January 1st typically brings a number of requisite events, including hangovers, football bowl games, and new year's resolutions. And every year, people with the very best of intentions plan to exercise more, quit smoking, save money, and lose weight. Unfortunately, most fall short.
Yet, despair not. There are a number of tools in the psychological toolbox that can help people succeed in meeting their laudable goals this year. Interestingly, many of these techniques involve successfully harnessing the self in the service of meeting one's goals. Psychology may not be able to tell you how much to exercise, how much money to save, or how much drinking is too much, but it can help you increase the likelihood of meeting your goals once you set them.
Harnessing Your Self
In essence, goals simply boil down to two endpoints: where you currently are and where you want to be. A number of prominent psychological theories focus on goal-directed behavior (also known as self-regulation) to account for how people do, or fail to, bring these two points together.
Increase your self-awareness. It is easy to set goals, but often goal pursuit fails because people do not keep tabs on their current behavior as closely as they should. It is amazing to see how many people set very specific goals (e.g., I want to run 4 days per week, I want to lose 20 pounds, I want to save an extra $200 per month), yet they never track their on-going progress toward those goals. It would be like being on a road trip with a map but not considering where you are in relation to your destination.
One simple suggestion is to keep track of your current state and do so in a way that is as concrete and public as possible. For instance, if you are trying to run 4 times per week, keep a daily running log and post it someplace that's visible to you and to others, such as on a bulletin board or on a refrigerator door. Each day when you do or don't run, record it on the log. Daily record keeping will keep you honest about what you've done and what you've not done, and it will allow you to monitor your progress. Having others involved will help too, especially if they are people you care about (e.g., failure now lets them down as well as yourself). It's harder to cheat on your goal if you know that for the third week in a row, you fell short than to be oblivious of your (lack of) progress.
Set concrete, measurable goals. Of course, it is important set concrete goals that are defined and measurable. Some goals, such as losing weight or saving money are easily quantified. Others, such as "eat more healthy" aren't easy to measure and should be translated into concrete behaviors that can be measured and monitored. For instance, quantify "healthy eating" such as setting the goal of "eating 4 vegetable servings and 3 fruit servings per day" -- that way, you can explicitly measure whether you actually did meet your goals, and if you didn't, by how much you fell short.
In addition to monitoring your progress, keeping track of your current state helps make your goal more salient to you. Indeed, a considerable amount of research on self-awareness theory shows that paying attention to our actions in the present ALSO increases the accessibility of our goals, and when we fall short, the negative affect we feel (e.g., disappointment, guilt) helps to energize us to work toward our goals in order to reduce the negative emotions we experience.
For instance, classic self-awareness research has shown that people are far less likely to lie or cheat on exams if there is a mirror in front of them because the mirror increases their self-awareness (i.e., makes them focus on their behavior in the moment). In one case, the incidence of cheating on an exam dropped from over 80% (no mirror present) to less than 10% (when a mirror was in front of the student). Mirrors, logs, and diaries help keep people focused on the present, which makes them think about their standards and thus stay on track for achieving their goals.
Negative affect is your ally, not your enemy. When we are aware that we're not living up to our ideals, we typically feel negative affect (e.g., sadness, dejection, agitation, and even guilt). These feelings, obviously in modest doses, are not a problem -- they are tremendously important. Psychologically, negative affect serves as a signal that we aren't achieving our goals, and the drive to reduce this negativity helps us close the gap between where we are currently and where we want to be.
Let me be clear, one does not want to drown in guilt or anxiety, and at some point, too much negative emotions can be debilitating, paralyzing, and overwhelming. But in reasonable doses, negative affect is useful because it serves as a motivating force for striving to meet one's goals. As we reduce the discrepancy between our actual self and ideal self, the negativity is replaced by positivity.
All too often, people respond too quickly to this negativity with self-defeating behaviors to reduce self-awareness (i.e., minimize our focus on our current state) to blunt the negative feelings. For instance, drinking excessively, binge eating, playing video games, and excessive sleeping are behaviors that reduce focus on ourselves. Although such actions can blunt the negativity we experience, these behaviors typically do not help us achieve our goals and often are directly counterproductive to them (e.g., someone who drinks too much alcohol and binge eats to deal with their not maintaining a healthy lifestyle are only adding to their distance from their goals by trying to blunt their negative affect).
Psychologists typically think about negative affect as a signal in a system that is much like a thermostat. We have a current state (the actual room temperature) and a goal state (the temperature set for the room). When there is a discrepancy, the system tries to close it (by heating the room). Negative affect is the signal we need to tell the system to deploy itself in the service of meeting our goals. Often, people are too quick to hide from these feelings rather than let them guide their behavior. Again, there are certainly times when too much negative emotion is harmful rather than instructor, but one should not scurry to hide from the first tinge of guilt they feel when they don't meet a weekly goal -- instead, this feeling is often the most critical ingredient to make progress.
In this blog, I've only touched on a couple of tools in the psychological toolbox that help us meet our goals. This description is certainly far from exhaustive (I may add some more in the days ahead -- a goal of mine, if you will, which I just made public and thus more likely to meet). Regardless, I hope everyone who sets goals (either for the new year or in everyday life) can harness the power of the self in order to better themselves and the lives of those around them!