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It's Not Lack of Willpower, It's Fear of Failure

LearnLydia Loizides
Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

The first article in a five-part series exploring the mindset of reaching your work goals.

"Today's pain is tomorrow's power. The more you suffer today, the stronger you are tomorrow." — Unknown

here we go again

You've set the same goal for yourself time and again. You start off strong, but give it a little time, and the excuses start to pour in -- I'm too busy, it's just this one time, I'll start again on Monday.

Sound familiar?

Guy Winch, Ph.D., notes that "fear of failure is like a set of explosive devices that operate largely on a subconscious level. The mind registers apprehension as we imagine a goal and responds with messages that goad us to give up before we start, sabotage our efforts after we've begun, or pitch us into an endless cycle of procrastination.”

Guy identifies five problematic moments that most people encounter on their journey of goal attainment. We're going to explore them one by one, beginning with tripping up before you even start.


Everyone talks about it. Most people struggle with it. We're talking about the "p" word - planning. Why? Because planning ultimately leads us to have to set a date for our goal. Think about it: by June 1 I want to [fill in the blank], by next quarter I will be the [fill in the blank], next Friday I will talk to [insert name] about [insert problem you've been avoiding]. So, before you've even started, you're anxious about setting a start date because of the end date, and your mind's sirens start. "What's the rush?" they ask. You start telling yourself the time's not right, that you don't have what you need to get started, and on and on.


Your fear of not achieving what you've set out for yourself is the strongest at the very beginning (not to say that the rest is easy). Why? It's simple: you're the farthest away from your end goal. Most people underestimate the power those mind sirens have and are ill-equipped for the journey. Here are five steps for a strong start:

  • Make the outcome concrete. Spend time visualizing what your outcome looks like, feels like. For example, talking to your boss about a promotion. Visualize yourself in the future, as if you've gotten the promotion. What does it feel like? How do you walk? Talk? What will this opportunity result in? The more detail you can add, the better.

  • Break it down into little, teeny tiny steps. The smaller, the better. Our favorite metaphor for this is running a marathon: you have to run one mile before you can run twenty-six, right? So, get granular. Do you want to ask your boss for a promotion? Great. Start making a list of all of your accomplishments over the last year or two; identify times when you went above and beyond or saved a project or brought in new business or found a way to do something faster or more efficiently. Next, start putting the feelers out there - check which positions are currently out there, look at who was promoted most recently and see how you stack up, etc. Now, do your homework. Watch some HBR videos, get some advice from a coach, etc. You get what we're saying, right? It's all in the details.

  • Tell a confidant. By telling a friend, family member, or coach that you're setting this goal, you're declaring and making a public commitment. Research shows that people who declare their intentions have a higher chance of attaining their goals. The key is to find someone who will support you, not nag you or make you feel like crap when you experience the inevitable bumps in the road.

The key message here: don't rush to get to the end; it'll decrease your chances of success.

Next up: How To Not Give Up When The Going First Gets Tough