If you often set goals but don’t accomplish them, you are not alone. Especially this time of year, most Americans set New Year’s resolutions but 45% fail to keep them by February. Behavioral science can help you increase your power to fulfill your goals. The following 15 strategies, grouped into five themes, will help ensure that you meet your goals this time!
1. Figure out what makes you tick.
Reflect back on 2019 – or the whole past decade. When did you feel most alive, most engaged with the world? Those moments can give you a clue about what matters most to you. Maybe being creative or mastering your environment is your passion, or perhaps helping others gives meaning to your life. Or building a strong and resilient body. Whatever it is, research shows that having a strong sense of “why” behind your goals increases the probability of achieving those goals.
2. Choose goals consistent with your values.
Once you figure out what values provide purpose to your life, choose several goals for each value. For example, if being creative is one of your values, you might set: enrolling in a writing group at a local community center; writing at least 5 pages each morning; and learning to landscape your garden by reading specific books and watching certain tutorials, and then trying it out in the spring.
3. Don’t adhere rigidly to your chosen goals.
It’s important not to stay married to your goals even if trying them out for a while shows that they are not working for you. If you’ve set a goal of working out in the morning before breakfast by waking up 30 minutes earlier (based in your value of building a strong and resilient body), and you have either felt consistently tired and failed to complete your morning workout, it might be time to accept that you are not a morning person and that your exercise should be shifted to another time (and possibly take another form). Being flexible with your goals – many of which could be consistent with a given value – is a key to success.
4. Monitor your behaviors and more.
Studies show that monitoring your progress is one of the most useful things you can do when trying to accomplish a goal. There are many apps that can help you with this. A recent study suggests that the more often you log the behaviors you’re trying to change, the more successful you will be. The good news is that, over time, the logging becomes second nature. Besides noting whether you performed a planned behavior (and how much you did), I recommend writing down perceived obstacles when you don’t. For example, that time when you just couldn’t get yourself to the salad bar in your work cafeteria? Record how you were feeling (Exhausted? Stressed? Sad? Anxious?) and anything else that might have gotten in the way of your healthy meal (Not enough time to eat a big salad before the next meeting?).
5. Proceed slowly and gradually.
It’s never a good idea to try to change more than one behavior at a time. Pick just one goal to start with, and plan baby steps that you could engage in today or this week. It’s easy to dismiss this advice and sign up for an expensive boutique gym in January, hoping to turn your life around. But ask people who run gyms how fast the January crowds thin out – after only a few weeks, at best. So don’t fall into the trap of trying too much, too soon. Walk around the block each day at first. Then add stairs at work instead of using the elevator. On the weekend, rent a bike for a few hours and ride on a path at a speed that makes you break a sweat but doesn't overwhelm you. Take advantage of January deals and try a few gyms for free. You can always do more than you planned to do, if you’re so inspired.
This way, you can experience some early victories, get a sense of self-efficacy, and be much more likely to continue pursuing your goal. Also, research shows that progress in one domain (e.g., exercise) can generalize to others (e.g., healthy eating, going to bed on time).
6. Make sure you’re well-rested.
Numerous studies show that your willpower suffers when you don't sleep enough or don’t sleep well. You can probably recall the last time you were exhausted after a particularly bad night, when it was really hard to resist the temptation of office doughnuts or online shopping. Besides sleep, activities that promote rest include spending time in nature, relaxation exercises and mindfulness meditation. So, allow yourself enough time to rest and sleep. That, in turn, will help you achieve your goals.
7. Choose goals that are intrinsically rewarding.
When picking your goals, focus on ones that will be rewarding in and of themselves, because they have the greatest chance of being turned into reality and sustained over time. Let’s say you want to lose weight. Are you an outdoorsy person who gets recharged in nature? If so, choose hiking, bicycling, outdoor running, or skiing instead of gyms. Or maybe you really love fresh fruit smoothies. Make sure you have a steady supply of needed ingredients and portable cups to make it easy to reach for those instead of processed sweets.
