You Might Be Setting Goals To Fail

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My intention with each of these posts is that you’re challenged to interrupt the noise and routine in your life, just for a moment, to think more deeply about what really matters in life… your relationship with yourself and with others in your professional and personal life.

In our business lives, for many employees, work-goals and targets are set by an executive team (often who don’t have a full grasp of the realities of the environment and hurdles their employees will need to face to achieve the goals and targets they are setting).

In our personal lives, at the start of a new year, many people think about setting new year resolutions or life-goals, but many also avoid making them because of past failures and disappointments.

I’ve been approached recently by a number of media outlets to comment on how positivity and optimism can help us achieve new year resolutions and new goals and targets at work.

In these interviews what seems to resonate most is the research I share around the importance of the type of goal and not just on the positive or optimism required to achieve it.

Let me start by asking you .. Have you set any new year resolutions or do you avoid making them because of past failures and disappointments?

Do you have your work goals and targets thrust upon you, or are you one of the lucky few who collaborate with their executive teams to arrive at realistic goals and plans to achieve them?

Either way, here’s what we know from the science of intention and goal setting.

An intention to ‘do stuff’

One piece of advice my Dad shared with me was this:

“If you want to get stuff done … do stuff”.

While Dad certainly had no idea I would be writing about that one day, he also had no idea that his advice to me all those years ago would form a key focus of scientific research around intention.

Having an intention is to have a mindful awareness of why you are going to do what you are going to do and the impact it will have, not only on you, but also on others.

It is important to also understand that within this definition it is the intention to implement, or ‘do stuff’ that will result in your intentions being fulfilled.

Goal Intention or Implementation Intention

Research shows there is a significant difference between an intention to achieve a goal or result and an intention to do the work needed to achieve the goal or result.

Psychologists refer to these different intentions as a goal intention and an implementation intention.

A goal intention focuses on an end point or outcome. It is the intended result.

An implementation intention is a commitment to do what is required to achieve the result.

This is important because it highlights that an intention to achieve is not the same as an intention to take the action required to achieve a result.

So … despite what the motivational gurus tell us … we can’t just ‘think and grow rich’, and we can’t just ‘attract success by wanting it’ … we’ve got to take action to achieve results.

Some Examples

This is certainly the case in education.

Intentions and deadlines

Think back to your school, college, or university experiences. You will have known other students who ‘intended’ to pass. They had a ‘goal intention’ but never followed through with an ‘implementation intention’ – to actually do the work required.

What difference does it make?

Research by Peter Gollwitzer and Veronika Brandstätter1 found that 75% of students who set a clear goal and implementation intention met the deadline, compared with only 33% of students who had a goal intention but who did not have implementation intentions.

Intentions and health

Seeking ways to increase the success rate of women completing regular breast self-examinations (BSE), a group of researchers led by Andrew Prestwich2 found that 100% of women who set both a goal intention and an implementation intention to complete regular BSE’s self-examine assigned one group, compared to 53% of women who only set a goal intention.

Intentions and exercise

In a further study,3 college students were assigned the task of regular vigorous exercise.

Researchers established an experimental group with both goal and implementation intentions.

In this study the control group was instructed to focus on the potential for reduced risk of coronary heart disease as their motivation to complete the vigorous exercise, but without an implementation intention.

The students in the control group had an increase in their performance of vigorous exercise of between 29 and 39 per cent, which is impressive.

However, the students in the experimental group had an increase of 91 per cent in their performance of vigorous exercise.


For many people after the combination of Covid lockdowns, remote working and the Christmas-New Year indulgences, weight loss often becomes a goal or new year resolution.

The evidence is pretty clear here that intending to lose weight (goal intention) is not as likely to achieve a result as intending to exercise daily as a habit (implementation intention).

So, whether in the workplace setting or in our personal lives, getting clear on the type of intention you have – especially for yourself – makes a big difference.

  1. Gollwitzer, P.M. & Brandstatter, V. (1997). ‘Implementation intentions and effective goal pursuit’. Journal of Peronality and Social Psychology, 73(1), 186-199
  2. Prestwich, A. J., Conner, M. T., Lawton, R. J., Bailey, W., Litman, J., & Molyneaux, V. (2005) ‘Individual and collaborative implementation intentions and the promotion of breast self-examination’. Psychology and Health, 20(6), 743-760
  3. Milne, S. E., Orbell, S., & Sheeran, P. (2002). ‘Combining motivational and volitional interventions to promote exercise participation: Protection motivation theory and implementation intentions’. British Journal of Health Psychology, 7, 163-184
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