How to achieve your goals

Year of Happy two linesWelcome to week 2 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. 

The best way to achieve a goal is to articulate it clearly, make a commitment and a plan, set up the right environment, and not get too optimistic. Have you ever approached a goal so systematically? If not, you might be surprised how much you can accomplish with a little help from science.

This month, we’ll ask you to work through the goal setting process with just one of your goals. It doesn’t have to be your most cherished life goal – the same process applies to any goal, and you can treat this as a learning experience. Just follow the eight steps below, and you’ll be well on your way.

1. Pick a goal

Which area of your life do you want to work on first? In her book Creating Your Best Life: The Ultimate Life List Guide, Caroline Adams Miller lists 17 possible domains you might want to improve:

  • Health
  • Self-esteem
  • Goals, values, and philosophy
  • Spiritual life
  • Money
  • Work
  • Play
  • Learning
  • Creativity
  • Helping
  • Love
  • Friendships
  • Children
  • Relatives
  • Home
  • Neighborhood
  • Community

Best Possible Self. If you’re still unsure what to work on, try the Best Possible Self exercise. Developed by the University of Missouri’s Laura King, it asks you to take 15 minutes to write about an ideal future life (1-10 years from now). Imagine everything is going as well as possible, from family and personal life to career and health. Be creative and specific, and focus on your potential rather than any past shortcomings. When you’re done, look back on what you’ve written and see if you can identify any realistic goals.

In this video, entrepreneur and investor Vishen Lakhiani shares his particular formula for setting goals, including a few rules of thumb to tell if a particular goal will serve you well:

2. Clarify your goal

Try to write your goal in the form of a phrase or a sentence, and then look back on Week 1 to make sure you’re on the right track. Is your goal intrinsic, something you really want to pursue? Is it specific and difficult? Is it focused on progress and improvement (mastery), rather than perfect performance?

Here are some examples of goals that meet those requirements:

  • Read one business book per week to improve my knowledge of marketing and branding.
  • Spend 30 minutes weight training at the gym, three times per week.
  • Practice active listening over dinner with my wife on weeknights. 

3. Set implementation intentions

Do you want to double or triple your likelihood of working toward your goal? Implementation intentions might be the single most important strategy to use.

An implementation intention is an if-then statement that explains when, where, and how you are going to do something. For example:

  • After dinner, I will sit back down at the table and read my business book for an hour.
  • On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I will take a long lunch break and go to the gym in my office building.
  • If my wife starts talking about her day at dinner, I will try to ask her a question instead of tuning out.

In effect, the time and place you specify become triggers for the new behavior you want to perform. That can create an instant, automatic habit, which saves you energy and willpower. The decision is already made – if dinner is over, it’s time to read. No questions.

Multiple studies have shown the benefits of implementation intentions. In one of them, students who voluntarily agreed to write an essay over Christmas break were twice as likely to follow through if they were asked when and where they would write it. (But obviously these students were also a little crazy – who wants to write an essay over Christmas break?) In another study, 10th graders who planned when and where to study for the PSAT completed 2.5 times as many problems over the summer. Similar results were observed for women booking a medical screening and men speaking out against racism. Planning is all.

Read Halvorson’s “Trying to Reach a Goal? You’re Doing It Wrong”

4. Set up environmental triggers

Lately, I’ve taken up knitting, and I store my knitting needles and wool in a cabinet. But it’s easy to forget they’re in there – and to forget to knit – so I started placing one knitting needle on my bedside table. Seeing it reminds me to get the other needle out of the cabinet and continue my project. This is the power of environmental triggers.

Environmental triggers are cues that prime us to think or act a certain way. Here are some examples:

  • Screensavers, passwords, ringtones, and desktop photos
  • Tattoos and charm bracelets
  • Vision boards, framed photographs, or magnets
  • Music or scented candles
  • People, places, or situations

An “Eye of the Tiger” ringtone might remind you of your Rocky-inspired fitness goals, while a photograph of your parents might remind you to call them on Sundays. Environmental cues can also prompt bad habits, like an old song triggering rumination about the past or a large plate encouraging overeating.

