Written by Kara Loewentheil.

What goals did you set for the new year? Did you promise yourself you’d learn French? Go to yoga? Be nicer to your mom? Whatever goals you set back on December 31st, you might already be having trouble keeping up. The problem with most people’s goals is that they are thinking positive. And thinking positive, on its own, doesn’t get the job done. I know that sounds strange coming from a life coach, so let me explain…

Often when we set a goal, we only want to “think positive.” We think about how great our life will be when we achieve the goal, whatever it is. We daydream about how we’ll feel when we run that marathon, get that promotion, or have that wedding.

The problem is that dreaming is easy, and doing is hard. When you just try to “think positive” about going after a big goal, you’re in complete denial about how the human brain works. The human brain loves to think positive theoretically, in isolation, when it’s all just a nice idea you’re dreaming up from the couch.

But as soon as you actually try taking action to achieve your goal, your brain is going to flip the switch and turn into the negative Nancy you never wanted inside your head. If you don’t prepare for this, it’s going to be impossible for you to keep going and reach your goal.

And this is where most people give up. Because it’s hard and uncomfortable, and failure feels terrible, and so they decide it’s better not to try at all. But the truth is that failure only feels terrible when you weren’t expecting it, are trying to avoid it, and don’t know how to think about it. That’s why positive thinking can be your enemy when it comes to goal-setting.

And that’s why when I work with my clients on creating big change in their lives, I tell them to think positive and think big—and then think small and think negative. Sounds weird, I know. Stay with me. Here is the exact process I use to help my clients double or triple their income, find love, move up the corporate ladder, start a business, climb a mountain, or blow their own minds in any other way. I promise if you start planning for goals this way, you’ll be astonished by how much more you achieve.

woman writing in journal in plus size athleisure and sitting on couch

Step 1: Develop the goal.

It should be concrete and clear—you should be able to know if you’ve achieved it or not without any question. When you make a goal vague or unclear, you end up in constant negotiation with yourself, and it’s too easy to ignore whether you’ve actually made progress or not. Your brain will argue with you about anything, so do yourself a favor and make the goal extremely clear and easy to measure.

Clear goals: I will become a VP at my company; I will go to yoga once a day for 30 days; I will not check my phone between 10pm and 10am every day.

Unclear goals: I will work out more; I will be nicer to my mom; I will use my phone less.

Step 2: Clarify your compelling reason.

One of the reasons we sometimes sabotage ourselves when we make goals is that we actually don’t care very much about achieving the goal in the first place. We pick it because we think we “should” care about it or do it, or it will make our mom proud of us, or impress our friends, or just shut up the self-critical voice in our head. None of those are inspiring or motivating reasons. A motivating reason isn’t enough to make sure you achieve a goal, but without one, you likely won’t get there at all.

Your compelling reason is personal. What is compelling to you won’t be compelling to someone else, but I recommend you develop a reason that is about what you want to create in your life and making yourself proud—not doing what others think you should do or trying to act your way out of your own self-doubt. Doing something new is hard and if you don’t have a good reason for doing it, you’re going to give up.

Compelling reasons: I want to blow my own mind; I want to see what I can really do; I want to grow and evolve.

Not compelling reasons: My parents told me I should; If I do this it will make people like me; I will feel guilty if I don’t.

Step 3: Think negative.

Normally, when we set a goal, we try to ignore our doubts and fears. We think that if we just don’t make eye contact with the self-doubting voice in our head, we can outrun its whispers and achieve the goal in spite of ourselves. If you haven’t learned by now, let me tell you: That doesn’t work.

It’s not dangerous to acknowledge your self-doubt and fear. In fact, it’s crucial. Because if you are having those thoughts just from setting the goal, they are going to be 100x louder once you start trying to achieve it. That’s why it’s incredibly useful to write down all of your brain’s objections. Everything your brain says about why you can’t accomplish this, will fail, and shouldn’t even try. Seriously, write that stuff down. Make a list. Get all of your brain’s objections on paper. We’re going to handle them like the boss babes we are in the next step.

Step 4: Brainstorm your strategies.

Now that you have all of your negative thoughts down on paper, you can see them for what they are. They aren’t deep truths about your abilities. They aren’t psychic predictions about the future. They are just thoughts. Your brain is doing what it was designed to do: trying to keep you safe and alive another day so you can pass on your genes. See, your brain doesn’t know the difference between the anxiety of going for a promotion at work and the anxiety of running away from a lion who wants to eat you. So when you try and do something new and hard, it freaks out. But now that we have your list of negative thoughts, we know exactly what your brain is going to say to you. Which means you can decide ahead of time what you’re going to think or do about those objections before they come up.

Let’s say your goal is to run a marathon and your negative thoughts were:

  • I don’t know how to run.
  • I haven’t run more than half a mile before.
  • I’m not athletic.
  • I’m going to feel embarrassed at the gym.

If you ignore those thoughts and don’t plan how to handle them, they are going to derail you right quick. But now we have them written down and can brainstorm what to do about them.

  • I don’t know how to run = I’m going to find a program online that teaches me exactly how to run a race.
  • I haven’t run more than a half a mile before = I’m going to practice thinking, “Every marathon runner and winner learned to run at some point after never having run before.”
  • I’m not athletic = I’m going to practice thinking, “I don’t have to be an Olympian to run a marathon.”
  • I’m going to feel embarrassed at the gym = I’m going to ask a friend to go with me the first few times, I’m going to buy cute workout clothes I feel good in, and I’m going to practice thinking, “It’s brave of me to go when I am scared.”

Now, I’m a mindset coach, so you can see a lot of my suggested strategies are practicing new thoughts on purpose. But there are also lots of concrete actions you can take in there. The best strategies will end up being a combination of thinking new thoughts on purpose, learning how to do what you can’t do yet, getting support where you need it, and being willing to feel anxious, uncomfortable, or afraid.

After all, if it was easy to set and reach a big new goal, it wouldn’t feel so incredible to accomplish it. So for 2019, let’s make ourselves proud—one big goal and many small actions at a time.

Want more brain hacks? You can find them on Kara’s podcast, UnF*ck Your Brain to Create Feminist Confidence, available wherever you get your podcasts. You can also join her totally free Creating Confidence Challenge to get 5 days of confidence-boosting, brain-boosting prompts straight in your inbox.