How to Set Goals You’ll Actually Keep

By Greg Baer M.D.

January 10, 2007

Personal Growth

As we approach the New Year, many of us make resolutions about how we’ll change our lives. We make plans, set goals, embark on programs of improvement, and so on. Regrettably, most of us encounter obstacles that greatly interfere with the fulfillment of these grand plans, much as described by the writer of the following letter:

Dear Greg,

“I make goals all the time, but I never seem to keep them for long. I promise myself that I’m going to stop getting angry at my children, but then I yell at my son the first time he fights with his sister or doesn’t go to bed on time. What can I do? I’m tired of failing.”

Goal Failure

Setting goals can seem a quite noble activity, especially when they involve improving our personal character.

For example:

“I’m not going to lose my temper anymore.”
“I’ll be a better husband and father.”
“I’m going to be more patient with my husband.”
“I will not let work control my life.”
“I’m going to lose weight.”

After we set these commendable goals, however—despite real commitment and effort—we often succeed for only a short time, and then we fail, followed by waves of guilt and discouragement. We repeat this process over and over, and eventually many of us stop setting goals at all.

Goal Success

Strong will alone is not enough to ensure success in personal endeavors such as parenting—the example from the letter above—or any other effort involving personal growth or relationships. Most of us spend our lives hoping that if we simply try harder if we simply pour more energy into the same personal skills and tools we’ve always used, we might get a better result. But using the same knowledge and tools to achieve different results is an exercise in futility. If we want to do anything differently—we ourselves have to become different.

Allow me to speak to the woman who wrote the letter above:

"One of your goals is to stop being angry with your children. You try hard to restrain your anger, but each time they do something you don’t like, you respond in the ways you always have because you are the same person you’ve always been. Instead of resolving to stop being angry, you’ll find it much more productive to focus on learning the real cause of your anger, after which you’ll be able to begin taking the steps necessary to eliminate that cause. You literally must become a different person before you can respond to your son differently."

We Set Goals that are Too Difficult

One reason we keep failing in our goals is that we set goals that are far too difficult. We set goals that are the natural conclusions of completing a long line of individual steps. We often ignore the steps, when these individual steps need to be the goals we set.

Years ago I set a goal of becoming a better tennis player. I tried harder, and I played more often, but the level of my game didn’t improve much. I wasn’t aware that I had been ignoring the individual steps that lead to becoming a better tennis player. In fact, I wasn’t aware of the existence of those steps.

Eventually, I made the decision to take lessons from a professional teacher, and he immediately asked me to show him my forehand stroke. I thought he was joking. “You want me to just stand here and hit a ball with my forehand?” I asked. “Without running around or anything?”

“Yes, exactly,” he said.

So I bounced a ball on the ground and hit it with a forehand stroke. My instructor then showed me how I had pretty much done everything wrong in simply swinging my racket. I was amazed. I had previously assumed that swinging a racket couldn’t be that hard, but I learned that there really is a proper way to swing, and with experience, I learned that if I swung the racket in the prescribed way, the ball went over the net in the correct way with far greater consistency than I had ever achieved before.

My instructor then taught me the right way to hit a backhand stroke, and a volley, and a half-volley, and an overhead lob, and a serve, and so on. Within a short period of time, the level of my game had improved dramatically, and I was having much more fun playing. Who knew there was so much to learn?

The same is true with most of the personal goals we set. We decide, for example, that we’re going to be better spouses or parents, but that’s very much like deciding that we’re simply going to be better tennis players—or that we’re simply going to be taller, for that matter. What is involved in becoming a better parent, for example?

What children need more than anything else is Real Love. In the moment that a child makes a mistake—in the moment that he makes too much noise, fights with his sister, or fails to clean his room—he needs to be guided, taught, and unconditionally loved, and the teaching and loving absolutely must be done simultaneously. If we don’t possess the requisite Real Love in such moments, we will react with one or more of the Protecting Behaviors—lying, attacking, acting like victims, and running—and our children will hear only four words: I don’t love you. In that moment, we inflict incalculable wounds upon them and make it quite impossible to teach them any positive lesson.

Recognize the Steps Needed and Make THOSE our Goals

The problem is, we can’t fake having Real Love, and we can’t give what we don’t have. So rather than setting a goal to be better parents—or spouses or employers or friends—we need to recognize the steps that lead to the acquisition of the one quality most necessary to better parenting. More reasonable—and far more productive—goals would include the following:

  • I will tell the truth about myself to other adults and thereby create opportunities for them to see, accept, and love me.
  • I will remember that my child needs to feel loved more than he or she needs to complete any specific task or activity.
  • I would rather that my children felt loved and happy than that they were successful and made me look good to others.
  • I will remember that when my children behave badly, I shouldn’t be thinking accusing thoughts of them. I should be remembering that they would act that way only if they didn’t feel loved, which is a result of how I have failed them.
  • When I make mistakes with my children—which I will—I will try to recognize them more quickly and tell the truth about them to other adults.
  • When I make mistakes with my children, I will admit them more quickly to my children.

As we set more reasonable goals like these, we’ll find that we tend to reach them more consistently, and we’ll also see that accomplishment of them leads to the realization of the bigger goals, like becoming better spouses and parents.

As you take the steps necessary to find Real Love, you’ll discover that miraculous changes will happen within you. Speaking to the writer of the letter again:

"When you have the most important treasure on the planet—Real Love—what could possibly make you angry, at your son or anyone else? With Real Love, you become a different person, capable of making entirely different decisions from before. You’ll have infinitely superior tools to accomplish everything in your life, including replacing anger with compassion and love for your son. You’ll also discover that you can get him to bed much more effectively—as well as teach him anything else he needs to learn."

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Set goals that will fill your life with peace and happiness.


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About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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