–   FEBRUARY 2021   –
Common Barriers to Goal Setting and How to Overcome Them

As we embrace another new year, this is typically the time for us to set new goals with people, to ensure the year ahead is a success.

On the outset it should be straightforward. We know the goals need to clearly outline specific, manageable steps that are both measurable and realistically achievable, within an agreed time frame.

However, real-life goal setting often presents challenges that hinder progress. We know this happens but it’s usually something we deal with as we go. That means you have to unnecessarily invest a lot of extra time and energy into problem-solving as if these are ‘one-off’ situations. What if you could pre-empt them and know exactly what to do before they take hold and cause significant delays in progress?

The team at Active Edge Physio often see these 3 common barriers to goal setting that you’ll likely be familiar with too. Let’s unpack them here, examining how they will likely present themselves, the possible underlying reasons behind them, and what you can do to address them most effectively and swiftly.


“I don’t want to!”

Barrier 1: Resistance to setting a goal

On first glance, a person who has little interest in setting a goal and is generally despondent, could be mistaken to be unmotivated. Motivation, or lack of, is only part of the picture. On a deeper level, you are likely to find that a person is feeling fearful. Feeling scared that they won’t be able to reach a target, or that they aren’t capable of making any progress at all, can sometimes cause people to mentally ‘check out’. In doing so, they are subconsciously protecting themselves from their anticipated failure.

“If you opt out altogether, there’s no chance of failing. Unfortunately, there’s absolutely no chance of succeeding either.”

So how do you engage them to set a goal? Meet their reluctance with compassion. First give them support in exploring and understanding their fears, then gently revisit goal setting. Keep the initial goal small and manageable, so as not to cause overwhelm. A few quick wins with small goals will build confidence and self-belief. When they start seeing results, it will become much easier for them to embrace more ambitious goals in the future.


“I don’t know how!”

Barrier 2: Overwhelmed by goal setting

Sometimes the goal setting process begins with ease. The person has an idea of what they want to achieve; or for those with executive dysfunction, it seems straightforward enough to start mapping out some sensible targets to aim for on their behalf. Where this can unravel is if the person becomes overwhelmed by the goal being set, or doesn’t see meaning in it. It might seem to them that it will be impossible to achieve and as soon as they feel overloaded, they will instantly withdraw from the goal altogether, as it feels too daunting.

What can you do when somebody becomes anxious about creating goals? The overwhelm is usually a sign that they are lacking in confidence. From their point of view, it all feels too much. In this situation, it could be worthwhile working with the person (if possible to do so) to identify previous successes. Where in their past experiences have they successfully accomplished something they never thought was possible. This can be taken right back to basics. Perhaps in their youth, they were terrified to move from primary school to secondary school but they did it. You’ll know what is suitable to explore for someone’s personal life experiences – every individual is different – but the important thing to remember that boosting confidence, together with breaking things down into the tiniest steps possible is the key to dealing with overwhelm. 


“I want to do it all now!”

Barrier 3: Unrealistic expectations leading to impractical goals

Ever found yourself privately thinking, “Oh no! You can’t do that!”, after a person shares a desired goal that’s looking to be impossible to achieve? While we don’t want to be dream crushers, there are some situations where it is going to be crucial to manage a person’s expectations. If this is not dealt with upfront, in a way that nurtures, without demoralising them, this will snowball and cause further issues later on.

On face value, we could mistake an over-ambitious person for simply being an optimistic dreamer. But there’s a deeper problem going on here. It is highly likely that the over-extended goal setter has not yet fully accepted where they are currently at. Denial of their current situation and physical limitations means they are going to be entering into a battle with themselves, every step of the way. They will continually get frustrated, and possibly even angry with themselves, when they can’t magically do all the things they so desperately want to do with ease. This is a very sensitive issue that requires gently broaching the facts. If the person is in total denial, it could be very helpful to remove the focus off of them and instead use examples of others who have had similar physical challenges and what their journey entailed.

BIG goals need very small, incremental steps so it feels like progress is being made. Rewarding every tiny step accomplished and celebrating those achievements will also play a key role in keeping the person positively engaged.

Being prepared ahead of time, understanding why these barriers materialise and the underlying emotions behind them will give you the confidence to swiftly and skilfully navigate them, and the ability for all involved to continue moving forwards.