Setting Goals That Protect You When You Are Weakest

2 times you're most likely to fail, and how to make it through and reach your goals.


I remember very clearly the moment I gave up being a pilot—and learned a life lesson about setting goals that make a difference.

After 140 hours of time in the air with an instructor, I was taking my first solo flight. Every first solo is the same: Take off, circle, land. I took off, I circled, and was cleared to land by the tower. I approached a short runway that formed a T with a long runway that was used by commercial flights coming in from Atlanta.

Airplane in flight overhead with the goal of flightI was getting close to touching down near the intersection of the two runways when somebody started screaming in my ear: “Abort! Abort! Climb and bank to the left! Climb and bank to the left!” At first, I panicked and couldn’t remember any of my training. Luckily, it kicked in, and I climbed and banked to the left.

Just in time to see a 737 coming in that would have T-boned me on the runway.

Eventually, I landed. The instructor met me by the plane and told me the 737 hadn’t been in contact with the tower. It sounded like an excuse.

I handed the keys to him and said, “You will never see me again.”

There’s a reason your first solo flight is just taking off and landing. They are the two moments when things usually go wrong. I had always known this, but it became a bit more real when I saw how close to death I had been.

Every project or initiative is the same.

The two times things are most likely to fall apart? The beginning and the end. Click To Tweet

I think of it as the first 15% and the last 15%. Why are projects most vulnerable then? Because that’s when people are at their weakest—mentally. At the beginning, we’re overly optimistic, and we underestimate. At the end, we’re tired. We think we’re done. We lack the internal resources to overcome new, unexpected obstacles.

Man with blazer over shoulder walking away | Needing to reach his goals

What do you do to overcome the potential for failure? Set short-term goals!

There’s a reason pilots use a checklist for every takeoff and landing. Give yourself the same tools to successfully land your projects.

At Takeoff


As I’ve said before, your best and most important opportunity to get the Cycle of Winning going is at the beginning of a new project or goal.

At the start, you need those short-term goals to help you overcome inertia. You’re trying to change your schedule, your priorities, and your thinking. You need something to help you focus on the activities that will make the change happen. You need a regimen to follow, a checklist of activity.

I rely on short-term goals heavily in the first 72 hours of a new project or goal. It makes sense. They say it takes 21 days to build a habit, and 3 days is 15% of that.

Short-term goals help you apply the Cycle of Winning early and repeatedly. You’ll build momentum and confidence. And you’ll develop the habits of winners that will carry you through. If setting short-term goals is something you struggle with, this article on The Balance Careers can help you get started.

Hands building with small lightbulb blocks | Reaching goals

During Landing


The most important time to do what it takes to keep the Cycle of Winning going is at the end.

Short-term goals are important when you’re close to the finish because your mental toughness is depleted. You’re tempted to abandon the discipline that got you so close to the finish line.

You need the next small step to be clear and obvious to help you focus and keep going. Small goals help reinforce the actions in the Cycle of Winning, and that will dramatically increase your odds of finishing.

If you want to win, give yourself short-term goals at the start and at the finish. Click To Tweet

I don’t mean to sound like a broken record on the subject, but let me end with this. If you aren’t disciplined about setting goals all the time, at least set short-term goals at the start and toward the finish.

I’d love to hear how you use goals to make big progress. Share this article and tell the world your best tip or trick in your post or tweet.

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