Difficult goals: 6 core strategies for success

How to reach difficult goals

Setting clear goals can be transformative for your personal and professional development.

And when you aim high and establish challenging and difficult goals, you tap into a reservoir of motivation that can drive you to stretch beyond your usual boundaries.

When this happens real personal growth comes as a direct result of striving for something that at first glance seems just out of reach.

A personal example

To give you an example from my own life, I struggled a bit when I left school to know what I wanted to do in life. I worked in different jobs for many years, without any real ambition or progress.

In the end I realised I needed to change direction and really challenge myself to achieve something that would set me up for the future. I decide I would go to college (university) and that I would pick something known to be really challenging to study – Law.

And that is what I did.

And whilst it was tough at some stages, I was massively motivated throughout my course. I thrived on the challenge and drew energy from everything I was learning and the knowledge that I was building a better future for myself.

And, later when I turned from law to psychology, I found out why it had turned out that way for me.

Research on how goals work shows us that setting difficult goals can make us perform better. When goals are harder, we tend to work harder, stay on task longer, and concentrate more, but this only works if we’re really committed and have the skills and knowledge needed.

Importantly, when we set goals that are specific and really challenging, it helps us do better. This ensures that we know exactly what we’re aiming for and encourages us to push ourselves further, leading to greater success.

However, aspiring to reach new heights does need careful planning. Setting the bar too high without adequate planning and support can lead to frustration or a sense of failure.

It’s about finding that delicate balance where goals are sufficiently challenging to stimulate progress but still achievable with effort and determination.

This balance ensures that the desire to succeed is met with realistic pathways for achieving the growth and accomplishments you’re aiming for.

The process of achieving goals should be empowering, not debilitating, guiding you towards thriving in your chosen endeavours.

How to reach difficult goals: mountain

1. Understanding the theory of motivation behind difficult goals

When you set challenging goals, you engage with your aspirations on a deeper level. The motivation stems from the promise of self-improvement and the satisfaction of achieving what once seemed out-of-reach.

These are the key points you need to know about achieving difficult goals

Key takeaways

  • Goal setting can be a powerful catalyst for your personal and professional growth.
  • Difficult goals can lead you to the highest levels of achievement, driving persistence as long as the goal is attainable and your commitment to the goal is strong.
  • Where difficult goals are specific and clear, it is easier to regulate your performance and measure progress.
  • Achieving a balance in goal difficulty is key to maintaining motivation and performance.
  • Setting overly ambitious goals without proper support can lead to negative outcomes.

2. Recognising the benefits of setting difficult goals

When you choose to set difficult goals, you’re paving the way towards growth and performance. Achieving challenging objectives can be the catalyst for profound personal transformation.

Defining difficult goals

Difficult goals elevate your usual standards of performance through their inherent challenge. They encourage you to extend beyond comfort zones and consistently engage in a high level of effort. It is this straining against limitations that drives noteworthy personal growth. You’ll often hear these referred to as stretch goals

According to the seminal work of Edwin A. Locke, goals that are tough to achieve lead to higher levels of performance because they necessitate elevated effort, persistence, and focus from you—as long as you hold the necessary commitment, knowledge, and abilities to face them head-on.

The crux of Locke’s findings is that setting hard goals correlates with enhanced performance. When goals are difficult, they demand a concentration of your efforts and a stronger resolve, which in itself is a form of personal evolution.

The journey to these goals facilitates not just task accomplishment but also the reinforcement of positive outcomes like mental toughness, adaptability, and self-efficacy.

How to reach difficult goals - climbing a ridge

3. Understand the characteristics of difficult goals that are effective

Effective goal setting is like carefully plotting your course on a map; without clearly marked points, you might miss your destination. Here are the key elements of difficult goals that you need to think about.

The role of specificity and clarity

Specificity is crucial when you’re charting your aspirations. Vague goals are a bit like mist – hard to grasp and easy to lose sight of. When you set a goal, ensure it is precise and the desired outcome is clear. Compare “I’ll increase my sales this quarter”; with “I aim to increase sales by 15% by the end of this quarter through three strategic client partnerships.” The latter has clarity that outlines the ‘what’ and the ‘how’, acting as a beacon guiding you towards success.

The importance of goals being attainable and realistic

Goals should be ambitious yet attainable; a balance between stretch and achievability. Break down your vision into manageable steps – SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) provide a framework to ensure you’re aiming high yet within the realm of reality.

Suppose your aim is to write a book. Instead of a broad goal, plan it out: “I will write 1,000 words a day, five days a week, to complete my manuscript in six months.” You can see the finish line, it’s aspirational, yet it’s broken down into daily actions that are realistic and tangible.

The right types of goals

You need to ensure that the goals you set are the right types of goals for your situation. For example:

  • If you have more than one goal, make sure the goals complement each other, rather than conflict with each other;
  • Set goals that accord with your values and your strengths, as this will help with motivation and progress;
  • Consider if there are skills and capabilities you need to acquire in order to meet you goal. If so, set some mastery or learning goals to help you on your way.
How to reach difficult goals - mountain track

4. Follow these strategies for setting and achieving difficult goals

Setting challenging goals can be a powerful catalyst for personal growth and success. However, having a structured approach is crucial to turn these aspirations into reality. By breaking down the process into actionable strategies, you’ll be better equipped to tackle your objectives and make meaningful progress.

