We're all familiar with the nuts and bolts of goal-setting. We should set specific, challenging goals, use rewards, record progress and make public commitments (if you're not familiar with these then check out this article on how to reach life goals).
So how come we still fail?
This psychological research suggests why and what mindsets should help us reach our goals.
1. Stop fantasising
The biggest enemy of any goal is excessive positive fantasising. Research on fantasising in goal-setting shows that positive fantasies are associated with failure to get a job, find a partner, pass an exam or get through surgery. Those whose fantasies were more negative did better. Don't experience the future positively before you achieve it.
2. Start committing
The reason we don't achieve our goals is lack of commitment.
One powerful psychological technique to increase commitment is mental contrasting. This involves entertaining a positive fantasy but then pouring a bucket of cold reality over it (follow this link for the details). It's hard, but research shows people really respond to it.
3. Start starting
You can use the Zeigarnik effect to drag you on towards your goal. A Russian psychologist, Bluma Zeigarnik, noticed that waiters seemed only to remember orders which were in the process of being served. When completed, the orders evaporated from their memory.
What the Zeigarnik effect teaches is that one weapon for beating procrastination is starting somewhere...anywhere. Just taking that first step could be the difference between failure and success. Once you've started, the goal will get lodged in your mind.
4. Visualise process NOT outcome
We're all susceptible to the planning fallacy: that's thinking all will go smoothly when it won't (and hardly ever does). Visualising the process of reaching your goal, helps focus attention on the steps you need to take. It also helps reduce anxiety.
5. Avoid the what-the-hell effect
When we miss our target, we can fall foul of the what-the-hell-effect. It's best known to dieters who go over their daily calorie limit. Reasoning the target is now gone, they think 'what-the-hell', and start eating too much of all the wrong food.
Goals that are vulnerable to the what-the-hell-effect are generally short-term and inhibitional (when you're trying to stop doing something). The effect can be avoided by setting goals that are long-term and acquisitional. Find out more about the what-the-hell effect.
6. Sidestep procrastination
When goals are difficult and we wonder whether it's really worth it, procrastination can creep up on us. Under these circumstances the key is to forget about the goal and bury yourself in the details. Keep your head down and use self-imposed deadlines (read more on how to avoid procrastination).
7. Shifting focus
You can't keep your head down all the way or you'll get lost. In the long-term, the key to reaching a goal is switching between a focus on the ultimate goal and the task you are currently completing. Research suggests, when evaluating progress, especially on difficult tasks, it's best to stay task-focused. But when tasks are easy or the end is in site, it's better to focus on the ultimate goal (read more on how to shift focus).
8. Reject robotic behaviour
Often our behaviour is robotic. We do things not because we've really thought about it, but because it's a habit or we're unconsciously copying other people (e.g. Bargh et al., 2001). This type of behaviour can be an enemy of goal striving. Ask yourself whether what you are doing is really getting you closer to your goal.
9. Forget the goal, what's the aim?
Goals should always be set in the service of our overall aims. But there's a dark side to goal setting. When goals are too specific, it's easy to get stuck; when they are too many goals, unimportant, easy ones get prioritised over vital, difficult ones; when they are too short-term, they encourage short-term thinking. Badly set goals reduce motivation and may increase unethical behaviour.
Remember to keep in mind the whole point of the goal in the first place.
10. Know when to stop
Sometimes the problem isn't getting started, it's knowing when to stop. Psychologists have found that sunk costs make us do weird things (Arkes & Blumer, 1985). 'Sunk costs' refer to the effort or money we've already expended in trying to reach our goal. So, even when our plan is failing, we keep pushing on.
Research shows that the more people invest in a goal, the more they think it will succeed; irrespective of whether it actually will succeed. Know when to change tack or you'll end up flogging a dead horse.
11. If-then plans
What all these studies show is the importance of self-regulation in achieving a goal. Unfortunately, as we all know to our cost, controlling the self can be very hard.
One strategy with plenty of research to back it up is forming 'if-then' plans (Gollwitzer et al., 2006). You simply work out in advance what you're going to do in a particular situation. Although it sounds simple, we often prefer to wing it, rather than plan. With a little ingenuity, though, if-then plans can be used to surmount the obstacles described above.
For more on self-control check out: Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.
Image credit: Matthias Weinberger
Making Habits, Breaking Habits
In his new book, Jeremy Dean--psychologist and author of PsyBlog--looks at how habits work, why they are so hard to change, and how to break bad old cycles and develop new healthy, creative, happy habits.
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