Unrealistic Goals: What They Are and How to Stop Setting Them

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If you’ve ever set a goal and wondered if it’s too much, you’re not alone. It happens all the time to a lot of people. It can be hard to tell if you’ve set unrealistic goals or if your goals are just right enough to stretch you to become better. That’s why today I’m going to teach you why unrealistic goals are so dangerous, how to recognize them, and how to stop setting them.

An unrealistic goal is any ambition that isn’t attainable, practical, or doable. When you set unrealistic goals, you get bored or burnt out and you quit early. To recognize unrealistic goals, check that each step of your plan is achievable. To stop setting unrealistic goals, make your goals simpler.

Learning to uncover unrealistic goals isn’t too difficult if you know what to look for. Let’s start by getting into the details of what unrealistic goals are and how to spot them.

What Are Unrealistic Goals?

To understand what we’re talking about here we need to do a little of what I like to call word math. We’re going to define the words, look at synonyms, and then come up with a more understandable definition that we can use to set better goals.

Let’s start with some definitions, according to Google.

Unrealistic: not realistic, impractical, unworkable, unfeasible, nonviable, unreasonable, illogical, irrational, senseless, improbable, impossible, foolish, absurd, delusory, idealistic, utopian, far-fetched. 

That’s helpful, but we can do better by understanding what realistic means:

Realistic: having or showing a sensible and practical idea of what can be achieved or expected. Practical, sensible, rational, logical, achievable, attainable, feasible, doable. 

And according to Merriam-Webster, realistic is “based on what is real rather than on what is wanted or hoped for.”

Now we’re getting somewhere! Let’s take a look at the definition of goals:

Goals: the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result.

Combining everything we have so far, here’s what we get:

Unrealistic goals are aims or desired results that do not show a sensible and practical idea of what can be achieved or expected and aren’t based on what is real but instead focus on what is wanted or hoped for.

Doing some refining and re-wording, it becomes:

Unrealistic goals are ambitions or dreams that focus too much on what’s wanted or hoped for rather than what’s actually possible.

In other words, you set unrealistic goals when you focus on what you want rather than what you can actually do or have. That manifests as setting goals that are too high, too difficult for your current life circumstances, or that don’t account for your weaknesses and potential pitfalls.

What Happens When You Set Unrealistic Goals

Before we get into how to know if your goals are unrealistic, I want to briefly examine what can happen when you set unrealistic goals. These will show you why setting unrealistic goals is bad, which will motivate you to improve your ambitions to be more reasonable.

There are at least three main outcomes from setting your goals too high:

  1. Burnout. If you’re pushing yourself harder than you’re capable of or harder than your life circumstances allow, it’s only a matter of time before you crash.
  2. Boredom. A large part of accomplishing any goal is consistent action over time. To reach goals that are too big, you have to stick with it for a really long time. If you don’t manage your expectations right or don’t focus on action steps you enjoy, you’re going to get tired of the same thing every day for years.
  3. Quitting. Unrealistic goals are also unachievable goals. Which means setting goals that are too high leads to giving up. Which means that when you set unrealistic goals, your character and life stay the same.

How to Know if Your Goals Are Unrealistic + Examples of Unrealistic Goals

There are three main warning signs of unrealistic goals:

  • They’re too high.
  • Life is tough for you at the moment and you know that you can’t handle a big goal right now.
  • You’re trying to do something you hate or that requires you to suddenly overcome a weakness.

To find out if you’re falling into these traps, you need to carefully examine your goals. That means taking the time to ask yourself a few questions about each goal to make sure that it’s realistic:

  • Do you have everything you need to accomplish the goal?
  • Is there someone who has achieved this goal so you know that it’s possible?
  • Can you see yourself getting outside your comfort zone enough to do what’s necessary to make the goal happen?
  • Is your plan to achieve the goal clear and does each step of it seem reasonable?

You don’t have to answer “no” to every one of these for the goal to be unrealistic. Sometimes it’s good that you don’t know anybody that’s done it, for instance. And maybe it’s a little tough to imagine breaking free of your comfort zone, but that’s just natural. As long as you’re answering yes to most of these, your goal is not unrealistic.

When it comes to examples of unrealistic goals, there are the obvious ones like becoming a professional athlete or winning the lottery. That’s not what you need to worry about because goals like that are so clearly unachievable that you’d never set them in the first place.

What you need to watch out for is goals that feel normal to you but that might have a hidden problem that makes them unrealistic. 

Here are some examples of goals that are simply too high for most people like you and me:

  • Train for a marathon in three months.
  • Make $1,000,000 in the next six months.
  • Meet someone new and get married in four months.

There’s also the case when your goals are unrealistic because of your life circumstances, such as:

  • Trying to start a business when you’re still in the thick of it with severe mental illness.
  • Setting the goal to run a half marathon within six months after surgery.
  • Trying to stop smoking (or another bad habit) when you’ve just moved, gotten a new job, and had many other big life changes.

Only you know whether or not your circumstances necessitate going easy on yourself. But I like to try to err on the side of self-compassion. As Don Miguel Ruiz says:

“Always Do Your Best. Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse and regret.”

Now there’s one last type of unrealistic goal that I have some examples of before we get into how to stop setting unrealistic goals. It’s the kind that involves a personal weakness or pitfall that you’ve not accounted for, like:

  • Quitting your job to start a company when you have no experience or validated business ideas. Hint: do it as a side hustle first!
  • Starting a new diet and exercise routine (or any big goal) right around the holidays. Afterward is great though!
  • Setting the goal to write a bestselling book when deep down you hate writing.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Beating a weakness or pitfall is a fantastic thing to want to do. You just have to be realistic about your timeline! Work on that as a goal of its own before you try to do something that requires that weakness to be gone.

How to Stop Setting Unrealistic Goals

The biggest problem with unrealistic goals, as you can see if you re-read through the examples above, is the timeline. 

It’s perfectly okay to do something that feels too big or that requires you to overcome a weakness as long as you give yourself enough time.

So the first and biggest step to beating unrealistic goals is to expand your timeline. The trick here is to make it feel like you’re pushing yourself just enough to grow but not so much that you’ll burn yourself out. That might take some figuring out, but all you need for that is to begin working on your goal.

What I’ve found from personal experience is that once you start you’ll get a perfect idea of whether or not your timeline is unrealistic. As long as you update your expectations quickly, you’ll do just fine and avoid the consequences of unrealistic goals that we talked about earlier.

The other step to making your goals more realistic is to make them easier and simpler. To work well, a goal just needs these two basic components:

  1. Outcomes, like losing 12 pounds.
  2. Action steps that make your outcomes happen, such as exercising 5x per week.

Your outcomes will have a timeline already built into them and you can use that to further make your goals reasonable. Losing 12 pounds in a single week might be unrealistic for most people, but doing it in 12 weeks isn’t so bad. 

For your action steps, make sure they’re things you enjoy if you want your goals to be even more realistic. I like to rollerblade and play Ring Fit Adventure to exercise, for instance. I switch it up and do fun things for my workouts to keep me going. If I were to say I was just going to run every day I’d get bored, which makes that unrealistic. 

Examine the outcomes and action steps for each of your goals and make them both realistic if you want to achieve them.

Conclusion

It’s easy to fall into the trap of setting unrealistic goals. But it’s even harder to deal with the consequences of going after an unrealistic goal, like burnout, boredom, and quitting.

To make your goals achievable you need to first recognize when your goals are too high, too much for you at the moment, or when they don’t account for a personal weakness or pitfall.  

And to stop setting unrealistic goals, expand your timeline, establish outcomes and action steps, and make the work easy and fun.