8. Use small external rewards, if needed.
Sometimes the behaviors we are trying to increase are not rewarding by themselves, especially in the beginning. For example, many people do not feel a great “runner’s high” when they start a running program. It only kicks in after you’ve been at it for a while. So, what can you do now to reward yourself and increase the chances of goal fulfillment? Be creative and come up with a small but effective reward for yourself. If you love bingeing on your favorite Netflix shows, start your running regimen with an indoor treadmill or elliptical that allows you to watch while working out. Or run to your favorite coffee shop and pick a low-calorie treat each time you make it there during the first month.
9. Be grateful.
Although it might be hard to see how gratitude has anything to do with achieving your goals, research has shown that being grateful for small and large things in your life tends to be energizing and motivating in making steps toward self-improvement. People who take even just a short time at the beginning or end of each day to remind themselves what they are grateful for (including any progress they are making toward their goals), are more likely to experience positive feelings and persist in what they set out to do.
10. Let go of an “all-or-nothing” approach.
This a very common trap we get ourselves into. As soon as you perceive that you aren’t perfectly living up to the plan, you might think, “What’s the point, anyway?” and give up on your goal altogether. Psychologists call this phenomenon “what-the-hell effect.” (Even psychologists can occasionally display a sense of humor!)
What works much better is realizing that sometimes all you can do is just a little bit. As a swimmer, you might get to the pool and swim only four slow laps before you get into a hot shower. And that is good enough. Other times you’ll need a break from your goal pursuit – it might be a weekend you want to take it easy, or a day you would give anything to sleep in. After the break, you will most likely find it easier to recommit to your goals.
11. Anticipate falling off the wagon, and be self-compassionate when it happens.
Related to giving up an all-or-nothing philosophy, it is crucial to appreciate that falling off the wagon is a part of every behavior change. We are all human beings, and as such are imperfect. All of us will have setbacks and failings as we try to improve ourselves.
There will be times when you end up just not fulfilling your goals for a day or a week because life gets in the way. The most important thing is to forgive yourself when this happens, and get back into the saddle the next day (or week). Even though you might think that “whipping yourself into shape” is the best way to reach your goals, behavioral science suggests that being kind to yourself is actually a more effective way to achieve success.
12. Change your environment to make it easier on yourself.
People who are most successful in exercising self-control and reaching their goals are actually exceptionally good at one thing: arranging their daily environment so that they are not tempted and so that it is convenient to make healthy choices. In other words, they make it easier for themselves to reach their goals without having to rely on sheer willpower.
So take notice: Empty your freezer of ice cream, have your gym bag packed and ready to go the night before, pack a healthy lunch from leftovers, have a predetermined amount of money channeled to your savings account before you see it, skip the middle aisles in your grocery shop (that’s where all the processed food is stacked).
The social factor
13. Find a buddy or a group pursuing similar goals.
So-called “social commitment” is one of the most powerful inducements for sticking with your goals. Having a partner or friend join you in pursuing your goals, or being a part of, for example, a running group or an online healthy eating community has been shown to help. Other people provide support, encouragement, belonging, and motivation. When the going gets hard, the promise we made to other people makes us stick with our plans. When it gets really hard or we fall off the wagon, “misery loves company.” And when there are victories to be celebrated, the social way is the way to go!
14. Have models to look up to.
Research shows that surrounding yourself with people who are good examples of living the values you want for yourself is very helpful in succeeding with your valued goals. If you want to become a hiker, join hiking Meetups and clubs that have at least some experienced hikers. You can learn from them and be inspired by them: If they can do it, you can, too. They can even become your long-term mentors and friends.
15. Serve as a teacher or mentor.
On the other hand, committing to teaching a skill or leading an activity that you have some experience in – but have a hard time committing to doing regularly – is a great way to succeed. If you have been yearning to resurrect your pottery hobby for many years, but never got around to it, how about signing up to teach a pottery class in your community center? When people depend on us and are eager to learn from us, we generally don’t disappoint.