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4 Psychological Tricks to Reach Your Goals

These four hacks that will help you reach your goals instead of abandoning them.

The start of a new year is invigorating—something about turning the page always feels so fresh and motivating. In 2020, we’re not only entering a new year but a whole new decade. What a great opportunity to reflect, refresh, and turn a new leaf!

Many of us use the new year as an opportunity to set new goals, but as the year goes on, we often find that achieving those goals is surprisingly hard to pull off. How many times have you started a new year feeling gung-ho about exercising only to have your enthusiasm fizzle by February?

Motivation is a tricky thing. But just because you’ve struggled in the past doesn’t mean you can't find success in the future. Motivation is like an engine you can tune. As long as you tinker with it the right way, it'll perform better.

Let’s look at four psychological tricks for puttering with your particular motivation engine as you set your goals for 2020.

1. Set a learning goal instead of a performance goal.

Usually, when we set goals, we think of what we want to achieve, what thresholds we want to be able to say we crossed.

  • Lose 20 pounds
  • Run a marathon
  • Get a promotion at work

These goals are specific and concrete. That’s good, but research shows that setting long-term performance goals based on achievement outcomes may not be as effective as setting goals for new skills you want to learn.

Entering MBA students who set goals for the skills and knowledge they wanted to gain—like learning to network effectively—felt more satisfied by the end of their program and earned higher GPAs compared to their peers who set achievement-based goals like earning good grades.

So, let's look at an alternative to the weight loss goal I just mentioned. Instead of setting a goal to lose 20 pounds, a better one might be improving your nutrition knowledge by learning five new healthy lunch recipes. Not only does this offer a more specific target, it feels a lot more attainable.

2. Make sure the goal is attached to a life value.

How do you decide on your goals? Are they inspired by what your peers are doing? Are they set by authority figures in your life? Where your goals come from has a big impact on whether you’ll achieve them. One place they could come from is your own life values.

Values are not the same as goals. Imagine you’re sailing a boat on the ocean. Goals are like the islands on the horizon that you’re traveling towards. Values are like the North Star that points you in the right direction. Not everyone’s North Star is the same when it comes to values. It’s important to know what big-picture things matter to you overall so they can help you navigate.

For some, social connection is a major life value. Perhaps for them, a good goal would be to explore new activities they can do with their friends that help the community. One example might be volunteering at a local animal shelter with them, helping them support the community and just sharing an experience. For some, achieving influence and power is a life value, in which case their goal can be to create (or learn how to create) a more visible public platform for influencing political policy. For some, being engaged with nature is a value, so a value-based goal could be to start a garden or save money for camping equipment.

Ask yourself whether your goals are based on your larger life values. If not, make some adjustments. If your goal reflects a value you hold deeply, you’re more likely to be successful than if your goal is just another “should” to check off on your to-do list.

Courtesy of Shutterstock
Source: Courtesy of Shutterstock

3. Make the goal about a challenge, not a threat.

If your goal is based on intimidation, you’re less likely to achieve it than if it's based on a challenge. Here are some examples:

Threat: If I don’t decrease my blood pressure, I’ll likely have a heart attack.

Challenge: I want to decrease my blood pressure so I can improve my quality of life.

Threat: I need to step up with my studying because I’ll fail the semester if I don’t.

Challenge: I need to create a new study routine for myself so I can become the type of student I want to be.

Threat: I have to figure out how not to push my new boss’s buttons so I don’t continue to have a rocky relationship with her.

Challenge: I want to reset my relationship with my new boss by learning new communication skills.

Notice the difference? The threat versions of the goals sound scary and definite. If you're not making progress toward your threat-based goal, you might find yourself avoiding dealing with the situation altogether. But the challenge-based versions are more hopeful and forward-looking. They give you more of a direction to strive toward.

4. Sign a contract with someone.

Who have you told about your goals? How much detail did you share?

When it comes to motivation, we humans are very much social animals. Sometimes a little social pressure can help us achieve what we want. There's something about committing a goal to someone else that makes it easier to stick with it, or perhaps harder to give up.

If you’ve already announced your 2020 goals at brunch (or on Twitter!), good for you. Now you’ve got people to keep you accountable. That's especially true if you’ve asked friends to hold you to your goals.

But you can even take it a step further by signing a social contract with someone. Yes, I do mean a literal contract that lays out on paper what specifically you're committing to and how you'll measure your progress. What timelines have you set? What rewards will you get for achieving the goals? Both you and your witness should sign this document and agree to review it together to ensure that you stay on track.

This might sound like overkill, but it works! When it comes to increasing their exercise level, people who sign social contracts with their healthcare providers have a high success rate. The contract works on each person for different reasons. Maybe it served as a memory-jogger, provided more social support, or helped them to problem-solve. The key takeaway is that singing the contract helped.

So, go ahead and look forward to a 2020 challenge, but be sure to base it around your values for a higher chance of success.

A version of this piece originally appeared on Quick and Dirty Tips.