Substitute Goals: The Goals that Get in the Way

In this blog post, I share a personal experience about what I call a “substitute goal”, and ask you to consider what sort of goals you’re setting for yourself. If this post piques your interest, perhaps you’d like to set up an introductory coaching session with me to discuss your goals. You can do that by clicking here.


I got to Inbox Zero on the weekend, and realized that I had been dangling that goal in front of myself in hopes that life would take a dramatic turn for the better once I reached it. Guess what – life didn’t.

I realized that I had been holding up a false goal — one that I thought would result in relief, satisfaction, success — instead of asking myself what truly leads to relief, satisfaction, success.

I often run across something similar in my coaching clients: the belief that “if only” they can get into x school / get x job / get x promotion / get x relationship / make x amount of money, then they will be happy / fulfilled / satisfied / confident.

I call these substitute goals: the ones we dangle in front of ourselves as something to work toward, and only once we achieve them do we realize that they don’t give us what we were hoping to get. (Sometimes they do. But not often.)

Sound familiar?

How can you check in with yourself to see if something is a substitute goal, or if it’s a goal that will truly lead to the outcome you’re wanting?

Below, I’ve explained some of the ways I might help someone think through this if I were coaching them:

1. Run the goal by your Future Self.

(Future Self is a coaching tool I’ve mentioned before on the blog; if you’d like more info, just send me a line!).

If I had stopped and asked my Future Self if Inbox Zero would lead me to the relief and satisfaction I was seeking, she would have started laughing uncontrollably, and then she would have said, “No, it won’t; PLEASE go do something else with your Sunday.”


2. Ask what has led to your desired outcome in the past. 

If I had asked myself what had led to feelings of relief and satisfaction in the past, I would not have come up with Inbox Zero. I might have told myself to take a walk, go to a yoga class, or have a computer-free day.


3. Check out what’s keeping you from your desired outcome right now. 

I was unconsciously holding onto the belief that I couldn’t be relaxed or satisfied unless I got to Inbox Zero. In reality, I could have accessed feelings of relief and satisfaction in the “right now”, before I met my weird goal. Similarly, I often hear from clients that they will be happy / fulfilled / satisfied only when x, y, or z happens. I like to get nosy and ask “What about feeling happy and fulfilled right now, today?”


Inbox Zero, people. Not all it’s cracked up to be.

Could your goals use a fresh perspective?


  1. Lesley Wallace says:

    Whew! That kicked my goal setting to new heights! For me, it now explains the empty feeling that often times, percolated within me once my goal was reached. And you know what I’d do when I felt that way…MAKE ANOTHER dangling GOAL!! The striving, the reaching, great to make goals (cuz it helps get things done) but now I know why I was feeling so drained. Plus, I was measuring my success based on these dangling goals and feeling “meh” aftwards – dilemma!! Thanks for that refreshing perspective. You’re awesome like that!