Why we sabotage our goals (and how to stop it)

 “The best plan is only good intentions unless it degenerates into work.” – Peter Drucker

We all have good intentions. Whether it’s intending to lose weight or intending to donate to charity, they exist but as we’ve probably experienced, our intentions don’t always translate to action. Some studies argue that up to 50% of our intentions are never realised through action.[1]

To put that into perspective, let’s say that your doctor wrote a prescription and intended to sign it the next day for you to pick up. Would you think they’re good at their job if there was a 50% chance it was never completed?

Of course not.

Yet, we do it to ourselves all the time.

Intending and only intending to complete personal projects is a great recipe for guilt and lowers the credibility we think ourselves as having. Good intentions – without any action to follow – have much less value than they otherwise should have.

Failing to follow through on things reluctantly is understandable. Sometimes things that are out of our control prevent us from doing things.

But why, with all the best intentions in the world, do we wilfully sabotage our own goals?

 “I deserve a treat!”

This phrase pops up in a variety of different forms and it turns out that this thinking is what explains why we happily put our goals on hold for a “treat”. Even though it probably isn’t warranted, helpful or even wanted.

Cat Taylor, Thomas L. Webb and Paschal Sheeran decided to find out the different justifications we use to undermine our intentions.

99 university students were asked to nominate an unhealthy snack they ate too much of and record how much they ate during a week. At the end of the week, they asked how often they used certain justifications just before eating it.[2]

There were six groups of justifications:

  • It’s available
  • It can be compensated for
  • It’s different
  • I deserve it
  • I’m curious
  • It’s irresistible

These are all very familiar. Red Velvet milkshakes are rarely available but different, irresistible and pique my curiosity. I certainly believe that I can compensate for it later even though it’s quite difficult to do so.

The justifications above explain our tendency to indulgence and undermine our intentions.

The final part of this questionnaire asked them to rate how much they intended to halve their consumption of the unhealthy snack on a scale.

Four weeks later, they answered how much they ate of the nominated snack. Thankfully, they ate much less.

However, after some fancy stats work, I don’t need to (and can’t…) explain right now, their findings became very interesting.

Firstly, if you used one justification, you were far more likely to use more.

Secondly, the stronger the intention to not eat food, the greater the effect of these justifications on how much they ate. For those with weak intentions, justifications mattered much less.

“The more people justified indulgence, the more snacks they consumed despite holding strong intentions to avoid doing so”

Even if you hold strong intentions to not eat certain snacks, it’s extremely easy to run away from that intention. Simply use a justification that melts away all potential guilt.

How do we stop the self-sabotage?

For one, realise that it’s happening. I didn’t make much sense of the categories before I had read this study but now I notice it happening all the time.

They just creep up on you and can happen quite quickly. It’s even worse when you’re with other people who come up with random justifications on your behalf. Does this sound familiar to you?

self sabotage

 

Tell your friends to help you stick to your goals instead of enabling the opposite. It might require some tough love and you might dislike them for not allowing you to do something briefly. But you’ll benefit from it.

These justifications appear because there is a clash between short term and long term desires.

Should you have the cake now or not? You want to have the cake but also lose weight. You can’t do both at the same time so the justifications come out of the woodworks to make choosing the short term desire easier.

Of course, in the long term, it’s unhelpful and you’ll have to pay for it later.

Let the urge pass.

Urge surfing is one of the most helpful concepts I’ve ever come across. In short, you notice an urge and just stay with it. You don’t act on it as soon as it happens – you just watch it. Notice how it feels. Does it make you feel anxious? Angry? Worried?

Whatever it is, it passes with time. And usually quite quickly – they don’t tend to last for longer than half an hour.

Yes, it’s difficult. However, it helps you understand that you don’t need to act on every want that pops into your head. Many of these wants are caused on purpose by advertising but understanding that they don’t need to control your every action is liberating.

You can focus on the goals you truly want, at your own pace.

Daily takeaway

When you notice yourself wanting to procrastinate, eat too much, lie in bed all day or anything that might stop you from achieving your very important goals be sure to ask yourself:

  1. Is this what I really want?
    1. Is it part of the big picture for me?
  2. Does my justification make sense?
    1. It’s unlikely you’ll compensate for a big mac by walking up an extra flight of stairs

Then:

Let the urge pass.

You’ll slowly stop sabotaging your own goals and finally follow through with your personal intentions.


[1] Sheeran, P., Intention-Behaviour Relations: A Conceptual and Empirical Review, 2002

[2] These justifications were found during their first study – they weren’t forced upon the participants. Otherwise that would be a huge framing problem.

[3] Study used: ‘I deserve a treat!’: Justifications for indulgence undermine the translation of intentions into action by Cat Taylor, Thomas L. Webb and Paschal Sheeran

[4] Interestingly enough, there was a third study which showed that the justifications weren’t just ad hoc explanations for their behaviour. They can be primed to appear again. If you spend your time justifying your actions in a completely unrelated activity, you’ll be more likely to do the same in future activities.


As always, thanks for reading.

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