that venture then fails, as many unrealistic goals do, the result is disappointment.
Other emotions that come along with disappointment are often frustration and regret. Eventually, constant disappointment can result in blame, resentment, and even sometimes rage. It can also turn into sadness or depression over time, and a type of self-loathing and a lack of ability to recognize your own worth and value.
I’m sure we can all acknowledge how vitally important our self-image and mental health is. We should be taking care of ourselves rather than putting ourselves down. Setting unrealistic goals can lead to serious negative emotions and nasty feelings towards ourselves.
Of course, there are other things that unrealistic goals lead to that are huge negatives in our lives. They can be defined as excuses, acceptance, and expectations.
One of the first things that an unrealistic—and therefore, unachieved—goal leads to is the beginning of excuses.
Many times, instead of accepting responsibility for our failures or even recognizing that our goals were unrealistic, we tend to make excuses to redirect blame.
And that’s human nature; it’s understandable that we wouldn’t want to admit to failure or take the blame for something, especially when the goal was unrealistic, to begin with. However, many of us would much rather come up with some top-notch excuses that sound better than, “yes, I failed.”
After the excuses set it, we begin to realize that it’s easier to accept them as legitimate reasons, and by extension, we’ve accepted our failures.
Once we view our failures as acceptable, we start to get lazy. Laziness is a highly contagious virus that spreads to our whole lives and the lives of others that we come in contact with.
We’ve decided that it’s okay to fail and we don’t really have to try to achieve anything, and that makes it easier for us to convince others the same. A friend who may be looking to you as an accountability partner may be convinced by you that they don’t have to achieve those goals or reach those benchmarks.
After all, you can always come up with a good excuse. What’s the big deal?
You’ve come up with some great excuses, and you’ve accepted failure as an everyday thing. Now you’ve come to expect failure, where in the past, you were working against failure. Not only is that going to result in the opposite of whatever goals you had in mind, but it will lead to general negative feelings.
You no longer have optimism, and you probably don’t even have realism at this point. You’re solely working with pessimism.
In an environment where failure is expected, there is absolutely no motivation to do anything positive or productive. Lack of motivation leads to laziness and feelings of disinterest in everything. With this attitude and mindset, depression and general unhappiness are right around the corner.
What is Considered an Unrealistic Goal?
Whether or not your goal is realistic or unrealistic is pretty much up to you, which may not be entirely helpful for someone who’s looking for a straight answer.
The truth is, everyone is different. What may be an extremely unrealistic goal for you may be completely attainable for somebody else.
So, when you’re trying to set up your goals, you should ask yourself certain questions to determine whether or not you can achieve them. The key to setting a realistic goal is to be extremely, painfully honest with yourself along with a bit of research.
Ask yourself questions like these:
- Do I have the right mindset for this goal?
- Do I possess the required abilities to achieve this goal?
- Is this the right time to work towards this goal?
- Can I afford this goal financially?
- Do I have the resources needed to achieve this goal?
- Is this goal physically possible?
- Am I good enough?
Some of these questions may seem a little harsh, such as “am I good enough?” But, when considering personal goals of sizable efforts, they’re necessary. You may be a jogger who loves to go on her daily run, but if you’re considering trying out for the Olympics, you better ask yourself if you’re actually good enough for that level of competition.
Otherwise, saying you’re going to the Olympics from your hobby as a jogger will be very unrealistic.
However, someone who has a history of success through high school and college track and field and has been training all their life would have a more realistic shot at the Olympics.
When it comes to setting realistic goals, facts and research can only go so far. Much of your success in setting realistic goals comes from knowing yourself, your abilities, and your levels of commitment. A little common sense will go a long way as well.
Why Do We Set Them?
Still, even if we possess the common sense and the ability to think clearly, unrealistic goals happen to the best of us. There are generally two main reasons that we set unrealistic goals for ourselves. They can be defined as optimism and uncertainty.
While these things do not necessarily seem all that bad, they can get us into some trouble when it comes to our goals. Delving into these reasons can give us a better understanding of why they are dangerous traps to fall into.
Many people like to define themselves as optimists. Optimists see the best in every situation, as opposed to a pessimist who focuses on the worst.
Being an optimistic person isn’t a crime by any length, but ungrounded optimism can make us seem flighty and unrealistic.
When we set goals with an overly optimistic mindset, we start to believe that we can do and accomplish anything and everything. It’s one thing to believe in yourself, but it’s another to believe you have superpowers.
Because of this kind of world view, optimists are in danger of setting goals that are far beyond our reach, essentially setting us up for failure. For example, an optimist in a relationship may try setting a goal of never arguing with their partner.
