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Achieving Your New Year's Goals: New Insights

January 13, 2016

January is the time of year where many of us proclaim our resolutions to save more money, lose weight, or better manage their career. However, for some these plans go awry within a couple of months because they don't consider important factors that influence outcomes from a goal-setting ritual.

 

In this article, I will explore three critical perspectives in the process of attaining your goals based on recent psychological research: setting powerful goals, establishing habits to achieve the goal, and building self-discipline to sustain your commitment to your goals.

 

Setting Goals: Write It Down!

Let’s start with goal setting. Conventional wisdom has long argued that writing down ones’ goals is essential to achieve them. Psychologists are beginning to study the science of goal setting with more rigor. Dr. Gail Matthews conducted a study in 2014 that demonstrated the impact of writing down goals, identifying specific actions to fulfill these goals, and establishing accountability with others. In her study, she recruited a diverse sample of 267 participants and randomly assigned them to one of five groups:

  • Group 1 simply thought about goals they hoped to achieve in a four-week period and evaluated them based on difficulty, importance, and expectations of success.

  • Group 2 volunteers wrote their goals and evaluated them similar to group 1.

  • Group 3 wrote their goals, evaluated them, and identified actions to achieve them.

  • Group 4 used the same approach as group 3 with the added level of sharing their commitments with friends.

  • Group 5 used the same approach as group 4 but also sent weekly updates to their friends.

The results of her study were striking. Participants in the first group achieved 43 percent of their goals. Research participants in the fifth group achieved an average of 76 percent of their goals. This study highlights the importance of writing down goals, clarifying why they are so important to you, breaking them down into specific actions, and enhancing accountability by engaging trusted colleagues.

 

Shake Up Old Habits

For many people, New Year’s goals are often focused on eliminating bad habits, such as smoking, overeating, or overspending. As Charles Duhigg suggests in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, these intentions often fail based on psychological research that suggests that bad habits cannot be stopped, only changed. Habits emerge from three key elements in a self-reinforcing loop: (1) an external cue, (2) a routine behavior, and (3) a reward. Eventually, this habit becomes so ingrained that it becomes unconscious and automatic.

 

Susan struggled with feeling anxious anytime she had to interact with senior leaders in her school (external cue).  Her routine in these situations consisted of eating chocolate or other sweets. The reward Susan experienced was a sense of comfort in thinking about meeting with the principal. The unintended consequences Susan experienced was gaining a significant number of pounds and feeling unhappy about her physical appearance.

 

The key for Susan and anyone who wants to change habit involves two key strategies. First, because most habits involve unconscious choices we make when triggered with a cue, it is important to become more aware. A great strategy for building awareness is to take note of a cue and its impact. Nothing will change if you don’t have an awareness of your automatic behavior. For example, with Susan, she could carry an index card and make a single mark anytime she felt anxious about meeting with a powerful leader. By tracking her triggers for several days, Susan would become very aware of the conditions triggering her anxiety. Second, it important to find another behavioral routine to replace the problem behavior. For Susan, this could take many forms such as taking a deep breath, sharing her anxiety with a trusted friend, eating a piece of fruit, or reciting an affirmation out loud. By engaging in her new routine, Susan would achieve her reward (reduced anxiety thinking about her upcoming meeting) without the negative side effects of her chocolate-eating routine. The key to establishing a new habit is to understand the reward produced by your routine and find healthy alternatives to achieving it.

 

Self-Control: Sticking To Your Goals

You have set some amazing goals, wrote them down and shared them with trusted colleagues, identified some of the old habits that will block your success and created new habits to kick your goals into reality. However, without self-control, you may be tempted to drift back into some bad habits and sacrifice your best intentions. Much of what we know about the science of self-control emerged in the 1960s as a result of research conducted on a group of children at Stanford University. As one of the researchers, Walter Mischel, explains in The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control, the children in the study were given two choices: one marshmallow now or waiting 20 minutes for a larger reward (two marshmallows). Researchers tracked these children for several years after the study with some startling results. Those who were able to wait for the larger reward had a stronger self-image, achieved more of their goals and dealt more effectively with stress.

 

One of the fascinating components of the study consisted of observations of the children made by psychologists through a one-way mirror. The kids that were able to delay gratification used a variety of techniques to distract themselves and in essence, reduce the temptation triggered by their emotional brains. For example, engaging in silent conversations with themselves or tipping the chair back against the wall to make loud sounds.  Building upon these observations, Mischel suggests, “if people can change how they mentally represent a stimulus, they can exert self-control and escape from being victims of the hot stimuli that have come to control their behavior.” For Susan and her goal of losing weight by resisting the temptation to eat chocolate, she could use several strategies to engage the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) in her brain and reduce the hot emotional stimulus that might cause her to cheat:

  • Imagine how a friend of hers who was highly self-disciplined or very healthy might respond to the temptation

  • Eliminate major sources of stress in her life which have been shown to limit the effectiveness of the PFC and thereby limit our ability to sustain self-discipline

  • Create if-then plans for resisting the temptation so that she considers in advance how she will automatically respond to future stressful situations that tempted her to eat chocolate in the past

 

New Year’s can be an opportune time to set powerful goals to enhance your personal and professional success. By writing your goals, increasing accountability, considering how your habits may be limiting your success, and increasing your self-control, this could be your best year yet.

 

(c) 2016 Kevin Nourse, PhD

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