Get unstuck: Move past obstacles to reach your goals

Setting goals provides direction to help you achieve what you want. The key to success is making your goals as specific as possible. That way, you can create a clear picture of the action steps you need to take.

By Brooke L. Werneburg

Imagine an activity that would give you a strong sense of well-being. Maybe it's getting together regularly with a close group of friends, getting your diabetes under control, spending more time in nature, completing a half-marathon or being able to easily walk a few miles. How does it feel? Let yourself dream.

Now consider what it will take to get to that happy place. What actions would you need to take? The shift from thinking about what you want to actually taking action on your goals is a process called mental contrasting. You use the positive feelings you have when you imagine your success to push yourself into action.

This starts with setting goals. Much like a road map, goals provide direction to help you achieve what you want. The key to success is making your goals as specific as possible. That way, you can create a clear picture of the action steps you need to take.

Be realistic about the journey

Setting out to accomplish a goal is like taking a road trip. There are bound to be some ups and downs along the way. You have a destination in mind — say, losing 30 pounds. Your route to get there is diet and exercise. What happens if you hit road construction along the way — for example, you quit going to the gym for several weeks? On an actual road trip, you would find an alternate route and keep going. But when it comes to reaching health goals, many people give up as soon as they hit a "road closed" sign.

Detours, stall-outs and roadblocks will inevitably occur on your wellness journey. Here are some strategies to help navigate them.

  • Think of your goals as experiments. Approach your goals with curiosity and exploration. Try to adopt a mindset of "Let's try this and see what happens." This puts less pressure on you to get it exactly right the first time. Any type of behavior change requires several attempts. To stick with it, try to have a little compassion for yourself and also see things objectively.
  • Make a plan for possible detours. Anticipate challenges that are likely to arise, and have some alternatives in mind. For example: If your work meeting runs late and you miss your yoga class, you could do a workout DVD after dinner. This builds your resilience for the times when you run into potholes you didn't see coming.
  • Be an observer. If you fell short of your goal, notice what worked and what didn't. This is easier if you track your behaviors — by logging details of your exercise and diet, for example. Ask yourself, "What did I learn when I did it this way?" You may learn that you love to exercise in the morning rather than the evening, or you don't like exercising with too many people around. Then you can tweak your plan by finding a quieter time or a new location to exercise.
  • Reframe failure. When you don't meet a goal, if you can learn from the experience, it's not a failure. Use what you're learning to prepare for the next time. This also helps reduce feelings of shame or guilt when things don't go as planned.

Envisioning your goals is a great way to push yourself forward into action. Just remember that there will inevitably be setbacks. Staying realistic will help you reroute your plan so that you can still reach your final destination.


  1. Be an observer. Practice self-awareness when implementing your goals. Throughout the week, ask yourself questions such as, "Did I set myself up for success? Were my goals realistic? What could I have done differently?"
  2. Anticipate challenges. Think through your day or week ahead and devise an "if-then" plan. For example: If my work meeting runs late and I miss my yoga class, then I will do a workout DVD after dinner.
  3. Practice self-compassion. When you experience a setback this week, view it as a learning opportunity and move on by telling yourself, "This is just one step in my journey. I will have more chances to make good choices."
Dec. 01, 2016 See more In-depth

See also

  1. 3 ways to get closer to achieving your goals
  2. Make healthy habits stick
  3. 5 do's and don'ts for staying motivated
  4. 3 ways to avoid secondhand smoke
  5. 7 signs and symptoms not to ignore
  6. Energy management
  7. After COVID-19 vaccination: Is it OK to visit with loved ones?
  8. Animal bites: Do you need a tetanus shot?
  9. Are you doing everything you can to stay healthy?
  10. Belching, intestinal gas, gas pains and bloating
  11. Bone health tips
  12. Can COVID-19 (coronavirus) spread through food, water, surfaces and pets?
  13. Cancer-prevention strategies
  14. Cellphones and cancer
  15. Colon cancer screening
  16. Coronavirus safety tips for going out
  17. COVID-19: How can I protect myself?
  18. Plastic surgery
  19. Herd immunity and coronavirus
  20. COVID-19 and holidays
  21. Long-term effects of COVID-19
  22. COVID-19 (coronavirus) travel advice
  23. How well do face masks protect against coronavirus?
  24. COVID-19 (coronavirus): Quarantine, self-isolation and social distancing
  25. Different COVID-19 vaccines
  26. Do adults need shots?
  27. Don't save leftover pain pills
  28. Exercise: Check with your doctor
  29. Find meaning in the small things
  30. Flu Shot Prevents Heart Attack
  31. Functional fitness training
  32. Healthy holiday habits: How to get back on track
  33. Hand drying
  34. Hand-washing tips
  35. Healthy habits that boost happiness
  36. Healthy heart for life: Avoiding heart disease
  37. Heart attack prevention: Should I avoid secondhand smoke?
  38. Home Health Hazards
  39. Brown fat
  40. How social support spurs you
  41. Break the busy cycle
  42. How to take your pulse
  43. How to safely go to your doctor during the COVID-19 pandemic
  44. How to take your temperature
  45. How well do you wash your hands?
  46. Injury Season for Snow Blowers
  47. Investing in yourself
  48. Is antibacterial soap a do or a don't?
  49. Keep the focus on your long-term vision
  50. Liposuction alternatives
  51. Lost in Space
  52. Making progress towards your goals
  53. Mammogram guidelines: What are they?
  54. Make over your mindset to make time for your health
  55. Mayo Clinic Minute: You're washing your hands all wrong
  56. Mayo Clinic Minute: How dirty are common surfaces?
  57. Measles vaccine: Can I get the measles if I've already been vaccinated?
  58. Medical family tree
  59. Infographic: Organ Donation Donate Life
  60. Infographic: Paired Donation Chain
  61. Infographic: Pancreas Kidney Transplant
  62. Personal health records
  63. Personalize your wellness journey
  64. Stick to healthy-eating goals at social gatherings
  65. Posture: Align yourself for good health
  66. Posture check: Do you stand up straight?
  67. New Year's resolutions
  68. Safe outdoor activities during the COVID-19 pandemic
  69. Secondhand smoke
  70. Creating a wellness vision
  71. Sitting risks: How harmful is too much sitting?
  72. Good posture tips
  73. Back exercises
  74. Proper lifting techniques
  75. Stop multitasking and focus
  76. Telemedicine online doctor visits
  77. Thirdhand smoke: What are the dangers?
  78. Want good health? Build a solid base
  79. The benefits of gratitude
  80. Video: Travel safely for medical care during the COVID-19 pandemic
  81. Travel Safety
  82. Triclosan
  83. Using if-then statements
  84. Vaccines for adults
  85. Fight coronavirus (COVID-19) transmission at home
  86. What are superbugs?
  87. What are superbugs and how can I protect myself from infection?
  88. Air purifiers and smoke