April 6

Getting unstuck, why goal setting does and doesn’t work


Are you stuck? Because you cannot even sort where to start with all the things piling up in your backlog? Or because you are not even sure what shall happen? I came across a white paper and realized: Being stuck can be framed as an identity crisis, which can burden you in varying degrees.

Baumeister et al. discern two types of identity crisis. One might suffer of an identity deficit, where “the individual experiences a lack of guiding commitments but struggles to establish personal goals and values.” The second case is, when you are stuck due to an identity conflict, where “the person has several commitments which prescribe conflicting behavioral imperatives in some situations, such that at least one commitment may have to be betrayed”. In the case of identity deficit you are stuck, because you have not chosen what shall guide your action. In the case of an identity conflict you are incapacitated by the fact, that you would need to betray yourself in order to live up to your (other) commitments.

Thankfully understanding this problem does open up pathways to overcome the situation.

Identity deficit

In the first case you can you sit down and write up things that inspire you and choose goals. It is better to choose badly initially than not to choose any goals at all, because as Zig Ziglar once said:


If you aim at nothingyou will hit it every time.

Zig Ziglar

Identity conflict

If you are stuck even though you have goals, you are probably not suffering of an identity deficit, but rather from the second type of identity crisis: the identity conflict. In that case you will need to sort out your goals and decide what you want to pursue. Laura Lang sharpened the above conflict of interests in the aphorism:


You can have anything you want, but not everything.

Laura Lang

So goal setting does work – if you do not have “guiding commitments” – but those guiding commitments on their own might just as well ride you into paralysis, if they are conflicting. It does not work if you do not sort out your priorities among goals you are striving for.



  • Two kinds of identity crisis; Roy F Baumeister, Jeremy P Shapiro, Dianne M Tice; September 1985.


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