Have you ever grabbed a hot pan? The feedback of the burn is intense and immediate. You're in excruciating pain and you'll do just about anything in that moment to solve the problem. You might have found yourself slathering butter all over your hand because the internet said it's an effective burn remedy on the off chance it'll work. This is hypothetically speaking, of course.

Physical pain is one thing and our personal and professional goals are another. But there is one similarity: In both cases, you're naturally motivated to address the issues causing you the most pain right now.

Here's the problem: We often put our goals together when we're most comfortable. If you're making new year's resolutions, you're coming down off of the hectic holiday season. If you're refreshing your strategic plan, you're likely coming out of a busy end of your fiscal year. Either way, most people begin planning when the waters around them are relatively calm.

But those calm waters don't reflect what the rest of your year looks like. If you're not in real pain when creating your goals, you might want to set your chances of achieving those goals at less than 50/50. We simply can't motivate ourselves (or anyone else on our team) to fix things that don't feel broken--even when the goal promises something better.

If you're skeptical, recall stories of people who've made massive lifestyle changes and gone from couch potato to marathoner. They'll often tell you that they made the decision to change after a humiliating experience in public or a frightening warning in a doctor's office. They had to really feel that something needed fixing before they could work up the motivation to fix it.

So, as you go into resolution season, feel free to dream big but know that reaching those lofty goals will be an uphill battle. Without real pain, stress, or annoyance motivating you, you'll need to manufacture your own motivation to change things. It's too easy to fall back into old habits when the stakes aren't very high. It's much easier to tell yourself "it's not that bad" than it is to actually work on improving the situation.

If reaching a big goal was as simple as making one big decision one time, we'd all be fit and rich. But in reality we're faced with the thousands of smaller, disciplined decisions that have to be made each day. It's these little decisions that add up over time to significant change.

An alternative approach that can increase your chances for goal-achieving success is to unearth those areas of pain. Start by making a (potentially long) list of things that are bothering you. Are there areas of your life that you think you might have blind spots or lack self-awareness? Or can you up your standards and get really upset about something that isn't bothering you very much right now? I believe you can, and we all should.

To increase your self-awareness, you have to spend some time listening to yourself and asking for honest feedback on where you are in your goals. How far have you come? How much have you accomplished? Are you getting close or still a ways off?

Regularly writing down your thoughts in a journal or morning papers can be a great way to identify things that are bothering you that you stuff down. Asking for feedback requires setting aside time with people who know you and who can give you an honest (but not mean-spirited) outside perspective.

The other approach is to raise your standards to the point that, in your mind, minor annoyances become major issues in need of fixing. To do this, you can...

  • Intentionally seek out someone more skilled to work or play with
  • You can get out and talk to people who are feeling the pain of the problem you seek to solve (getting in touch with real live customers and taking on their pain)
  • Measure yourself in terms of remaining life. How much time do you theoretically have left on this planet or in this life phase to accomplish the important thing?
  • Research what others are doing and then get competitive

Some of these methods might seem a little extreme. That's because they're engineered to make you stress out some and use that energy as a motivator.

Goal-setting is an important part of effectively managing our lives and our careers. Setting the wrong goals, though, can set you up for disappointment, frustration, and feeling bad about yourself and your ability to stay motivated.

If you've been unsuccessful in reaching your goals in the past, it's likely that you weren't in enough pain yet to really want to solve the problem. When you are, you will. Otherwise, your goals for this year are likely an impressive list of aspirations that you should by all means pursue and be ready to put on hold when something more painful -- and thus more urgent -- pops up. It's our human nature. You can embrace it and increase your chances of success.

Published on: Dec 23, 2016