By Amanda Durik, guest contributor.

The early months of the year bring a great deal of promise. We stand tall, looking out at the horizon of time, and consider our potential to move in a new direction.

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Sometimes the desire to make a change and forge a new path is clearer than the path itself. Two considerations can produce a winning combination for clarifying a path that has greater potential for being realized.

1. Consider the future: Think about what is meaningful to you and possible to achieve.

If you are looking for a change you might think to yourself, “What am I good at?” and “What do I care about?” These are important questions to ask.

These questions reflect musings about our potential for investing ourselves in worthwhile endeavors (McAdams, 2013). Goals should be adopted based on what we want to accomplish, and how meaningful they are. They must be valuable—after all, the value must outweigh the effort required to achieve them (Eccles et al., 1983; Locke & Latham, 2002).

It is helpful to spend time thinking about ourselves in the future, and to consider what we can be and what we can accomplish. For example, consider a person who is thinking about going back to school with the goal of becoming a nurse. Nursing may be an attractive goal because it affords opportunities to help people and offers good pay. Critically, however, the potential nurse needs to perceive being willing to put in considerable effort to make it possible. Is it valuable enough?

If the decision is made to move forward with this life change, the student might select a university that has a nursing program, take foundational classes in physiology and chemistry, and perhaps volunteer in a hospital. Having a desired end goal can help us stay focused. 

2. Consider the present: Think about what is interesting to you.

Although it is important to set meaningful goals for the future, another important factor is being interested in what we are actually doing, while we are doing it. Why is interest important?

The most obvious reason is because people like spending time doing work that is enjoyable. But focusing on our interests also helps us focus on our work in the present moment (McAdams, 2013). This is visible among very young children while they are playing—they are growing and developing by learning about the environment, testing ideas about gravity, textures and sounds, even though young children do not have clear goals (Renninger & Hidi, 2016). 

So, instead of focusing on the future (right now), we need to become engaged in the tasks that allow us to reach our goals. Adults can savor the moment, too, and this happens when we are working on something that is involving. We can become so involved that we actually lose track of time and are not aware of ourselves (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; Dietrich, 2004). Simply put: Time flies when having fun.

Setting goals that align with our interests: The winning combination

So how do we combine thinking about the future and living in the present? The winning combination involves identifying goals that are both meaningful in the long term, and interesting in the present.   

Interest is important when considering life goals because people will find it easier to engage in activities in which they are interested. Interest guides moment-to-moment choices regarding what to do, for how long and when to stop. Thus, interest can help people sustain progress toward achieving long-term goals (Sansone & Thoman, 2005). 

To return to the example of the aspiring nurse, imagine that the person is very interested in physiology. Taking a physiology course is a great start. Not only is the class a requirement for becoming a nurse, but because the topic is interesting, the person will be more willing to go to class, read the textbook and complete the assignments. Interest also may enhance the ability to ignore distractions while trying to study. 

In short, as we look out at the year’s horizon and consider how we might make changes in our lives, we might do well to identify meaningful goals for our futures that also require tasks that we find interesting. Not only will this help us reach our goals, but in the end, we might be able to reflect and think, “Wow, I did it, it was worthwhile, and I enjoyed it.” 

Amanda Durik, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University. She teaches courses in motivation, group dynamics and research methods. Her research focuses on motivation in achievement situations, and the situational and individual factors that contribute to the development of both performance and interest.

References

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Dietrich, A. (2004) Neurocognitive mechanisms underlying the experience of flow.  Consciousness and Cognition, 13, 746-761. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2004.07.002

Eccles, J., Adler, T.F., Futterman, R., Goff, S.B., Kaczala, C.M., Meece, J.L., & Midgley, C. (1983). Expectancies, values, and academic behaviors. In J.T. Spence (Ed.), Achievement and achievement motives: Psychological and sociological approaches (pp. 75–146). San Francisco: Freeman.

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