Working toward goals is the way we live our life on purpose and something all successful people do. Setting goals and breaking them, however, is more common than not and the discouragement can cause people to give up on what they want. Every time you set a goal that you don’t achieve, you increase your belief that you won’t be able to accomplish it. If you are like most people, if you don’t believe you can do something, you aren’t likely to invest much energy in trying. Psychology research, however, has found that the more times you try at something the more likely you are to succeed, particularly if you learn from past attempts and try new strategies.1 The research has also shown that there are some specific things you can do as you are setting your goals that increases the likelihood of achieving them.2
Below are four important steps that will set you up for success.
1. Make sure you have the right goal. I once had someone I was working with tell me she wanted to lose weight. This is an extremely common goal and she was objectively somewhat overweight, so I could have taken her goal at face value, but instead I asked her why she wanted to lose weight? Because I want my boyfriend to love me more and I’m afraid if I don’t he might leave me. It was apparent she was using her goal of losing weight to solve an unrelated problem. What she really wanted was to feel more loved and secure in her relationship. When people use goals to solve unrelated problems they generally lack the proper motivation to achieve the goals. Before you set any goal, ask yourself: Why do I want to achieve this?
2. Be very specific. Many people set goals such as I want to go on vacation or save money. This is a good place to start but in order to be successful you have to get your goal down to a behavioral level where you can take specific actions. This is what you will do to actually accomplish your goal. I am going to stop drinking Starbucks in the morning and put the extra $20 a week in a savings account. You will know your goal is specific enough, when it is measurable. You can measure whether or not you put $20 a week into your savings account.
3. Start small. Starting with the end in mind is an important way to determine what it is you are trying to accomplish and to know whether or not you are on track. Often times however, the end goal can seem so big that it is overwhelms you and causes you to give up too soon or may even prevent you from starting altogether. For example, I want to lose 50 pounds by eating healthy and exercising five times a week, is an excellent goal but for most people this seems like a very big challenge. It is important to break down big goals into sub-goals and micro goals. This helps you create actions toward your big picture goals that feel much more doable. Sub-goals should be focused on small periods of time generally no more than one month at a time. I want to lose 5 pounds in January is a far less daunting goal than focusing on 50 all at once. Then break it down even smaller. I want to lose 1.25 pounds per week. That feels even more doable. You can even create smaller micro goals. In order to lose 1.25 pounds per week I will give up desert, drink water instead of soda every day, and take the stairs in stead of the elevator. The more possible your goal seems, the more likely you are to stick with it. Also, the success you feel by achieving the small goals gives you motivation to keep going. If you stay on target with the small goals, you will eventually get to the big goal finish line.
4. Have a plan for the obstacles. I always tell people that you need two plans to achieve a goal not just one. You have to have a plan for the goal itself and a plan to get around the obstacles to your plan. Even if someone really knows what they want to do and is highly motivated to achieve it, not dealing with the obstacles can self-sabotage the best of intentions. We tend to be creatures of habit and many times the biggest obstacle to change is our current way of doing something, so we need a plan to do it differently. Spend some time thinking about what the obstacles are to your new goal. If you want to go to the gym three nights a week, but every time you get home from work you turn on the TV and get sucked into the couch, then lose your motivation, plan around the obstacle of going home. Create a plan to get around the obstacle, such as taking your gym clothes to work so you can get to the gym before you go home.
Setting goals and achieving them is the way that we create our life experiences and it is one of the most rewarding things we do. Don’t back away from a goal just because you haven’t achieved it in the past, remember the more times you try the more likely you are to succeed!
Jennice Vilhauer, PhD, is an assistant professor at Emory University, and the author of Think Forward to Thrive: How to Use the Mind’s Power of Anticipation to Transcend Your Past and Transform Your Life.
1. Norcross, John C., Marci S. Mrykalo, and Matthew D. Blagys. "Auld lang Syne: Success predictors, change processes, and self‐reported outcomes of New Year's resolvers and nonresolvers." Journal of Clinical Psychology 58.4 (2002): 397-405.
2. Oettingen, Gabriele. Rethinking positive thinking: Inside the new science of motivation. Current, 2015.