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Applying Psychological Science to Meet Your Goals

4 strategies to change your behavior

The New Year is around the corner and many of us are thinking about our goals for 2017. Whether your goals are to improve your overall health, starting a business, or improving your parenting behaviors, the first step in behavior change is establishing a clearly defined goal and plan. Every year people start fresh with the hopes to be successful with accomplishing their goals. However, life style changes often require more than a simple plan.

A study published in the journal, Psychological Bulletin, breaks down traits that distinguish those who are successful at attaining their goals versus those who are not (Harkin, Webb, Chang, Prestwich et al., 2016). According to Harkin and his collaborators, people are more successful at goal attainment when they actively and publically monitor progress towards a goal. Although the study focused specifically on behaviors such as smoking, weight loss, and changing diet, the principles can be applied to other goals you desire to address. The bottom line is that if you want to change your behavior to meet your goals, you must first write down your goal and frequently monitor your progress. Below are some suggested tips from the American Psychological Association to help you work towards meeting your personal goal. (

1. Start small: When setting a goal and developing a plan, identify a goal that you can keep. For example, if you aim is to exercise more frequently you should schedule three or four days a week at the gym instead of seven. If you would like to eat healthier, try replacing dessert with something else you enjoy, like fruit or yogurt, instead of seeing your diet as a form of punishment.

2. Change one behavior at a time: Setting too many goals will set you up for failure. Unhealthy behaviors develop over the course of time. Thus, replacing unhealthy behaviors with healthy ones requires time. Don’t get overwhelmed and think that you have to reassess everything in your life. Instead, work toward changing one thing at a time.

3. Talk about your goals: Getting encouragement and support from other is valuable to help you attain your goals. Share your experiences with family and friends. Consider joining a support group to reach your goals, such as a workout class at your gym or a group of coworkers quitting smoking. Having someone to share your struggles and successes with makes your journey much easier and less intimidating.

4. Don’t beat yourself up: Perfection is unattainable. Remember that minor missteps when reaching your goals are completely normal and okay. Don’t give up completely because you ate a brownie and broke your diet, or skipped the gym for a week because you were busy. Everyone has ups and downs; resolve to recover from your mistakes and get back on track.

Copyright 2016 Erlanger A. Turner, Ph.D.

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Harkin, B., Webb, T. L., Chang, B. P., Prestwich, A., Conner, M., Kellar, I., Benn, Y., & Sheeran, P. (2016). Does monitoring goal progress promote goal attainment? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 142, 2, 198-229.