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A Radical Alternative to New Year's Goal-Setting

Research shows what factors help people attain goals.

Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash
Source: Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash


Setting goals can be depressing. Neurologist Jeffrey Schwartz defines a self-described depressed person as someone who cannot achieve regularly what she sets out to do.

No wonder that the end of the year can feel so depressing to so many people. On one hand, we take stock of all we did not do that we thought we might during the current year, and on the other hand we face another year and wonder if we can muster a shred of hope to make things different.

But what if we had a proven set of tools and factors at our disposal that are exponentially more likely to lead to us attaining our goals, doing our best work in the coming year, and bringing about the change we desire - both in our own work lives and in the lives of people our best work effects?

The factors include setting specific kinds of goals by using the right kind of ancient tools in an optimal environment.


You can make vision boards, find a year-long intention word or three words or phrase, perform a New Year’s Eve I Ching reading, plan and plan and plan, and tell yourself 108 times each morning for a month that you’re a good person who deserves a fulfilling life.

And still, 12 months later, little beneficial change happens. Little gratification ensues. In fact, some of the above practices might be counter-productive.

Not even goal-setting alone seems to work for most solo-preneurs and business owners. The office supply chain Staples conducted its annual study of business owners and goal-completion and discovered that around 80% of business owners hadn't looked at their annual goals just a few months after setting them.

So, what gives? Is there a science or an art to making our dreams happen and achieving our goals? Is there something beyond wishful thinking and empty New Year’s Resolutions that will up the chances that we will flourish with our best work in the year to come?


Setting and following through on goals is necessary for most professionals, entrepreneurs, and creatives, as the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and other psychologists demonstrates. The authors of one study “New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory” articulate the correlations:

Feelings of success in the workplace occur to the extent that people see that they are able to grow and meet job challenges by pursuing and attaining goals that are important and meaningful.

The operative words here are “important” and “meaningful.” In order for us to feel a goal is meaningful often requires a certain kind of process in articulating that goal. In other words, if you spend five minutes “brainstorming,” listing, and then refining a goal in a work place setting, that goal might not sink down into how you and your brain compute meaning. Your brain likely makes meaning of one thing by its relationship to other things in your life. So, a business goal is only meaningful to you by virtue of its relationship to other facets of your life.

For a goal to be meaningful, we need other elements in place while we actually perform the action of setting goals.

  • Employ the right evidence-based tools while setting goals and imagining a positive future.
  • Set the right kinds of goals that will enlist your sense of meaning and mastery.
  • Imagine a meaningful vision forward that motivates you to attain those goals.
  • Consider kinds of questions that provoke you out of conventional and default ways of imagining your future.


Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash
Source: Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash

Laura A. King is professor of research psychology and recipient of the University of Missouri-Columbia’s Chancellor's Award for Outstanding Research and Creative Activity in 2004. King has an avid interest in how we derive meaning and cultivate happiness. She’s also interested in how writing about life experiences correlates with meaning-making and happiness.

In 2001, while professor at Southern Methodist University, King performed a study on graduate students. One group wrote about a traumatic event for four consecutive days. The second group she asked to write about future life goals and their best possible self for four consecutive days. A third group wrote about an emotionally neutral topic for the same period.

Three weeks later, students in groups 1 and 2 reported a notably more optimistic attitude toward their futures according to their completion of a test that correlates with better problem-solving. Five months later, students who wrote about and made meaning of a traumatic event and students who wrote about their best possible selves in the future visited the university’s health center notably less than students who wrote about an emotionally neutral subject.

Mindset, strong health, positive action all help us manifest our vision, goals, and intentions. But the key tool here to engrain these qualities is writing.

For over thirty years, social psychologist Timothy Wilson has been studying what interventions really work to change people’s behavior. His book Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change illuminates many short-comings of simplistic ideas suggested by well-intending self-help teachers. Wilson points to a 2009 study published in Psychological Science titled “Positive self-statements: Power for some, peril for others.”

