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10 Key Elements of Successful Goal Achievement

A guide for a setting—and achieving—your long-term goals.

Source: Jarek Tuszyński / CC-BY-SA-3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons]
Source: Jarek Tuszyński / CC-BY-SA-3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons]

Creating a goal is the first step toward getting the outcomes you want. But actually achieving the goal requires taking further steps and confronting a host of challenges. The following 10 steps are proven to be valuable with long-term behavior changes like health promotion or psychotherapy (Oettingen et al., 2018).

1. Goals. Goals basically guide our choices. The more specific the goal, the better able people are to reach it. Specific goals lead to better performance than “do your best" goals. A specific goal (walking at least 30 minutes every day) is more concrete and easier to monitor. By focusing on fewer goals, we increase the chance of achievement. With too many goals, we often are afraid of making the wrong choice, so we end up doing nothing. As Plato counseled: “Do one thing, and do it well.”

2. Motivation. Motivation is generally described as the force that drives us to pursue a goal. The more you want the goal, the more likely you are willing to make the efforts and sacrifices required to achieve it. We rarely do anything if we lack emotion or don’t care about it.

3. Self-confidence. A strong belief in one’s capacity for achievement is essential for success. Self-confidence is the opposite of anxiety and self-doubt. The confident individual is more likely to persist in the face of obstacles. Confidence is acquired by knowledge, practice/experience, and effort.

4. Progress monitoring. Goals do not work well unless one can track progress. Progress monitoring serves to identify discrepancies between current and desired states. Monitoring progress also helps one to concentrate on goal-relevant activities.

5. Compromise between feasibility and desirability. People generally underestimate the difficulty of successful goal pursuit. For a distant future, individuals commit themselves to goals that are highly desirable but less feasible. However, for the near future, individuals prefer goals that are less desirable but highly feasible (Trope and Liberman, 2010). So it is important to identify and abandon goals that are unlikely to be achieved (e.g., learning piano in six months).

6. Foreseeing obstacles. As noted above, successful goal pursuits require figuring out which wishes are desirable and feasible and which ones to let go. Mental contrasting is a powerful tool to link desirable goals to present reality. By imagining the future and then imagining obstacles of reality, one recognizes that measures need to be taken to overcome the obstacles (status quo) to achieve the desired future (Oettingen, 2012).

7. The power of believing that you can improve. Some people have a fixed theory, believing that their qualities, such as their intelligence, are simply fixed traits. Others have a malleable theory, believing that their most basic qualities can be developed through their efforts and education. Evidence shows that people with a malleable theory are more willing to learn, able to stick to difficult tasks, and capable of bouncing back from failures (Dweck, 2006).

8. Dealing with temptation. Sticking to one’s plan is hard work. We, humans, are notoriously poor at following through with our plans. Gollwitzer (2018) shows that by transforming goals into specific contingency plan, such as in the form “if X, then Y” (for example, “if I see pastry, then I will avoid them”), we can significantly increase the chance of success. The strategy produces automatic behavior. That is, the person doesn’t have to exert deliberate effort in confronting tempting situations.

9. The power of small steps. Nothing is more motivating than the power of small wins. As the saying goes, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” For example, a depressed individual can find the challenges and chores of everyday life overwhelming, but those difficulties can seem less burdensome after getting up from the chair and taking a short walk or a shower. Once a person gets going in the desired direction, it’s easier to keep going.

10. Anticipated regret. Anticipated regret can promote goal achievement via guilt about missed opportunity. Regret helps people stick to their intentions and be more successful in self-control, such as eating healthy food (Zeelenberg, 1999).


Dweck Carol S. (2011), Mindset: The New Psychology of Success Ballantine Books

Oettingen G, Sevincer T, and Gollwitzer P. (2018). The Psychology of Thinking about the Future. NY: Guilford Press.

Trope, Y., & Liberman, N. (2010). Construal level theory of psychological distance. Psychological Review, 117, 440-463.

Zeelenberg, M. (1999). Anticipated regret, expected feedback and behavioral decision-making. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making,12,93–106.