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Goal Setting and Self-Control: New Insights

January 20, 2016

Setting a goal is easy. Achieving a goal is tough.

 

Recent research has underscored the importance of identifying the importance of anticipating potential obstacles and ways to resolve those challenges, as well as the power of smartphones for reminding people of their commitments. One important aspect of this process is sustaining commitment to actions that will advance your objectives despite a multitude of distractions that might take you off course. Self-control is the magic ingredient. There are two components of self-control to consider:

  • Identification of conflicts and temptations that could potentially interfere with your commitment to achieving a goal.

  • Resolution of a conflict by identifying specific strategies designed to protect your motivation to reach your primary outcome.

Barbara, a human resource director at a large medical center, articulated a leadership development goal of thinking more strategically about her work and anticipating future trends that might impact the services her team provides. To improve the likelihood that she achieves this goal, Barbara determined that the most significant reasons she does not make the time for this activity are interruptions from her staff and her tendency to check constantly email. To resolve this potential conflict, Barbara decided to advise her team not to interrupt her unless it was an emergency and reserve a conference room to focus on strategic thinking activities without her computer.

 

Researchers Fishbach and Hofman conducted a study in 2015 with 110 adults who were polled on their Smartphones at four random intervals each day for seven days. One group was prompted in a text message to think about a potential challenge they might encounter to achieving their goal. A second group was asked to think about potential challenges along with a prompt for how they would address and resolve it.

 

The results of the study clearly suggest that participants that received the prompt for both identification and resolution of their potential challenges made more progress toward their goals. These findings are more significant for people who take the time to think about their goals compared to those that like to jump in quickly. Also, as a result of making progress on their tougher goals, participants in the second group were happier because of the progress they made.

 

There are several practical implications of this study for anyone who is interested in improving their ability to set and attain goals, as well as coaches:

  • When you initially identify your goals, also anticipate conflicts and temptations that might pull you off course along with strategies for navigating these distractions. Consider using an if-then strategy. If X happens, then I will Y. if I am tempted to cheat on my diet, I will call a friend, take a deep breath, drink a large glass of water, etc. 

  • If you are feeling tempted to ditch your goal, go back to the strategies you identified to navigate the distraction to remind yourself of your commitment.

  • Develop strategies to remind yourself of your goal, along with techniques for handling distractions that might pull you off course: a post-it note on your computer or bathroom mirror, a rubber band tied around your wrist, or an index card you carry with your goal and temptation-handling strategies.

If you are a coach, you can play an instrumental role by acting as an accountability partner with your client. Invite your client to send you an email if they feel distracted or tempted to cheat on their goals as a means for helping them stay on track. Better yet, invite your client to develop a written response you can send to them when they are about to slip.

 

(c) 2016 Kevin Nourse, PhD

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