Creating a roadmap and setting milestones

To begin, it’s essential to chart a roadmap for your journey towards achieving hard goals. Consider your end goal and then work backwards, plotting out significant steps or milestones that act as progress markers. This method helps in organising your thoughts and establishing a clear path forward. By detailing what needs to be accomplished at each stage, you also make the goal less overwhelming and more manageable.

Example of a basic roadmap for goal achievement:

  1. Identify your ultimate goal.
  2. Define clear and measurable milestones.
  3. Map out a timeline for each milestone.

Utilising feedback and deadlines

Incorporating feedback into your plan is a smart way to adjust your strategies as needed. You can seek feedback from peers, mentors or use self-assessment techniques to gain insights into your performance.

Furthermore, setting deadlines for each milestone creates a sense of urgency and can enhance time management, keeping procrastination at bay. Deadlines act as commitment devices, reminding you of the importance of staying on track and pushing you towards completion.

The role of commitment and persistence

Sustaining commitment to your goal is pivotal. There will be hurdles along the way, but with perseverance, these challenges become opportunities for growth. Engage in goal achievement exercises to reinforce your motivation: visualise the outcome you are seeking and write down why your goal matters to you.

5. Recognise the signs of unrealistic goals

When you’re pushing toward your aspirations, it is vital to distinguish between ambitious targets and those that are simply unrealistic. Setting goals too high can cause negative impacts, such as increased stress and the risk of burnout.

I have seen this happen often in workplace settings. People are encouraged to set stretch goals and then not given the time or resources they need to achieve them. This can be especially damaging when you know you are going to be appraised on your performance at year end.

Here are some indicators that your goals might be tipping into unrealistic territory:

  • Impossibility within timeframe: If a goal requires more time to achieve than is available, it could be unrealistic.
  • Lack of resources: Goals that need resources – whether time, money, or skills – which are not currently accessible might be impractical.
  • All work, no play: When pursuing a goal leaves zero time for relaxation or personal life, reassessment is needed.

Notice signs of continual frustration and feeling overwhelmed as warnings. These emotional responses often suggest that expectations may need adjustment. When your goals push you too far, beyond excitement and challenge, into the realm of constant anxiety, that’s a strong sign to recalibrate.

6. Adjust difficult goals to prevent negative outcomes

In pursuit of success, it’s essential to recognise when a goal shifts from being challenging to outright counterproductive. If you find your objectives aren’t serving your well-being or effectiveness, it’s time to reevaluate and adjust.

Modifying Goals:

  • Consider scaling back if milestones continuously sap your energy without progress.
  • Break larger objectives into smaller, manageable tasks to maintain momentum.
  • Align goals with your abilities and available resources to ensure they’re achievable.

Being flexible with your strategies allows for adaptability when faced with unforeseen hurdles. Align your actions with a clear understanding that goals are guides, not rigid destinations.

Strategy and Adaptability:

  • Shift your approach when faced with persistent obstacles instead of insisting on a failing course.
  • Encourage creativity in problem-solving rather than sticking to a single method.

A Healthy Balance is crucial:

  • Celebrate small victories to sustain motivation without burning out.
  • Monitor personal well-being alongside goal attainment – your health is a priority.

If you’re pushing too hard without reciprocal gains, this may signal a need to reconsider your goals.

Recognising Counterproductive Goals:

  • Acknowledge when a goal is diminishing your quality of life.
  • Is a goal promoting undue stress? Time to recalibrate.


When you set goals that stretch your capabilities, you’re not just aiming high—you’re creating the conditions for growth. Embracing challenges is at the heart of this process. By acknowledging your current boundaries and gently pushing beyond them, you chart a course for new achievements and self-discovery.

But make sure your goals are attainable and that you have the resources, time and determination to achieve them. Otherwise you could face stress, demotivation and burnout. To avoid this, keep a track on your progress and adjust your course as you go.

Frequently asked questions

What are the key benefits of setting challenging goals?

Challenging goals push you to extend your capabilities and often lead to higher levels of performance. The pursuit of such goals can facilitate personal growth, as reaching them typically requires innovation, learning, and resilience.

How can goal setting enhance personal development?

Setting goals acts as a roadmap for personal growth, encouraging continuous learning and adaptability. It helps you focus on what’s important, driving you to develop the skills and behaviours necessary for success.

Could setting highly ambitious goals have potential drawbacks?

While ambition is essential, excessively difficult goals might lead to frustration or burnout, especially if they’re unrealistic. It’s important to set aspirational yet achievable goals that stretch your abilities without overwhelming you.

In what ways does goal difficulty impact motivation and performance?

Difficult goals tend to boost motivation as they provide a clear target to strive for. They can lead to improved performance as you are compelled to put in maximal effort and utilise resources effectively.

What are the consequences of not setting goals with sufficient challenge?

Goals that don’t stretch your abilities can lead to complacency and hinder your potential to excel. The lack of a significant challenge can result in reduced motivation and personal satisfaction.

How can setting the bar high stimulate progress and foster growth?

Setting the bar high creates a sense of urgency that propels you forward. This encourages the development of strategies and skills necessary to overcome obstacles, fostering both personal and professional growth.

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