How Your Possessions Can Help You Reach Your Goals

A new paper suggests that objects can boost self-regulation.

Posted Aug 12, 2020

What do you see when you look around your house? Most likely, various objects. Some are utilitarian, functional: the stove, fridge, clock. Others are decorative, symbolic: art, mementos, pictures. When you look at them, you are flooded with feelings, images, and memories. Your trip to Greece, a graduation, a birth.

Why do we buy, collect, and keep things? The most common answer has been that objects help us to know ourselves. In other words, objects help us develop a sense of who we are. But is that the whole story?

In a recent paper, my co-author and I argue that, in addition to knowing ourselves, objects help to “fuel” ourselves. In other words, they help us get to our goals by boosting self-regulation. Because we all have objects at home, knowing how to leverage them effectively may help us combat Zoom fatigue.

First, to meet your goals, you need to have a clear standard in mind. This is the ideal, value, or outcome that you want to achieve. When objects are paired with the desired outcome over time, you can look at the object and automatically be reminded of that standard. If you want to run more, place your running shoes in a strategic location where you can see them and be reminded of your goal. If you want to improve your eating habits, then place a picture on the fridge that reminds you of your nutritional goal.

Second, in addition to having a clear, attainable standard, successful goal pursuit requires monitoring how far you’ve come and how much left you have to go. So select or create objects that can help you to track your goal progress. Dieters who weigh themselves every day are much more likely to lose or maintain their weight than those who don’t. Star Charts help children finish their chores and homework. In addition to more expensive gadgets such as Fitbits, there are plenty of less expensive apps out there that will help you track your progress to your goal.

The third ingredient of successful self-regulation is the capacity to change your thoughts, feelings, or behavior. This is easier said than done. Feeling tired, hopeless, or dejected are major barriers to successful goal pursuit. This is where objects may help the most: They can fuel your capacity to change by infusing you with energy and positivity. Glancing at a picture of a loved one, looking at the memento from a trip, or listening to a favorite song or record, can give you the power to persist even in the face of the most challenging obstacles.

Now look around your house. What do you see? Hopefully objects that can help you combat Zoom fatigue and reach your goals.

References

Mead, Nicole L. and Roy F. Baumeister (2021), “Do Objects Fuel Thyself? The Relationship Between Objects and Self-Regulation,” Current Opinion in Psychology, 39, 16-19.