When it’s hard to achieve your goals, try this

Year of Happy two linesWelcome to week 4 of The Year of Happy‘s month on goals. The Year of Happy is a free online course in the science of happiness. Not signed up yet? Enter your email here and you’ll get a weekly dose of readings and videos to further your happiness education. 

There’s a big misconception about goals, says goal setting expert Heidi Grant Halvorson. We blame the wrong things when we fail. If we can’t follow through, we blame lack of commitment – we just didn’t want it enough. Or, we claim we didn’t know how to do it – how does one become a published author, anyway?

Yet most of the time, she explains, the real reason is much simpler: we didn’t use the right strategies. We didn’t plan, so we missed opportunities to work toward our goals; we hadn’t scheduled how to use that extra half-hour in the afternoon, so it went to waste. We set contradicting goals, and didn’t think realistically about the fact that our desire to enjoy food would conflict with our desire to lose weight.

Implementation intentions, along with the other strategies discussed in Week 2, will help us overcome many of these “goal saboteurs.” But if that isn’t enough, then our brains may truly be to blame. We might have weak self-control, be afraid of challenge, or lack motivation. These seem like intractable problems, but even here we can learn to do better. Find out how to boost your willpower, face difficulty, and inspire yourself below.

Problem: I need more self-control

Do you have the best of intentions, but fail when it comes to putting in those extra hours on the weekend, resisting that chocolate fudge, or abstaining from another episode of TV? You may have low self-control. Luckily, self-control can be trained, and we can all learn strategies to deal with those moments of weakness.

Although some of us have more self-control than others, self-control also ebbs and flows throughout the day. The current model is to see self-control as a muscle, something that can lose strength the more we exert it and that needs time to rest. In one study, participants who ate radishes while looking at a bowl of chocolates gave up faster on a subsequent puzzle than participants who ate chocolate while looking at radishes. (Poor radishes group.)

We deplete self-control when we suppress the urge to say or do something (chocolate fudge anyone?), try not to think about something (like a cruel ex), or make planning-related decisions (like budgeting). Basically, anytime we’re reining in wayward thoughts, feelings, or impulses is sapping self-control. Simply doing something challenging won’t necessarily deplete our reserves.

Yet lots of self-control is absolutely crucial to achieving our goals:

“You need to work hard, persist despite difficulty, and stay focused, when it would be much easier for you to just relax and not bother. You need to avoid temptation, when it would be more fun to give in. And you probably need to be critical and honest with yourself, when it would be far more pleasant to just let yourself believe that you were awesome and needed no improvements,” explains Halvorson.

As evidence: self-control predicts school grades, attendance, and standardized test scores better than IQ. Four-year-olds who can resisting eating a marshmallow in order to get two marshmallows later are more socially competent, hardworking, verbally proficient, and mature 10 years later. High self-control is linked to more resilience, better performance, better relationships, more popularity, and more empathy.

Here are some tips for toning your willpower muscle:

  • To get a quick boost of self-control: Think about someone you know who’s a role model of self-control, give yourself a small gift, or eat a bit of sugar.
  • To deal with temporary moments of low self-control: Recognize that your self-control is depleted, whether you like it or not. The goal is to ride out the wave and not put yourself in harm’s way while your self-control replenishes. So abstain from anything that might lead to indulgence, whether it’s TV or sweets or long breaks. The motto for Lay’s potato chips should really have been “Betcha can’t eat just one when your self-control is low.” In your mind, think about why you are pursuing this particular goal and contrast where you are with where you want to be.
  • To boost self-control in general: Train your self-control with a small daily activity, the same way you would train a muscle. People who kept track of their finances or diet, remembered to sit up straight, avoided slang words, or practiced with a handgrip increased their self-control in a very short time. Those who exercised regularly for two months also started smoking and drinking less, eating less junk food, controlling their temper and their spending better, and procrastinating less.
  • To set yourself up for success: Don’t overestimate your self-control. Even if you’ve been doing well, that doesn’t mean you can withstand temptations that are right in your face. (People who quit smoking and felt confident they wouldn’t relapse were less likely to avoid the people and places that triggered their smoking habit – and more likely to relapse.) Also, avoid going after two high-willpower goals at the same time, like dieting and taking an online class. As before, a realistic flavor of optimism is the best approach.