Here’s Wilson on the difference between positive thinking self-affirmations and Laura King's writing prompt:

For people with a low opinion of themselves, saying ‘I am a lovable person’ reminds them of all the ways in which they are not lovable, pushing them further into the doldrums.

The key difference [between affirmations and the writing prompt and other such interventions] is that simply thinking about how wonderful we are does not equip us with strategies to make ourselves so. …Indeed, research shows that people who focus on the process of achieving a desired outcome are more likely to achieve it than those who simply think about the outcome itself. (68)

The key difference is focusing on the process of achieving a desired outcome, not just thinking about the outcome itself. Writing into your future further engages your imagination, emotions, and other problem-solving faculties so that you more fully assimilate the process ahead.

King published her findings in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Here’s a review of the guidelines as Wilson conveys it:

"You are to find a quiet place and then for four consecutive nights follow these instructions (The end of the day, by the way, seems to be the more effective time for this exercise):

“Think about your life in the future. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of all of your life dreams. Now, write about what you imagined.”


Psychology professor Carol Dweck (Mindset: The New Psychology of Success),. Dweck studied how college students work with goals. Most students are motivated either by performance goals or by learning/mastery goals.

Performance goals are goals driven to look good in front of other people and to please other people: 'to make all As' 'to ace this test,' 'to get an MBA and get a high-paying job.’ Students driven by these kinds of goals often seek to look smart and to avoid looking dumb more than to learn. They're concerned with appearances. They believe that intelligence is a fixed state determined at birth.

Learning/mastery goals on the other hand are driven by innate curiosity and desire to make meaning: 'to come up with a new way to use an algorithm' 'to refine my mastery of engineering.’ These students want to increase their competence in areas. They enjoy learning for learning's sake. They are less concerned about intelligence or even outcomes alone and more concerned about tasks at hand and process. Consequently, they generally succeed more during difficult times than the other group of students. Over the long term, they're also generally happier with their lives.

What skills do you want to hone or improve upon?

What brand new skill set or craft do you want to learn?

For instance, if you focus only on the goal, “I want to deliver 3 keynotes” or “I want to publish a book,” then you’re focusing only on outcomes and performance. A learning or mastery goal might be, “I want to develop the skills to be an excellent speaker on the subject of sales” or “I want to develop the habits necessary and acquire the knowledge necessary to write and publish a book that will last.”


Climate KIC
Source: Climate KIC

There are two problems with trying to lay out your goals and then attain them alone. One, isolation. A major contributing factor to people feeling blue during the holidays is social isolation.

When we feel lonely or depressed, our cognitive and emotional resources are fully employed to envision a better future and process to get there.

Two, perspective. Sometimes we know ourselves too well. So when we venture on goal-setting or on describing our future, we default into tried and true ways of viewing ourselves. If we base our vision solely on what we already know to be true, then chances are we will not create a very daring vision that will help us do our best, most impactful work and show up in our best ways.

Successful companies are sharing more of their ideas publicly. By doing so, company executives and managers often attain ideas sourced from their communities and customers.The same open process should apply to entrepreneurs, business professionals, and creative.

An Open Goal Process has two components: 1) Inspiration and instigation from mentors and 2) additional resources, encouragement, and support from peers.

Finding accountability groups, master minds, or other circles can help people attain their goals. Such circles provide inspiration for getting new ideas, gaining strategy for meeting challenges, and celebrating when milestones are reached.

The best questions to write into a vision begin with stems such as, “What if…?” And “Why not…?”

Goal questions will answer what you will attain.

Process questions help you predict and map out how you will meet certain challenges, develop certain skills, and change certain habits to help make your dreams real.

There is no secret formula to attaining our goals. However, you can take a radically different and more effective approach to the process of mapping and enacting your best year.


A free month-long event in December called Quest2018 has all of these elements and more.

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