On actually achieving goals
A few years ago, I read a short article about how of the people who make resolutions in January, more than half will have given up on their goals by June. More than half! How encouraging, right?
Of course, I can totally relate because I’ve had “fit into my pants” as a New Year’s goal for half a decade now, and you can imagine how that’s going after two solid years of pandemic baking. Indeed, my M.O. is to craft tons of goals, large and small, across four areas of life (personal/self improvement, household, career, relationship). I would seriously like to know what I did last year because it wasn’t all the writing I planned, or exercising, or the (insert 52 more things). Good grief.
So, what’s the secret to achieving goals anyway?
Research suggests that “SMART” goals, things that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant (some say “Realistic”), and Time-bound (meaning they have a deadline) are more likely to get accomplished. Unlike vague resolutions like “be a nicer person” or “lose weight” (two of my former favorites), SMART goals enable people to clearly see when a goal is accomplished or not, and they require some thought about resources like time. Most of my goals over the last few years have been SMAR… I never considered when they would get done. So they didn’t.
Likewise, goals should be framed positively as in “I want to eat healthy foods at every meal” instead of in terms of avoidance, such as “I will stop eating junk food.” Who likes to be told they can’t do something? Hardly anyone, including when we’re talking to ourselves (see this article on “psychological reactance” for more).
And goals should be feasible, not too simple but not too complex either. My goal of practicing French conversation every day? Reasonable. More useful than “say one French word every day,” and more realistic than “be able to write perfectly in French by June.” The latter may happen one day, but not within my six month parameter.
And, there shouldn’t be too many goals. Willpower only goes so far it seems. In fact, some research argues that people shouldn’t set more than one major objective at a time because there’s not enough discipline to go round.
When possible, goals should be broken down into manageable pieces or action steps. My scholarly crush Karl Weick calls this the process of “small wins.” He argues that we’ll get more done when we feel successful and having lots of small goals that build up to a big accomplishment provides that type of affirmation and motivation.
Similarly, as my colleagues and I discuss in this article on metaphors of substance abuse treatment, having many small goals means when you miss one, you aren’t failing outright. If I forget to exercise one day, I missed that day’s win, not my entire goal of fitting into my pants again.
Creating helpful habits
Now, setting good goals is one thing. How do we actually do them? Especially if you’re a list maker like me who really enjoys the process of creating to-dos but less of the actual doing.
Make it easy.
Research about habit formation suggests a few things like making it easy to accomplish tasks. In his book the Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg argues we should create adjustments that make helpful habits easier. Want to eat more fruit? Keep a bowl of oranges on the counter within your sightline. Want to make it even easier? Buy fruit that doesn’t require peeling. Want to walk more consistently? Schedule a daily walk in your calendar.
Find a friend.
One of the best ways to get a helpful habit to stick? Social support. Find a walking buddy. Create a writing group. Join a team. Social support is one of the big reasons that weight loss programs like Weight Watchers, exercise regimes like CrossFit, and support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous are so successful. (Although do be careful because social support for bad habits is also just as powerful!)
The research is resounding on the usefulness of keeping score when we’re creating habits. Want to eat better? Keep a list of your daily food intake. Want to write every day? Take note of your daily writing accomplishments. Keeping track is motivating–especially after a habit has been going for awhile–and also helps you determine which habits are working or not.
Look to past success.
And this one is dedicated to me. Sometimes rekindling helpful habits is especially rough. Take for instance, my fitness and writing goals. I want to fit into my pants and write another book this year. Both entail a LOT OF WORK that won’t be easy. How do I know? Because I’ve done both successfully before. So, I know I have the potential and the ability.
Analyzing what helped me achieve success in the past will be critical to achieving these new goals. Like when writing my first book, I broke down tasks into bite sized pieces so there were LOTS of opportunities for small wins. I communicated about my writing goals publicly (see Cialdini’s work on self-persuasion). I embedded numerous small rewards for milestones. For book two, I’m planning to repeat all of these processes.
Unfortunately, the fitness goals will be harder because my past success was largely due to group fitness classes and personal training, both of which aren’t feasible right now due to COVID. If anyone has suggestions on how to make solo exercise more social/fun, please let me know!
Use your resources.
Knows folks who have achieved the same goals you’re after? Ask them for advice. Do your goals require new training? Consider taking a class. (For my French goal, I’m contemplating a course at my local community college.) Need help with willpower? Planning? Habit formation? Visit your library or bookstore. Some of my favorite titles: Atomic Habits by James Clear, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, Getting Things Done by David Allen, and Willpower by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney
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