Are your BHAGs holding you back?

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Are you expecting TOO MUCH of yourself? Don’t let your BHAGs take control of your life…

You know what a BHAG is, right? It’s a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (pronounced like this: Bee Hag). 

I’m sure you have a few BHAGs in your junk drawer. They might relate to getting more exercise or losing weight or stopping smoking. Or writing. 

If you’re wrestling with a BHAG you’re probably saying things to yourself like:

    • I’m going to run a marathon 
    • I’m going to lose 25 pounds
    • I’m never going to smoke again
    • I’m going to write my book this year
    • I’m going to finish my dissertation in the next six months

In fact, this list may reflect some of your own new year’s resolutions (remember them?). Oh, right. The vast majority of people don’t manage to achieve their new year’s resolutions.

Scientists have another name for BHAGs. They call them False Hope Syndrome, which is exactly what it sounds like. University of Toronto professors Janet Polivy and C. Peter Herman gave the syndrome its name back in 2000 when their research revealed that people frequently underestimate the work they need to do to meet their self-improvement goals. We believe that self-change is easy so we set expectations that are too high.  

So, if you really want to achieve your goals — rather than just collect dust in the BHAG junk drawer — here are four steps you can take:

1-Examine barriers: If you’re promising yourself to do something that you’ve failed to accomplish before, figure out what stood in your way last time. And, more importantly, determine what you can do differently that will make you more likely to succeed. For example, if you tried writing a book by spending one hour a day — only you could never persuade yourself to sit at your desk that long — try a much smaller time goal. Say, five to 15 minutes. (I know, it will feel way too small. It isn’t!)

2-Clarify your values: If our goals conflict with our values in any way, then we’re much more likely to self-sabotage. For example, let’s imagine that you want to write a book. But every time you sit down to write, you feel guilty about the time you’re taking away from your partner or your kids.  If you find a way to align your values (say by limiting your writing time and by being more fully engaged with your partner/kids when you’re with them), you’re more likely to reach your goals.

3-Accept your emotions: Once you’ve clarified your values, ask yourself what feelings might arise as you work toward your goal. For example, if you earmark 15 minutes for writing every day, what will happen when your tearful six-year-old shows up at your office door demanding immediate attention. Plan in advance what you are going to do — for both your child and yourself — and figure out how you will cope with the guilt you are likely to feel.

4-Act: Commit to changing your behavior so that it matches your values. For example, if you value writing but your other obligations (whether family- or work-related) often get in the way of that writing, then figure out how you can do both. This almost-inevitably will result in spending a smaller amount of time on some of what you do, but smaller is always better than nothing.

I work with dozens of writers every month in my Get It Done program, helping them turn their BHAGs into smaller, sustainable habits. Your goal can set the direction, but you achieve that direction only if you have a habit in place.

It’s all too easy to be enticed by the allure of BHAGs. They sound BIG, impressive, attractive and compelling. But keep reminding yourself that they are seldom achievable (and this reality is not your fault.) 

Instead, prevent yourself from feeling defeated by keeping your goals small, manageable and realistic. You will be much happier that way. And much more successful, too. 


Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. The group is now full but there is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours. 


My video podcast last week described how academic writers can deal with writing blocks. Or, see the transcript,  and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.


How do you deal with your BHAGs? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by March 31/21 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

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