4 Things That May Be Holding You Back from Your Dreams

Are you good at setting goals but bad at follow-through? Time to stop putting your ambitions on hold and start making your dreams happen.
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1. You're Waiting for the Perfect Moment

I wish I had a shiny nickel for every time I have announced, with absolute conviction, that I was ready to sign up for a refresher class in French. I used to be pretty good -- not exactly fluent, but proficient enough to carry on a conversation without embarrassing myself. I'd even minored in French in college. Still, on vacation with my daughter in France six years ago, I was so tongue-tied that I couldn't even ask a restaurant owner if I could use his phone to call a taxi. Ask me today if I've signed up for that French class and the answer would be no. Not yet. But I will...I really will.

Many of us drown in a sea of good intentions. Whether the goal is to spend less, exercise more, stop smoking, start a diet, polish a resume, or return to school, we often know exactly what we want to do. And we know why we should do it. We simply don't. Even worse, we sometimes do precisely the opposite.

Psychologists call this "cognitive dissonance" -- the tension you feel when your actions, or inactions, don't match up with your beliefs or self-image. The rest of us call it waffling. Rationalizing. Procrastinating. The result is the same: You stay gridlocked in a chronic state of dissatisfaction, indecision, and guilt.

What's holding you back? It may be that going after a goal -- worthy though it may be -- is scary. What if you don't make it? How will life change if you do? Or maybe somewhere deep down you feel you don't deserve to succeed or are racked by self-doubt. Perfectionism may also play a role. If you've got that hardworking Type A personality, you're probably afraid of looking foolish. Rather than have others think less of you if you try something and fail, you'll rattle off a list of perfectly plausible excuses to avoid trying at all: "I really want to start painting again, but with the kids out of school for the summer, how can I?"

It doesn't have to be this way. In fact, the expert solutions for achieving your goals may sound so simple it seems they couldn't possibly work. But they are grounded in serious research.

"The most perilous part lies between the time you make a plan in your head and actually take the first step toward following through," says Timothy Pychyl, PhD, a psychology professor at Carleton University, in Ottawa. "Once you begin, you'll find that even a small step forward has a spillover effect, ramping up achievement in other areas of your life." But before you can move forward you need to understand what's holding you back.

For many women, fear -- of change, of failure, of something new -- keeps us stuck in jobs we don't like or relationships that no longer work. Change of any kind means facing those fears, so many of us delay taking the first step by telling ourselves that the time is not right.

Take Ellie, a textile designer who has worked for years for a critical, overbearing boss. She loves her job, but he makes her miserable. She knows she deserves a happier situation yet she can't find the time to polish her resume. "I'm just not in the mood," she says. "But tomorrow I'll make a few calls." Every day there's another perfectly good reason why she just can't get to it.

"Ellie has convinced herself that she'll make more headway in her job hunt if she waits until she's really in the mood to start," says Dr. Pychyl. "It's a common delay tactic. The truth is that no one likes to look for a new job. If you wait until you feel like it, you'll never do it."

Experts in cognitive therapy know that feelings often follow behaviors. "The simple act of trying builds confidence, which in turn fuels motivation and momentum," says Caroline Adams Miller, author of Creating Your Best Life: The Ultimate Life List Guide. Whether it's scheduling a doctor's appointment, paying bills on time, reading a certain number of chapters each night, or beginning a job hunt, you can kick-start the process by outlining a specific strategy for how, when, and where you're going to accomplish a goal. What's more, if you write down your planned strategies, you significantly increase your chance of success, says Dr. Pychyl. "You remove the ambivalence. You're no longer vacillating between 'Will I?' or 'Should I?' Follow through often enough with your plan and you create a new set of behaviors."

Ellie's strategy could be: "When I leave work on Monday I'll print out my resume and spend 30 minutes every night updating it. Next week I'll make at least two calls to people in my field to either meet for coffee or a drink." She should also tell a trusted friend about her goal, since that pal can keep her accountable and spur her on when she starts to slide.

Continued on page 2:  2. When Your Enthusiasm Fades, So Do You


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