Most of us have probably been there. You say to yourself “today is when I finally stop putting things off” or “this is when I shed those extra pounds”. Perhaps it was, “I’m going to stop buying those things I don’t need and climb out of debt” or “quit smoking” or even “wasting time on the internet.” We start off with the best intentions and feel committed when we set these goals for an improved self, or else we probably wouldn’t bother.

You may have had a solid start. You gave up the after-dinner sweets. Maybe you cancelled and cut up your credit cards or tossed your cigarette pack in the garbage. You may even have installed a website blocker to keep you on task while online.

But then you lapse after a rough day at work, an argument with your spouse, or head out on a carefree vacation. What you chalked up to a one-off turns out to be a fall back to your bad habits/old ways of doing things. A few weeks later, your best-intentioned goals become past hopes, and then a distant memory by the time you start thinking of new ones again.

Fortunately, there is a better way to approach self-improvement that can buck this loop of setting, under-performing, and forgetting goals. The ability to pursue goals effectively is critical for sustaining positive change- it's important to get it right. This article highlights strategies that researchers have found to be helpful in leading positive personal and societal change, including goal type, monitoring progress, and motivating others to take action.

Approach Goals for Fulfillment

It starts with framing your goals in the right light, which means sorting them in the left side of your brain. The left side of the human mind is associated with “approach” goals whereas the right side is focused on “avoidance” goals. We are more likely to be able to achieve goals that are directed towards approaching a desirable outcome (e.g. being more active in daily life to become more fit) than action oriented towards avoiding an undesirable outcome (e.g. losing 20 lbs. to avoid heart disease).

Our emotions are at play in this approach-avoidance dichotomy. Psychology researchers posit that the pursuit of avoidance goals is related to procrastination, less satisfaction with progress, and reduced self-esteem, personal control, and vitality . Clearly avoidance goals elicit negative feelings that would make it more difficult to activate action, especially over the course of a full year. Avoidance goals should be used for emergency use only because they are motivated by fear, fear of the negative outcome becoming reality. In contrast, when we take action to achieve approach goals, we become excited and pleased with our decision to act on our intentions, which incites additional action.

Monitoring for Goal Attainment

Even with a well-designed approach goal, monitoring progress is likely still necessary to achieving it. In 2015, the American Psychological Association published research that found that the more often someone monitors progress, the greater the likelihood that they will succeed. In this meta-analysis of 138 studies focused primarily on personal health goals, the act of prompting participants to monitor their progress toward a goal increased the likelihood that the participants would achieve that goal. As well, monitoring progress had an even greater positive effect on goal attainment if the information was physically recorded or publicly disclosed. Progress, or lack thereof, should be recorded, attuned to frequently, and shared.

Yet, people do not tend to self-monitor their goals. This psychological phenomenon is known as the “ostrich problem” as one “buries their head in the sand” to intentionally reject information that could help them monitor their goal progress or receives relevant information but does not evaluate the implications of that information for their goal progress. Examples are far reaching— self-monitoring of blood glucose levels among people with diabetes is uncommon, and few people monitor their household energy usage, check their finances regularly, or keep track of what they are eating. A potential reason for the ostrich problem is the desire to avoid disappointing feedback. While information indicating you are off-track can certainty be painful at first, these unpleasant feelings are likely to pail in comparison to the longer-term disappointment resulting from goal failure.

Fortunately, there are some techniques to follow to become less susceptible to the ostrich effect:

  • Remind yourself that set backs are part of the process toward self-improvement. Everyone makes mistakes, but individuals that make decision based on informed, rationale thinking, rather than their current emotional state, are better at self-control (and may even be happier).
     
  • Remove the need of having to intentionally seek out and track progress. An automated system that sends an email or text message describing goal progress or a daily check-in system with a friend or colleague may help in overcoming the burden of goal monitoring, leading to goal accomplishment.
     
  • Reflect on your goals when you are in a good mood. We’re emotional beings; sometimes just being in a positive state of mind may be the impetus needed to assess how you’re doing.

Problem-solvable for Social Benefit

What about goals that depend on more than just one person? Are there any lessons learned that could help in achieving societal goals? How can others be motivated to assist in tackling issues to hopefully improve the lives of many people?

One such issue that would benefit from collective goal setting and achievement is the global transformative change needed to reduce climate change. Despite the urgency, many view climate change as an abstract concept existing outside their everyday experience or may even be sceptical that human activity is the cause. Simply presenting the facts is not enough to resolve conflicts about it. Research suggests some individuals engage in motivated disbelief because solutions to climate change affect their ideological values and potentially their way of life.

For issues like climate change, framing the impacts in terms of increasing consideration for others is associated with increased willingness to act. To motivate others, these types of issues should be presented in a way that is non-judgemental and is not a moral statement about one’s lifestyle. Similar to the approach-avoidance asymmetry of personal goal setting described earlier, people are also more likely to engage if they are provided with potential solutions, rather than the anguish associated with not acting.

The ways in which we define our goals, track our goals, and discuss collective goals has an influence on the prospects of achieving them.  If we can commit to accepting and incorporating these factors in how we approach the process of goal pursuit, every tomorrow stands to be an improvement over yesterday.

About the Author

Shimi Kang M.D.

Shimi Kang, M.D., is a psychiatrist and the author of The Dolphin Way.

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