We all know that realistically, arguments are going to happen—it’s a fact of life and a fact of relationships. While it’s a nice thought to want to completely rid your relationship of any and all arguments, it’s just not very realistic.
Then, when an argument does occur, contrary to your goal, it’s very disappointing. It makes us feel like a failure because we couldn’t live up to our goal.
Pure optimism is not always enough to set realistic goals. The number of times I’ve promised myself with a can-do attitude that I’ll start waking up earlier is enough to convince me of that.
We have all fallen prey to this second reason at some point or another. Our goals become unrealistic simply because we are uncertain. We don’t actually know what a good or realistic goal is because we are uninformed about the topic.
Sometimes goalsetting comes with a set of trial and error, and that’s okay. However, we can avoid a lot of this wasted time by doing proper research or seeking the advice of well-informed individuals.
If we’re serious about setting and achieving realistic goals, then we need to fight off the urge to be lazy in our research and planning. Uncertainty can lead to failure.
How to Avoid Unrealistic Goals
It’s possible that you have already heard of the idea of SMART goals, a tool often used to set realistic goals for yourself. However, for those who have not explored this idea, it’s a good idea to make yourself familiar with each letter in SMART to help avoid setting unrealistic goals.
The best and most realistic goals are very specific ones. You should be able to define the who, what, where, why, and which of your goal. If you can’t, then your goal isn’t specific enough and you’ll eventually find yourself at a roadblock—whether it be an outside factor or yourself.
By taking this step, you will be able to define your goal in a clear and simple way with no question marks or complications.
Tracking your progress can be super helpful when it comes to setting goals. That’s why it’s vital that your goals are measurable. If you can include a number, that’s even more helpful.
For example, if you’re looking to lose 30 pounds, you have yourself a very measurable goal. You can track your progress based on the number of pounds you lose.
In the same way, all of your goals should be able to address questions like, “how much?”, “how many?”, and “how will I know when it’s finished?”
Goals without numbers can still be measurable. If your goal is to become certified in something specific, you should be able to track your progress by the number of training courses or tests you need to complete to get there.
Immeasurable goals are harder to keep track of and will leave you feeling unorganized with little proof of progress.
Perhaps the most important aspect of setting a SMART goal, your goals should be achievable. This directly relates to the idea of your goal being realistic. In order to have a realistic goal, you have to set something that is possible for you to achieve.
Ask yourself questions like these:
“How can I accomplish this goal?” and “How realistic is this goal based on other constraints?”
If you can honestly answer these questions, then you might just have yourself an achievable goal. Consider the resources you have, like access to nearby classes, finances, and time. If you have solid answers and solutions to these questions and constraints, your goal is achievable.
Relevance is a vital factor in setting realistic goals. If your goal doesn’t matter to you, what’s pushing you to accomplish it?
You need to make sure that your goals are worthwhile in your mind. Relevance can also relate to timing, efforts, and personal abilities. Consider whether now is the right time in determining your goal’s relevance. Think about the effort it’s going to take for you to accomplish this goal and if it’s worth the work you will have to put in.
Finally, decide whether you’re the right person to accomplish this goal. Maybe you would love to see your son make the varsity team at his school. You could make it your personal goal to coach him, but a trained and certified coach may be a better-suited individual to get the job done.
Last but certainly not least on this list is time bound. A goal without a deadline is essentially pointless. Without a set endpoint, you may be tempted to let your goal go on and on. Remember all the things your father said he always wanted to do but never did?
He probably didn’t set a time-bound goal.
Set your target date to generate focus and motivation, making your goals far more realistic than something that you maybe might want to accomplish at some point in the foreseeable future.
In addition to setting your end date, you can also consider what you can do at certain benchmarks. If your target date is a year from now, determine what you can do by the six-month mark. Do this throughout the time period, setting goals as soon as what you can do today.
Locke and Latham’s Five Principles
Dr. Edwin Locke and Dr. Gary Latham were researches who spent years and years looking deep into the theory of goal-setting. What they came up with were several articles and studies that eventually led to their development of Locke and Latham’s Five Principles.
Like SMART goals, these five principles were developed to help individuals improve their chances of success in their goals:
- Task Complexity
A more detailed look at each of these principles can give us a better picture of how we can help ourselves set realistic goals and accomplish them.
Setting clear goals is a surefire way to increase your chances of success. An unclear goal doesn’t lead to motivation or initiative like a clearly defined goal does. Unclear goals are too vague and make it too easy to make excuses or slack.
Lack of clarity is likely to lead to unrealistic goals. This is a great place to incorporate the use of SMART goals to ensure that your goals are clear, defined, and attainable.