In this funny TEDx talk, psychologist and behavioral economist Dan Ariely explains two strategies for self-control: reward substitution and self-control contracts:

Problem: I’m afraid of challenge

When was the last time you really challenged yourself, pushing outside your comfort zone? Even if you’re very busy, you still might not be challenged.

If you prefer things to be easy, you’re not alone. Maybe you have a fixed mindset and struggle makes you feel stupid or unskilled; maybe big goals just seem too daunting because of the possibility of failure. Here are some tips for changing your mindset toward challenge:

  • Make struggle your friend. Try to interpret struggle as a sign that learning is happening. “Frustration is the signal that the breakthrough is coming,” writes Steven Kotler in The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance. You build muscle on that last rep, that one where you push and push and push until your strength fails. If you feel yourself disengaging in the midst of struggle, remember that this is exactly the time to give it your all.
  • Stop needing to feel superior. The “I’m the best” flavor of confidence is extremely fragile – as soon as we’re not the best, we lose our identity. Dweck calls it “somebody-nobody syndrome”: believing that we are somebody if we succeed and nobody if we fail. Instead, we should aim to be superior to our past selves.
  • Set up feedback mechanisms. We improve when we get constructive criticism – and we won’t get constructive criticism if everyone is telling us how perfect we are. Learning means pushing to the edge of our comfort zone and then figuring out how to extend it. Force yourself to pay attention to any feedback you can get – it’s precious information, not something to be dismissed with a blush or a scoff.
  • Put faith in effort. Try to reimagine your ideal job, relationship, or hobby as one that involves effort. If you don’t believe in effort, ask one of your role models how they accomplished what they did – and be prepared to hear a story of struggle, learning, and exertion. When others beat you, consider that just maybe they worked harder than you, rather than simply being smarter.
  • Give new meaning to the past. Think about something that made you feel rejected or like a failure. Is there another interpretation for that event? Did it help you learn or grow in any way?
  • Try something new. Is there anything that you’ve secretly wanted to do, but couldn’t get up the courage to try and (maybe) fail? Go out there and do it.

In this TED talk, Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert talks about how to persist through failure and learn to love the process – to be “safe from the random hurricanes of outcome”:

Problem: I don’t have intrinsic motivation

In general, are you intrinsically motivated or extrinsically motivated? People who are intrinsically motivated do things for their own sake; they seek the freedom, challenge, and purpose inherent in exciting activities. People who are extrinsically motivated are after rewards like money or praise from others. Take author Dan Pink’s test to see where you fall.

People who are intrinsically motivated, Pink explains, have higher self-esteem, better relationships, and higher well-being. They are the ones who perform better in the long run, because the flame of intrinsic motivation is strong and renewable. Extrinsic motivation burns bright and fast, like those people who ascend to the top of the corporate hierarchy and then burnout.

Follow Pink’s tips to find activities that stir your intrinsic motivation:

  • Get into flow more. Did you figure out how to cultivate flow last month? Flow activities are by definition intrinsically motivated because they are worth doing for their own sake.
  • Take a break. Whether it’s a short vacation or a year-long sabbatical, time off helps us learn what we truly like to do when we don’t have to do anything.
  • Write down what gets you up in the morning and what keeps you up at night. If you don’t like your answers, change your life.
  • Create a motivational poster (or a funny demotivational one) with Despair Inc. or Automotivator.
  • Write a sentence to describe your life. When you die, how do you want to be remembered? This video describes Pink’s “sentence exercise”:

Patience is another difficulty when it comes to goals. Particularly with a cherished goal, we might want to rush past all the “becoming” part and just “be” – an author, a CEO, a marathoner, a thin person. But we can spend our whole lives rushing toward achievement. What’s better is to enjoy the becoming; to be proud of being a person who learns, struggles, and tries. Goal setting isn’t an elaborate shortcut to accomplishment, but something meaningful and happiness-inducing in its own right.

Sources and further reading:

Go back to Week 3: The benefits of goals

See the whole Year of Happy curriculum

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