Numerous studies bear out the startling power of environmental cues. Participants who ate a crumbly cookie were three times more likely to clean up after themselves when there was lemon-cleanser scent in the air. Writing about superheros increases our rate of volunteering in the next three months, and making sentences with words that suggest old age reduces our walking speed down a hallway. We’re more aggressive in an investment game when there’s a suitcase on the table (vs. a backpack), and we raise more money when the fundraising manual has a runner crossing a finish line on the front. Our environment shapes us more than we know, but we can also shape our environment.

5. Surround yourself with the right people

People make up one part of our immediate environment, and the company we keep has a big influence on the goals we achieve.

In a Harvard Medical School study of over 12,000 people, friends had more impact on people’s chances of becoming obese than sleep, exercise, and even diet. If their closest friend gained weight, they were 171% more likely to gain weight.

If your father values achievement and his name is flashed in front of your eyes, so fast that you don’t even notice it, you’ll work harder and perform better on a set of difficult problems. It works the other way, too – thinking about someone who disapproves of a bad habit can actually help us avoid it. Seeing strangers pursue goals like saving money can make us more likely to adopt them. So part of the goal achievement process is spending more time with your supporters and less with the bad influences in your life. 

6. Commit

It’s all well and good to have a goal in mind, but how many of us actually follow through on our goals? The nuts-and-bolts strategies we’ve discussed won’t help unless we’re truly committed.

There are two main ways to boost commitment, and you can try them both:

  • Make a contract. Studies have shown that contracts increase motivation for controlling weight, quitting smoking, doing homework, and improving your marriage. Goal setting theorist Gary Latham suggests that you create a contract with yourself that includes your goal, how you’ll accomplish it (e.g., your implementation intentions), and the reward for succeeding. King, the creator of the Best Possible Self exercise, explains that writing down goals gives us hope and prompts our brains to start scanning the environment for people or things that might help us. So go ahead – write out a contract and sign it. Even better, decorate it with your favorite motivational images and put it someplace you can see it.
  • Tell other people. Telling other people about your goals – as long as they don’t praise you so much for having the goal that you lose motivation to accomplish it – creates a sense of accountability. In one study, people who made their New Year’s resolutions public were 10 times more likely to achieve them. So tell your friends and family about your goal, but in the spirit of getting accountability – not patting yourself on the back.

7. Don’t be too optimistic

Optimism has a place in goal setting, but sometimes we go overboard. The best approach is to combine optimism and pessimism: to be confident about achieving your goals, but also confident that it’s not going to be easy.

According to the expectancy value theory of motivation, we’re more motivated to do something the more likely we think we are to achieve it. So whatever goal you choose, it should be one that seems feasible.   

On the other hand, it’s not helpful to think you’ll breeze past obstacles and temptations. Women in a weight-loss program who thought they could easily resist temptation lost 24 pounds less than women who thought it would be hard. Other studies have found similar results for job seekers, romantic hopefuls, and elderly people recovering from surgery. Recognizing the challenges ahead makes us more likely to plan and exert more effort.

To get yourself in the right mindset, do a “mental contrasting” exercise. Write down one benefit of achieving your goal, then an obstacle that might stand in your way, then a benefit, then an obstacle, then a benefit, then an obstacle. As Halvorson explains below, this actually primes your body and your mind for action. 

8. Set up feedback mechanisms

If you’ve set clear, measurable goals and subgoals, that means it will be easy to assess whether you’re on track to reach them. Halvorson recommends scheduling time daily, weekly, or monthly (depending on the timeline of your goal) to check in on your progress. In the video below, she explains why feedback and realistic optimism are so important:

If you’d like some technological help, try recording your goal in a goal-setting app and take advantage of its tracking features:

Read “The 7 Best Goal-Setting Apps”

Run through these eight steps for a goal you want to achieve, so you end up with a plan for the month. How often will you work on this goal, and when and where? Then share your goal on the Year of Happy Facebook group.

Sources and further reading:

Go back to Week 1: What makes a happy goal?

Move on to Week 3: The benefits of goals

See the whole Year of Happy curriculum

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