There’s a careful balance that comes with choosing a challenging goal. Challenge is good in that it stirs motivation to achieve something great. If something is too easy, it doesn’t reap as big a reward in our minds. Accomplishing a challenging goal can be great for our confidence.
However, your goals shouldn’t be challenging to the point where it’s too hard. This is the same thing as setting an unrealistic goal. Too much of a challenge can discourage us and lead to failure.
Whether you’re working towards a goal on your own, with your family, or in collaboration with a team, commitment is an absolute necessity. Without commitment, your goal is worthless. If you can’t commit, you’re already accepting failure as a plausible option.
A lack of commitment also says that you think there’s a chance your goal is unachievable, and therefore unrealistic. Maintain excellent visibility of your goal, communicate it often, and set objectives along the way.
Feedback is a great way to ensure your goal is not only realistic but to help you adjust your efforts to point towards success.
Feedback insinuates the input of others, but this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. Your feedback can come from others and an outside perspective, but you can also get feedback from yourself by going over your efforts and assessing your progress.
Like we discussed with SMART goals, your goals should be measurable so that you can give yourself solid feedback on how you’re doing.
Task complexity goes hand-in-hand with setting challenging goals. In the same way that too much of a challenge can be a goal deterrent, so can complexity.
While it’s okay to make things a little complex for the sake of keeping them interesting, too much complexity can lead to one pushing themselves too hard. This can result in burnout and ultimate failure in goals.
Overly complex goals are a prime example of unrealistic goals, so take care in this area.
The Benefits of Setting Realistic Goals
If we keep our goals realistic, attainable, and SMART, we can reap many benefits from working towards and achieving them. Some can argue the benefits of setting unrealistic goals, like the resulting extra effort we may put in, but setting realistic goals can be far more advantageous.
Setting realistic and attainable goals is extremely helpful is defining a clear direction for your life. Often times, when we set goals, they naturally lead to other goals. Like a ladder, our goals can lead us further in life.
When you set a goal to nail that first job interview out of college, you earn that position. That sets you up to develop goals of promotions, raises, and companywide recognitions, which all further your career.
Implementing goals into your life will help direct and guide your efforts, rather than living day to day aimlessly and hoping for the best.
Improved Decision Making
Since your goals are helping you determine your life path, they in turn also assist in your ability to make decisions. The clearer your direction gets, the more obvious your choices are.
A clear perspective can certainly help you make decisions. If you know where you’re headed, you can easily determine the steps and turns to you to make to get there.
Setting realistic goals will help you reach a point in your life where decisions are no longer daunting tasks, but confident choices.
Control of Your Future
If you don’t set goals, you’re letting life take you where it pleases. Without goals, you’re not taking control of your potential. You’re saying that you’re okay with where you are—your career, your family, your education. All of these things are being determined by the things and people around you.
When you set goals, you’re taking control of what’s ahead. Planning to accomplish goals is the same thing as planning your future. Establishing a goal and a plan helps you focus your efforts with an end game in mind—one that you’ve chosen for yourself.
Setting realistic goals takes initiative and intentionality, while daydreaming is just something to take up half of your workday. When you seriously consider, decide on, and write down a goal, you all of a sudden have something to work towards.
This focus and determination on something attainable and the possibilities that can come from it drive us. Greater levels of motivation result in the things we work towards.
You may not have the motivation, in general, to go to the gym and workout, but your goal of someday having visible muscles and looking the way you’ve always wanted to look will serve as motivation to take those actions.
Remember that even small actions towards a goal add up. Use your realistic goals to motivate you throughout the course of your life.
Personal Satisfaction & Confidence
In the end, the feeling we get when we accomplish our goal is one like no other. Personal satisfaction and improved confidence can make us feel like we’re flying.
There’s nothing better than making a list of goals and being able to cross them off finally. Once you achieve something, you get the reflect back on all of your hard work and appreciate your abilities and perseverance.
You also get a better idea of your potential and the things you’re able to accomplish. Where you may have started out thinking you have no abilities, you could end up in a place that says, “yes, I can do this.”
An achieved goal is excellent motivation to achieve more goals.
We have seen the potential detriments of setting unrealistic goals, and they are certainly not pretty, nor are they something any of us would hope for. Unrealistic goals can make us feel untalented, disappointed, and downright bad. The feeling of failure is one that no one strives for, and setting unrealistic goals for ourselves can have some very negative consequences for our lives.
At the same time, we have seen how setting realistic goals can greatly benefit our lives. We can grow mentally and emotionally, and when we achieve these goals, we know that we can do even more past that.
It’s important to be very discerning and honest when we set goals. Challenge is good, but realism is necessary. Don’t be afraid to go after the tough things in life, but remember to cut yourself some slack and take smart steps towards achieving your goals.